Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Education

By Laurence Sterne


A curious observer of nature, had he been worth the inventory of all Job's stock—though by the bye, your curious observers are seldom worth a groat—would have given the half of it, to have heard Corporal Trim and my father, two orators so contrasted by nature and education, haranguing over the same bier. (5.6.5)

This passage shows how nature (what you're born with) and education (what you learn) are essential-but-different parts of someone's style. Education seems to be something that takes you away from nature—but is that good or bad?

On Lady-day, which was on the 25th of the same month in which I date my geniture,—my father set upon his journey to London, with my eldest brother Bobby, to fix him at Westminster school (1.4.9)

Bobby is away at school for the whole first half of the book, and he dies at school without ever coming home. It's interesting that Tristram can figure out when he was conceived because it happened around the same time that Bobby went to school. There's almost something lethal about school in Tristram Shandy: Bobby's education sets the stage for Tristram to supplant him. Although we wouldn't recommend trying that excuse with your teachers.

You are a person free from as many narrow prejudices of education as most men. (1.19.4)

Education replaced empty minds with open minds—but not in Tristram Shandy. Instead, education brings us grammar sticklers and people who can't stop saying, "Well, actually …" Rather than enlarging your mind, education closes it off.

What is more astonishing, he had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtilty struck into his mind, by one single lecture upon Crackenthorp or Burgersdicius or any Dutch logician or commentator. (1.19.6)

When Mr. Shandy takes Tristram to school, the teachers are surprised that he's able to argue at all because he's never had formal education. But since we already know that formal education doesn't improve logic, it's not clear who's more foolish: Mr. Shandy for thinking he doesn't need formal education, or the teachers for thinking that he does.

I often think that I owe one half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression. This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole book (2.12.8-9).

Tristram remembers seeing Toby free a fly that was buzzing around his nose, an example of Toby's good nature that was more effective at teaching him to be a good person than reading a whole book of similar examples. This incident suggests that book-learnin' isn't good for much at all—that true education comes from experience. (Again, probably shouldn't try this one on the truant officer.)

The first thing which entered my father's head, after affairs were a little settled in the family, and Susannah had got possession of my mother's green satin night-gown,—was to sit down coolly, after the example of Xenophon, and write a TRISTRA-paedia, or system of education for me; collecting first for that purpose his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions; and binding them together, so as to form an INSTITUTE for the government of my childhood and adolescence. (5.16.1)

The Tristra-paedia is Walter Shandy's attempt to educate his son. God forbid he actually interact with Tristram; instead, he's going to write everything down and have Tristram read it. Someone give this guy a trophy.

It is either Plato, or Plutarch, or Seneca, or Xenophon, or Epictetus, or Theophrastus, or Lucian—or some one perhaps of later date—either Cardan, or Budaeus, or Petrarch, or Stella—or possibly it may be some divine or father of the church, St. Austin, or St. Cyprian, or Bernard, who affirms that it is an irresistible and natural passion to weep for the loss of our friends or children (5.3.2)

There's nothing more natural than crying when your first-born son dies—unless, that is, you're Mr. Shandy. Before he can let himself go, he has to find proof that it's okay to cry by reading ancient writers. Heck—he probably had to find proof that it was natural before conceiving his son.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was; If it was not? What would follow? (5.43.2)

Mr. Shandy is so obsessed with auxiliary verbs (helping verbs, like "would" or "could") that he thinks they're the only subject a child needs to understand. Algebra? History? Basic personal hygiene? All worthless, as long as Tristram can conjugate properly.

Every word, Yorick, by this means, you see, is converted into a thesis or an hypothesis;—every thesis and hypothesis have an offspring of propositions;—and each proposition has its own consequences and conclusions; every one of which leads the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquiries and doubtings.—The force of this engine, added my father, is incredible, in opening a child's head.—(6.2.1)

Mr. Shandy claims that the best way to teach kids is to show them formal argumentation—logic, like, "If … then" statements. Of course, since Mr. Shandy is saying it, the whole thing sounds absurd. He seems to think of a child's head as a nut that needs to be cracked open. With that philosophy, it's surprising Tristram didn't perish under Mr. Shandy's system of education.

As soon as my uncle Toby had laid a foundation, and taught him to inscribe a regular polygon in a circle, he sent him to a public school, where, excepting Whitsontide and Christmas, at which times the corporal was punctually dispatched for him. (6.12.2)

This passage refers to Le Fever's son, the boy that Toby takes under his wing. Le Fever's son, whom we never meet, is one of the nicest characters in the book: he's dutiful, courageous, and really just a great guy. So it's worth pointing out that he doesn't make a big fuss about being educated. He learns the basics, he goes to school, and then he moves on with his life. No Kanye West here.

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