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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. An attractive and progressive system of education will never demand of the child an effort beyond the capacities of his or her age. The third rule is to form the heart before worrying about the mind. Humankind is naturally good, not naturally knowledgeable. Then, after giving much consideration to the heart, Rousseau prefers educating judgment rather than imparting information. The head should be accustomed to functioning, not simply filled with knowledge. Some knowledge is of course necessary, but if Émile has not learned everything, it will be easy for him to do so when he wants because he has learned to learn. A person’s only true profession is to be an eternal apprentice. Émile’s education lasts for twenty years. Like most authors of his time, Rousseau neglects the organization of his work. Digressions abound. The essay follows a chronological order and is divided into five sections of unequal length.

Some of Rousseau’s ideas seemed scandalous at the time. He thought women should nurse their own children, but husbands like M. d’Épinay found the idea perfectly shocking and ridiculous. Public education would be too ideologically biased, according to Rousseau, who preferred to have children educated in the home. Most books are banished from Émile’s library, with a notable exception, Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719; commonly known as Robinson Crusoe), the story of humankind in nature. Émile learns from personal experience more than from the experiences of others. It is only at the age of eighteen that he is ready to discover God. This section of the book is the famous “Profession of Faith by the, Savoyard Vicar.” Rousseau presents a natural religion, a theism that he considers preferable to all established cults.

The fifth book of Émile is consecrated to woman, studied in herself and in relation to man. The two sexes will not receive the same education. While the male is reared in nature, the female will learn the arts of society, music, dance, lace making, and especially coquetry. Sophie is the companion whom Rousseau imagined for Émile, but Rousseau was much less daring in inventing an educational scheme for her.

Although Rousseau’s work was condemned by the state, its influence was enormous, especially with women. Under the revolution, his educational theories were proclaimed ideal. By the beginning of the Romantic period, Émile was acclaimed in every layer of society.

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