“He who is really gifted will also above all else be good. For the rest, I regard slowness of intellect as preferable to actual badness. But a good boy will be quite unlike the dullard and the sloth. My ideal pupil will absorb instruction with ease and will even ask some questions; but he will follow rather than anticipate his teacher. Precocious intellects rarely produce sound fruit. By the precocious I mean those who perform small tasks with ease and, thus emboldened, proceed to display all their little accomplishments without being asked: but their accomplishments are only of the most obvious kind: they string words together and trot them out boldly and undeterred by the slightest sense of modesty. Their actual achievement is small, but what they can do they perform with ease. They have no real power and what they have is but of shallow growth: it is as when we cast seed on the surface of the soil: it springs up too rapidly, the blade apes the loaded ear, and yellows ere harvest time, but bears no grain. Such tricks please us when we contrast them with the performer's age, but progress soon stops and our admiration withers away.”
(Book One, Chapter Three, Page Fifty-Seven)
Institutio Oratoria is a result of Quintilian’s in depth understanding of how education shapes society and serves as a guideline for the greatest good that humankind can produce. This passage is situated in the vastly developed entirety of Institutio Oratoria, which breaks down the value of the orator as one who is committed to the ongoing development of virtue through lifelong education, both teaching and learning. More closely, it is situated between Quintilian’s defense of public schooling and his disapproval of flogging in the educational setting. In the chapter prior he states boldly: “No, there would be no such thing as eloquence, if we spoke only with one person at a time.” Quintilian stands in defense of the idea that an orator in training will benefit from being in a public environment and not secluded away from it, mainly because to be an orator means to be in the public eye. Quintilian anticipates the problems of the public school setting, one main challenge being the varying levels of understanding between pupils. The passage selected offers a glimpse into one of the instances in which Quintilian pays attention to the nuances of the individual pupil amidst the variances of individual achievement. Shortly after the passage, Quintilian proceeds to praise play as a means of enrichment and also necessary time away from the rigor of learning, and disproves of corporal punishment in schools, widely accepted at the time. Ultimately, Quintilian does consider the individuality of each pupil as a major indication of the ways in which eloquence can be echoed through the means of education, by the practice of virtue between both teacher and student, but he also shows tenderness in his convictions overall, by depicting it as a twofold dynamic.
Quintilian uses this passage to show us how to be gifted is to be good, but to be intellectually developed above the rest does not always equate with what it means to be good, or to be virtuous. In this passage Quintilian shows his own level of teaching experience and knowledge when he articulates the traits of a certain kind of pupil who is unchallenged in his environment in such a way that he develops a false sense of confidence in completing but basic objectives. Quintilian is not pointing out this kind of pupil for the purposes of simply warning teachers of his annoying or amusing tendencies, but to preface his own suggestion to challenge such pupils on an individual level so that they can become equipped with more complex understandings, through discipline, of which guidelines are presented in future passages. This passage serves to strengthen what Quintilian distinguishes between what it means to know, versus simply completing a task, and what will result in the neglect of a child who has not yet tapped into his own individual threshold for true learning.
Most obviously, Quintilian uses personification to explain how a child is like a plant, in this case a kind of cultivated grain, but he also uses the word precocious, which having dual meanings is applicable to describe the early development of both plants and children, possibly in part by Quintilian’s use of it. The precocious child, like the precocious plant, bears fruit too early and often dies before harvest. Yet, a major turn in this use of personification is when he brings in the actual cause of such loss via alliteration: when we cast seed on the surface of the soil: it springs up too rapidly, meaning that the seed itself, the pupil, is helpless to where it has been cast; therefore, as the figure suggests, it is the instructors job to make sure that the seed is at the level it should be, because if not, the blade apes the loaded ear, and yellows ere harvest time, but bears no grain. Here, ear and ere offer a harmonious ring of euphony to the organ of the ear, because it is an important point for Quintilian to instill in the minds of his followers— that the ear which would bear grain, is ruined because it has yellowed before (ere) harvest time, the result is a loss of symbolic nourishment for society and death of a citizen. Also, the ears which bear the sound of the orator in order to comprehend him are symbolically disabled.
The analogy of pupil and plant is not confined to these parts alone, but saturates the entire passage. A pupil of the eye adjusts in size according to light, much like a plant, so when Quintilian explains that his ideal pupil absorbs instruction with ease and will even ask some questions; but he will follow rather than anticipate his teacher, he is saying that a student will absorb material in the same way that a plant absorbs nutrients. If a plant absorbs too much water at one time and is not watered for another week, it may very well die. But he continues to explain that precocious intellects rarely produce sound fruit … they string words together and trot them out boldly and undeterred by the slightest sense of modesty, much like a plant will extend its stringy stems and leaves and grow without modesty, displaying their flowers prematurely.
Quintilian describes this ultimately as shallow growth, which then circles back to the idea of seeds sewn too close to the surface. Here is where Quintilian’s responsibility on the teacher is reinforced. He then points out that: Such tricks please us when we contrast them with the performer's age, but progress soon stops and our admiration withers away. In the end it is we who are fooled by this trick, not the pupil. Perhaps a teacher at first feels flattered to have an overly enthusiastic student, failing to realize that he is not being nourished to his full potential. Nonetheless this analogy serves a point to elaborate on the importance of a young person’s education and how crucial it is for teachers to identify such students and take care that they may see their life unfold in a way that highlights virtue and not vanity.