Exploring education in Rousseau's “Emile”

Exploring education in Rousseau's “Emile”

“Emile” was first published in 1762 alongside “The Social Contract” and was promptly banned in France. The book spans over 500 pages and encompasses not only insights into educating children but also philosophy, religion, a fictional narrative, and an autobiography. It was constructed upon Rousseau’s theories of inherent goodness and untainted human nature, intertwined with his rejection of Catholicism’s doctrine of original sin. Nevertheless, he maintained his belief in a moral order and a superior intelligence that created and guided the universe. The work encapsulated the notions of virtue and self-fulfillment within the concept of self-love, detached from arbitrary societal expectations.

God makes all things good: man meddles with them and they become evil.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

God creates man in a state of pure nature, and by nurturing some characteristics of the natural savage, it could render him virtuous. The savage man is characterized by strength, tranquility, relative freedom from anxiety, and indifference to the opinions of others. Rousseau’s intention is to bridge the gap between our innate nature and societal expectations, aiming to eliminate conflict between the two. The process of education, as Rousseau posits, is influenced by three sources: nature, human interaction, and the surrounding environment. Nature lies beyond our control and remains immutable. Learning through experience, through our interactions with the environment, is partially within our grasp. The education imparted by fellow humans, however, is entirely within our control. Despite the limitations of controlling nature, Rousseau emphasizes the importance of harmonizing with it and then deciding whether to lead a solitary life or become a part of society as a citizen. Citizenship involves contributing to the community and being ready to prioritize communal interests over personal ones.

In Rousseau’s narrative, Emile is portrayed as an orphan, underscoring the significance of early childhood education at the outset of the book. In the eighteenth century, middle-class women were largely confined to domestic roles, including child-rearing responsibilities. Given that women were the primary caregivers for infants, Rousseau considered this arrangement natural. He asserted, “The right ordering of the family depends more upon her, and she is usually fonder of her children.” Women were perceived as a stabilizing force upon which both the family and broader society relied. Regarding the potential overindulgence of children, Rousseau argued, “Ambition, avarice, tyranny, the mistaken foresight of fathers, their neglect, their harshness, are a hundredfold more harmful to the child than the blind affection of the mother.” Mary Wollstonecraft advocated for improved education for women in “The Rights of Women,” partly to enhance their ability to educate the subsequent generation. Enhancing education quality directly correlates with producing better citizens and facilitating a harmonious society.

In line with his naturalistic perspective, Rousseau advocates for children to be born in rural environments, where they can be exposed to fresh air and sunlight. He contends that urban settings overwhelm children and that living in close proximity should be avoided. In their initial experiences, children encounter pleasure and pain, even if they cannot yet differentiate or express the external causes. Aligned with other philosophers, Rousseau acknowledges that these sensations act as motivational forces that shape our behaviors before we can walk or speak. He illustrates this through the example of a child’s fear of unfamiliar masks. Rousseau’s approach involves introducing pleasant and amusing masks first, gradually incorporating more intimidating images until the child’s fear dissipates. This approach to confronting the unknown fosters resilience for the future.

For Rousseau, education should be enjoyable. He believes that children should acquire valuable lessons without being burdened by formal, monotonous training. He views life as fleeting, making it tragic to prepare a child for a hypothetical adulthood they may never experience. Therefore, Rousseau argues that education should be a source of enjoyment. The objective of education surpasses mere knowledge acquisition; it involves cultivating the complete individual and promoting their happiness. According to him, happiness arises when desires align with capabilities. Consequently, a natural man possesses simple desires that are easily fulfilled. However, as society advances and knowledge accumulates, desires become more complex and challenging to satisfy. This internal conflict, Rousseau contends, leads to unhappiness. He even criticizes the medical profession for instilling fear regarding potential bodily ailments. Even the fear of death contributes to our discontent. The resolution to this conflict lies in desiring achievable actions and acting on those desires, thereby attaining freedom. Freedom hinges on independence, which arises from breaking away from dependence.

The progression of agriculture and metallurgy resulted in specialization and the division of labor. This division led to landowners and laborers selling their skills instead of cultivating their own sustenance. The tutor in Rousseau’s narrative explains to the older child that the division of labor leads to wealth for some and poverty for others. He contrasts the value of diamonds, which offer no practical benefits, with iron, a material used in numerous useful tools. Independence and the happiness derived from fulfilling one’s desires were becoming more distant, even in Rousseau’s time.

Rousseau argued that young children are not capable of comprehending the true essence of morality. He believed that if strict rules are imposed, children will often rebel against them as an act of defiance. He begins with the concept of self-love, which he considers the most fundamental aspect of human nature. According to Rousseau, the instinct to preserve one’s own life is innate. From this basis, other passions can emerge, and education can shape these passions to lay the groundwork for social virtues. He introduces a second type of love, which he terms “amour propre.” Unlike self-love, this form of love is not natural but social in nature and is influenced by our interactions with others. Rousseau observed that competition and pride frequently corrupt this form of love. To counteract this corrupting influence, he suggests cultivating a sense of pity or repugnance for the suffering of others. Emile, the central character in his work, must witness suffering and be capable of empathizing with others to develop a sense of pity. Furthermore, the recognition that the suffering of others could easily befall us is crucial. By acknowledging our interdependence, vulnerability, and the anguish of suffering, and by shifting our focus away from self-interest, Rousseau contends that we can foster notions of common justice.

While Rousseau would likely be dismayed by the size of modern towns and cities, our reliance on paid labor, and our detachment from food production, the complexity of our multifaceted society makes it challenging to reverse course. Despite this, he suggests that we can still align our desires with our means and acquire practical skills that benefit both ourselves and society. Additionally, Rousseau emphasizes that education and learning need not be dull, even though he, as an academic, sees value in scholarly pursuits.



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