Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Émile cover image

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 child. The master should intervene as little as possible. Since religion is incomprehensible before the age of sixteen, a natural education is a negative one. The second principle is to treat the child as a child and not an adult....

(The entire section is 694 words.)