Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Rousseau opens his treatise on education, Émile, with a phrase that could summarize his entire philosophy: “Everything is good when it comes out of the hands of the Author of creation, everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Through the death of his mother and the carelessness of his father, Rousseau’s own education had been left to chance. As a tutor, he was singularly unsuccessful and preferred to abandon that career even if it meant great material difficulty. His own five children were abandoned to the foundling hospital in Paris at birth. Given all this, it seems strange that he should presume to write on education.
In fact, however, the upbringing of children was one of Rousseau’s earliest concerns. He is addressing an age when parents lived quite separately from their children, who were first sent to nurses in the country and only brought home to be confided to the mercenary care of tutors and governesses before being sent out again, the boys to schools and the girls to convents. Moreover, education seems to be intended to make children into miniature adults. This goal is strikingly illustrated in the manner in which children are represented in eighteenth century painting. Rousseau argues that children should be as children, that understanding and love are more important to them than books.
The nature of humanity is to be free, and the first principle of Rousseau’s plan of education is to respect the liberty of...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education—a novel in name only—is addressed to mothers in the hope that, as a result of learning Rousseau’s ideas on education, they will permit their children to develop naturally without letting them be crushed by social conditions. Children cannot be left to themselves from birth, because the world as it is would turn them into beasts. The problem is to educate a child in the midst of society in such a manner that society does not spoil her or him.
In Émile, Rousseau argues that education comes from nature, from other people, and from things. The education from other people and from things must be controlled, so that habits conformable to nature will develop. Children have natural tendencies that should be encouraged, for nature intends children to be adults; the aim of education, according to Rousseau, is to make a child an adult. However, by swaddling children, by turning them over to wet nurses, and by punishing them for not doing what is said to be their duty, parents turn children from natural ways of acting and spoil them for life.
Rousseau insists that the proper way to bring up a child is to begin by having the mother nurse the child and the father train the child. If substitutes must be found, however, a wet nurse of good disposition who was lately a mother should be selected, and a young tutor should be chosen, preferably one with the qualities of Rousseau.
(The entire section is 2020 words.)