Jean-Jacques Rousseau's thesis that children are naturally good at birth violated the traditional Christian doctrine of origin sin. His argument that education should arise from children's natural instincts and impulses rather than trying to civilize and socialize them challenged traditional schooling. Rousseau's defenders see him as a pioneering thinker whose revolutionary ideas about permissive child rearing generated the movement for child-centered progressive education. His detractors, then as now, dismiss him as an inconsistent, wildly utopian, romantic who introduced anti-intellectualism into modern education. These wildly different interpretations of Rousseau's Emile provoked controversy when it was published in 1762 and give the book a continuing relevance today.
The son of Suzanne Bernard and Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, Jean-Jacques was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712. His mother's death when he was less than a month old contributed to his portrayal of Emile as an orphan. Rousseau's Confessions reveal how his childhood experiences shaped his educational ideas in Emile. His essays on economics, politics, religion, and education sparked intense controversy in the eighteenth century and still cause lively discussion today.
Rousseau's essays on economics, politics, religion, and education sparked intense controversy in the eighteenth century and still cause lively discussion today. His Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1749), which won the prize of the Dijon Academy, argued that the highly esteemed liberal arts retarded rather than advanced human progress. With his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755), Rousseau mounted his attack on bourgeois private property and social inequality. Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) made Rousseau Europe's leading authority on romantic sensibility and spontaneous emotional feeling. His most significant political treatise, The Social Contract (1762), prescribed a political order governed by a deep consensus, the General Will. This put him in opposition to John Locke's emphasis on a government of checks and balances that preserved natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Rousseau's Emile (1762) examines education both as natural pedagogy and as a means of creating a new order of life. Rousseau's self-portrait in his autobiographical Confessions (1782) reveals an unsatisfied searcher for truth and for pleasure. His proposed constitution for Poland, The Government of Poland (1772), written at the request of Count Wielhorski, demonstrates that he had become the philosopher of Europe as well as of France.
Rousseau's Confessions reveal how his childhood experiences shaped his educational ideas in Emile. The son of Suzanne Bernard and Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, Jean?Jacques was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712. His mother's death when he was less than a month old contributed to his portrayal of Emile as an orphan. A motherless child, Rousseau remembered being overindulged by his highly emotional aunt and irresponsible, pleasure?loving father.
Recalling his father as his first tutor, Rousseau wrote that they read from an ill?sorted collection of books into the late hours of the night. The reading, ranging from romantic novels to classical works by Ovid and Plutarch, stocked his mind with images he misunderstood. Warning against introducing books too early in a child's life, Rousseau argued that children's ideas should be based on direct sensory experiences rather than on meaningless abstractions. Although he had a close relationship with his father, it was brief. When Rousseau was ten, his father, losing a dispute with an army officer, fled Geneva to avoid imprisonment. Placed in the care of his uncle, Gabriel Bernard, Rousseau received a conventional primary education.
As an adolescent, Rousseau was apprenticed to a notary and then to an engraver, both of whom dismissed him as inept and lazy. These failed apprenticeships reveal Rousseau's difficulty in being in situations in which he was a subordinate. He left Geneva in 1728 to go to Turin, where he was employed briefly as a footman for a wealthy family. The next stage in Rousseau's odyssey took him to Savoy, where he was taken into the patronage of a wealthy widow, Madame de Waren, who supported his study of the classics and music. Under her influence, he converted to Catholicism, a religion he later abandoned.
In 1739, Rousseau had his first experience as a teacher when he was hired as tutor to the two sons of Monsieur de Mably, a nobleman. Although he disliked his situation, Rousseau described it in an essay, the Project of the Education of M. de Sainte?Marie. In 1741, still searching for a career, Rousseau went to Paris, where he earned a living by copying music. Here, he began a long relationship with Therese Levasseur, an illiterate housemaid. The couple had five children, all of whom Rousseau placed in orphanages shortly after their births. Readers of Emile find it ironic that Rousseau, a proponent of child freedom, abandoned his own children.
In Paris, the intellectual center of the Enlightenment, Rousseau joined the circle of writers, philosophers, and critics that included Diderot, Voltaire, and d'Alembert. His essays on the arts and sciences and political economy brought him to the intellectual forefront in the French capital. Now prominent, Rousseau returned briefly to his native Switzerland, where he renounced Catholicism, reconverted to Protestantism, and regained his rights as a citizen of Geneva.
Returning to Paris, Rousseau had an affair with the Comtesse d'Handetot, whom he portrayed as the model of the new woman in his novel La Nouvelle Heloise in 1761. The next year, 1762, saw the publication of his influential political commentary, The Social Contract, and Emile, on Education. On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died of uremia at Ermenonville, some thirty miles from Paris. He was buried on the Girardin estate. On October 11, 1794, his remains were transferred, with honors, to the Pantheon in Paris.
