It is hard to see a man who handed all five of his children up to an orphanage at birth, not even naming them or noting their date of birth, as an expert on the development and education of children. Prickly and paranoid, he managed to fall out with almost everyone, including those who tried to help him, like David Hume. Yet Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote extensively on education, including a major novel ‘Emile (On Education)’, still arguably the most important novel on education ever written and his influence on education has been long-lasting and profound.
As an exponent of The Noble Savage, although not as much as you may think, he saw civilisation as a corrupting influence, creating inequalities and conflict. His educational theories are an attempt to avoid such corruption within the mind of essentially good human beings, the antithesis of the Hobbesian notion of our intrinsic savagery.
With a passing nod to Locke in the preface to Emile, he states his intention to build a complete theory of education from the point of view of the learner. Emile grows from a boy to a man and Rousseau tracks his inner, natural growth, matched by education appropriate to these natural stages of development. It is the learner that matters and the learner who develops in a natural fashion, not shaped by teachers but growing in response to opportunities for development.
The book develops over five sections. The first two are about giving the child freedom to explore and drink from his/her senses, as their ability to focus on serious learning is absent and when forced, is counterproductive. It is only at around 12 that the education of the mind should be considered. From 15-20 we are born again as we develop naturally into adults. This time of turbulent emotion allows us to learn about conflict, morals and religion. We must experience a gradual introduction into the ways of the world and wider society, but it is between 20-25 that one must be introduced to society. Here Emile meets Sophie, who he will marry. Rousseau takes this opportunity to draw differences between the education of men and women, based on his belief that the two sexes are naturally different.
Educational principles – nature, men and things
Education comes from nature, men and things; these are our three masters and nature is the most important. The child, naturally good, needs simple freedom and must not be rushed into inappropriate or unnatural educational activity. Play and self-reliance are important. From then on, each stage of natural development needs appropriate and personal education with learning appropriately matched to age. The focus is on motivation, first through restlessness, then curiosity and later goals. People do not need to be taught in a traditional sense; they need to be exposed to problems and come to their own Influences.
David Hume wrote, “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”, and although Rousseau's legacy has been profound, it is problematic. Having encouraged the idea of romantic naturalism and the idea of the noble and good child, that merely needs to be nurtured in the right way through discovery learning, he perhaps paints an over-romantic picture of education as natural development. The Rousseau legacy is the idea that all of our educational ills come from the domineering effect of society and its institutional approach to educational development. If we are allowed to develop naturally, he claims, all will be well. This may be an over-optimistic view of human nature and development, and although not without truth, lacks psychological depth. Emile, as Althusser claimed, now reads like a fictional utopia. Tom Bennett, of ResearchEd, notes that he is one of a long line of educational theorists who seemed to have no interest or actual experience in teaching children.
In many ways, the presentation of self-paced online learning, open access to knowledge through Google, Wikipedia and Open Educational resources and projects such as the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ work of Sugata Mitra, are heirs to the Rousseau dream. There is, to this day, a feeling that the strictures and structures of post-industrial revolution are harmful and counter-productive, and have led to a search for more natural and meaningful ways to learn.
Rousseau, J-J. (1762) Émile, London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1762) The Social Contract, London: Penguin. (1953 edn.) Translated and introduced by Maurice Cranston.
Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Inequality. Translated with an introduction by M. Cranston (1984 edn.), London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Political Economy. Available as part of The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Everyman/Dent.
Rousseau, J-J (1782) The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1953 edn.), London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1782) Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Translated with an introduction by P. France, London: Penguin.
Boyd, W. (1956) Émile for Today. The Émile of Jean Jaques Rousseau selected, translated and interpreted by William Boyd, London: Heinemann.