Although many of Rousseau's essays and books have educational implications, his didactic novel, Emile, addresses the subject most directly. Like Plato's Republic, Rousseau's Emile has broad social and political as well as educational implications. Foremost among Rousseau's principles is his belief in the original goodness of human nature. He attacks the traditional Christian doctrine of a humanity fallen because of Adam's original sin. For Rousseau, infants, though not yet moral beings, are intrinsically good. Human beings, Rousseau believed, are corrupted by being socialized in an artificial society. The child's natural goodness is spoiled by corrupting adults and their institutions. For Rousseau, the educational challenge is to place Emile in a natural environment where his intrinsic natural goodness will grow and develop without being tainted by a corrupt society. If this can be accomplished, the child's self?identity can be formed around the natural instinct of amour de soi, or self?esteem. Rousseau contrasts amour de soi with amour propre, or selfishness, by which children learn to manipulate others and to play social roles to advance their social status. If Emile is educated naturally, perhaps, as the new Adam of the Enlightenment, he will be the father of a naturally educated race of honest men and women.
Rousseau's Emile is a narrative about the total upbringing or education of a boy, from infancy to manhood, by a tutor on a country estate. The tutor is solely responsible for Emile's moral, mental, and physical development. As the story unfolds, Rousseau develops two major principles about education: the key role of the environment and the need to follow children's natural stages of development.
For Rousseau, the environment in which the child learns is highly important. To avoid the errors of conventional schools and teachers, Rousseau sets Emile's education in a country estate where he can experience nature directly. Emile learns by interacting with the environment whose natural contents engage senses and interests. Rousseau's message to educators is that they need to arrange the environment so that it causes the child to learn.
In arguing for education based on children's natural stages of development, Rousseau challenged education based on socioeconomic class--especially that ascribed by birth--that prepared children to play the roles of the adult society. Rather than being socially directed, Rousseau argued that education, paralleling nature, should be based on a sequence of developmental stages. For each stage of development, there are appropriate kinds of activities and learning that come naturally from the conditions of the developmental stage. Rousseau's fictional pupil, Emile, enjoys and fully benefits from living through each stage of development free from the intrusive pressures of adult social demands.
Rousseau identified five developmental stages that Emile experiences. Infancy, the earliest stage, begins with birth and extends to age five. The infant, an unspoiled primitive person, a noble savage, is close to the original state of nature. The clues to the identity of the truly natural person are found in the child's simple, unaffected behavior. The rules of education in infancy are few and simple. Build a strong, healthy body. Encourage as much movement and exploration as possible but do not let the child harm himself. By moving toward, grasping at, and feeling objects, the child exercises his muscles and learns to distinguish himself from other objects that he encounters.
Boyhood, Rousseau's second developmental stage, extends from ages five through twelve. As Emile's physical strength increases, he grows more independent and able to do more for himself. Establishing his self?identity, he grows increasingly aware of the pleasures that make him happy and the pains that cause unhappiness. At this stage, Rousseau introduces two important moral concepts: amour de soi and amour propre. Arising from instinctive self?interests, amour de soi promotes positive natural virtues. In contrast, amour propre is based on acquiring and erroneously valuing the social roles and affectations that make the individual a manipulator of other people. Emile's education is designed to encourage amour de soi and to restrict the tendency toward amour propre.
Rousseau contends that children are amoral and without reason until age twelve. In contrast to traditional religious instruction by which children memorized catechisms, Rousseau argued that it is futile to attempt to shape their moral character by teaching commandments or other kinds of prescriptions and proscriptions. The most important lesson that Emile can learn is that his actions will have consequences that are either pleasurable or painful.
Rousseau warns about the "youthful sage," the seemingly precocious pseudo-adult child who appeals to adults. Such children have repressed their natural behavior to conform to adults' expectations rather than acting on their own needs. Neither should children's on-stage memorized recitations be regarded as signs of learning.
Rousseau warns against the premature introduction of books and pressuring children to read. Rather than reading about the experiences of others, Emile learns directly by exploring his environment. He uses his senses to estimate the size, shape, and dimensions of objects.
The third stage in Emile's education takes place from ages twelve through fifteen. The tutor slowly introduces the concept of utility, or purpose. He learns natural science by observing natural phenomena and asking questions about his discoveries with his tutor. He learns botany by planting vegetables in his garden. Geography, too, is learned firsthand from studying the immediate environment rather than maps and globes. Emile learns carpentry, a manual skill that combines mental and physical labor. He now is given his first book, Robinson Crusoe. He learns how Crusoe, shipwrecked on a tropical island, survives in a natural setting. Along with the drama of Crusoe's survival tale, Emile learns about the concept of mutual dependence that arises between Crusoe and Friday.
The years between fifteen and eighteen mark Emile's next developmental stage. Experiencing sexual interests, Emile requires special guidance. When he has a question about sex, the tutor answers him directly, without mystery, embarrassment, or coarseness. Emile is also becoming aware of social relationships and the needs and concerns of others. He is taken on short excursions, where he encounters people in less-fortunate circumstances than his own. He now develops an awareness of the sufferings of others but is not overexposed to them lest he become insensitive to them.
Emile's next stage of development, from age eighteen to twenty, is the "age of humanity, " a time when he becomes involved in moral relationships. According to Rousseau, the sense of justice and goodness arises out of the primitive affections with which people are endowed at birth. Emile is now moving from his immediate environment to a larger cultural perspective. He studies history to discern the difference between the human being's basic goodness and society's corrupting influence. Rousseau, who at various times in his life had been both a Catholic and a Protestant, came to hold natural theology based on Deism. He believed that there was a Creator, a God, but this God was approached by nature rather than theology. Commenting on Emile's religious education, Rousseau warns against mistaking the imposition of religious dogmas as a means of conveying moral principles. He admonishes against teaching mysteries that detract from learning natural truths.
When Emile is twenty, his tutor arranges for him to meet and fall in love with his future wife, Sophie. It is Sophie who, through the natural family, will lead Emile into the world of human relationships. Although she is given this important cultural role, the character of Sophie reflects Rousseau's ingrained male chauvinism. Men, according to Rousseau, are active and strong while women are passive and weak. A woman's education is determined by her relationship to man. Described as pleasing and virtuous, Sophie wins Emile's affection by giving him companionship, consolation, and love.
Before marrying Sophie, Emile travels for two years on the "grand tour," visiting foreign nations and studying their people, languages, governments, and customs. The novel ends with Emile telling his tutor that he plans to educate his children as he was educated. The conclusion suggests the possibility that from the union of Emile and Sophie will spring a new race of naturally educated people who will create a world of natural relationships. The family that Emile and Sophie will establish might be the first of many families that will create a new world order.
Rousseau was a far?ranging but undisciplined theorist and writer who was often inconsistent and contradictory but always provocative. In the broad sense, however, Rousseau was a social, political, and educational theorist who was pointing, in his own way, to a new but undefined society. He was suggesting a society governed by the general will of all citizens in a kind of grand and sweeping consensus. He raised the question of whether it would be possible to replace the artificial social and political orders with a new republic of men and women who functioned in a natural relationship to each other.
As a work on educational philosophy, Rousseau's Emile had a powerful influence. His argument that childhood was a necessary and desirable stage in the human life span sharply contrasted with earlier views that childhood was something to get through as quickly as possible. Rousseau generated a movement for child-centered education that encourages children to learn by following their own needs and interests. Rousseau made a clear statement for the importance of relating appropriate learning activities to children's development stages. The emphasis Rousseau gave to readiness based on natural stages of development was a warning against rushing or pushing children into forced learning, often of an intellectual nature, for which they were not ready. Readiness for learning remains an important theme in modern education. Teachers consider children's readiness as a key element in planning and implementing successful instruction.
Rousseau's learning through and with nature had important implications for learning theory and teaching methods. Enlightened educators such as Pestalozzi, the American progressives, and Jean Piaget would emphasize the role of the senses in learning. Children learn most effectively and efficiently by using their senses in observing and experiencing the natural objects of their environment.
At the same time that Rousseau is significant for his child?centered perspective, his philosophy is known for its departure from the long, Western cultural tradition that stressed the liberal arts. Critics of Rousseau, both in his day and today, find an anti?intellectual element in his ideas. His doctrine of child permissiveness suggests that children should guide their own learning. Critics of this notion argue that there are structures of reality and that the liberal arts represent the tested and accumulated wisdom of the human race about this reality. Defenders of the liberal arts argue that it is the indispensable core of secondary and higher education and that elementary education with its stress on literacy and computation should lead to this core.
Rousseau was an iconoclast, a breaker of customs, conventions, and traditions. He was a quarrelsome person and an erratic and inconsistent theorist. He advocated child love and permissiveness but placed his own children in orphanages. Nevertheless, Rousseau earned a place in history and remains among the great theorists and educators of the Western world.
Gerald L. Gutek is a professor emeritus at Loyola University, Chicago. His academic specialization is the history and philosophy of education. His most recent publications are Philosophical and Ideological Voices in Education (2003) and Philosophical Foundations of Education: A Biographical Introduction (2005).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you are considering reading Rousseau's EMILE, do. It is an integral work that is worthy of your critical and careful reflection and study. This ubiquitous translation is, nonetheless, incredibly misleading. It reads into the text what is not in the French. Take, for instance, the famous, and indubitoubly important first sentence. 'Tout est bien'--All is well/everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things. This is NOT 'God makes everything good'. Read Allan Bloom's translation, instead. Which is the indisputibly eminent English edition.
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Classical, missed it in college
One of my favorite books, I return to it again and again. This is a very nice version too.
A fantastic version of this classic work. Very well done translation. Whoever gave it one star must have a different version, not this version.