In Emile, Rousseau and his fictitious account on properly raising a young boy to become a man, several theories about education are discussed and put into practice into the boy’s life. To offer a short summary of Emile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau under the careful guidance of his master it is important to recognize the philosophical and creative movement of the Enlightenment that this work spawned from. In true form to the ideas put forth during the Enlightenment, Emile grows up in a state of nature and learns by Rousseau’s methods which emphasize stages of learning and development and processes of natural inquiry.
Much of Emile is dedicated to the raising of a young man but the last section is devoted to the education of girls. The culmination of these two statements on learning is the marriage of Emile and Sophie, a girl who was raised according to Rousseau’s model of rearing for young women. While this is still technically fiction, the style and tone is didactic and the narrator often slips off into long diatribes about his own past as well his feelings about society, religion, and moral matters. Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau is conveniently broken up into 5 sections of narrative and essays, each of which deals with either a particular age group or time in a young person’s life. The first section of essays deals with the child’s development until about the age of twelve when he is still living very much like an animal and needs to have his natural tendency toward understanding brought forth.
The second section addresses the development of a young person from the ages of twelve to fifteen, which is a time when reason begins to take hold and the child, especially with a proper apprenticeship, begins to take his first steps toward manhood. The last section of essays in Emile discusses development and addresses the ages of fifteen and up when the young child grows into a man and must learn to make his own way based on the careful instruction he has been given. It is also at this late point that he should find a woman who completes him, which is illustrated by the example of Sophie.
There are various modern interpretations that can be gleaned from Rousseau’s treatise on education in Emile and just as many that are based upon historical knowledge of the period during which he wrote the book. In general, it seems most appropriate to draw an understanding off of both schools of interpretation to form a cohesive idea about what the text meant then and how elements of it can be very pertinent to educational theory today. One of the most important issues Rousseau raises in Emile in more than one essay and point, is the proper setting for the education of a child. Rousseau contends that living in cities is bad for children and will indoctrinate them far too early to all of the vices and pretensions that are common in urban areas.
To him, the best way for a child to begin to develop in a healthy manner is to live in a “state of nature” far from the corrupting influences of society. As Rousseau states in one of the important quotes from Emile, “Nature wants children to be children before being men. If we want to pervert this order, we shall produce pernicious fruits which will be immature and insipid and will not be long in rotting….Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it” (90). This thesis statement from Emile is interesting on a number of levels because it views children themselves as something completely natural and uncorrupted. They are considered “fruits” and just as real fruits cannot always thrive in a city, blocked off from the fresh air and too jam-packed to allow the roots to spread, the same is true with children. Instead of allowing these foul influences to ruin the quality of the “harvest” it is best to raise them in full sun, open to the elements.
To Rousseau in Emile , children are like animals at a young age and must be allowed to explore, unhindered by the burdens of formal education and strict weighty moral instruction. Although this was written at a time in which the urban areas were the center of a very quickly changing society, full of strict social and moral codes, one cannot help but think this may in some ways be a pertinent method of child-rearing today as well. Instead of confining children in big cities and tiny classrooms, perhaps Rousseau is right that it is best to give them the freedom and the breathing room to grow and breathe in a state of nature rather than a state of indomitable structure.
It is interesting to think about the way Rousseau incorporates the idea of reason into his theories on raising a child properly in “Emile”. It is expected, because of the issues surrounding human reason during Rousseau’s time that the subject would make an appearance, but in the case of this text, it is a foundation for many of his ideas. Throughout Emile, Rousseau has something of a love-hate relationship with the concept of reason as it is applied toward the raising of children. At one point he scoffs at the notion of raising a child based on principles of reason when he says in one of the important quotations from “Emile” by Rousseau, “The masterpiece of a good education is to make a reasonable man, and they claim they raise a child by reason! This is to begin with the end, to want to make the product the instrument” (89). He understands that eventually reason will be an all-consuming part of the young person’s life but he also believes that there is a time for it to be important a time when it is just damaging and even a hindrance to the proper rearing of a young man. As he suggests, “Each age, each condition of life, has its suitable perfection, a sort of maturity proper to it” (158) and in Rousseau’s mind, maturity is a sign of readiness for reason. Trying to push it upon a child before he is ready is not only foolish but potentially damaging. Again, while this was certainly a valid point to make during Rousseau’s time (when questions about reason were at their height) it is still quite important to consider in modern times. What Rousseau is suggesting is that we allow children to be children before maturity and its associated learning and responsibilities takes away the possibility to just purely question and explore. This idea is applied in many households and schools these days as parents and educators attempt to create a balance between structured learning and playtime to increase the child’s capacity for creativity and natural inquisitiveness.
Connected with the ideas about reason Rousseau posits is his potent statement that, as explained in this quotation from “Emile”, “One of the errors of our age is to use reason in too unadorned a form, as if men were all mind. In neglecting the language of signs that speak to the imagination, the most energetic of languages has been lost” (321). At this point he almost directly addresses the issue of creativity that is still important in the education system today. He sees the problem of introducing children too early to the heavy topics of morality, religion, and society that are more likely to stifle the natural inclination to question the world—an inclination that is more important than nearly any other as far as Rousseau is concerned. Although it is certainly very controversial in modern times, for these reasons Rousseau did not believe in teaching children to read until relatively late because it would help them avoid the same corrupting influences he saw in cities. In my future career as a teacher, I would like to consider (although not completely put into real practice) his ideas about “negative education” so that my emphasis is just as much on the beauty and openness of youth and the processes by which it develops as the more practical and mandated curricular requirements of education.
By the end of the text, Rousseau is clearly proud of his fictional creation of the perfect man of theEnlightenment age and makes it clear to the reader that even though Emile is grown and married, the process of learning never ends. After his education and marriage to Sophie, Emile begs of his teacher to, “Advise us and govern us….We shall be docile. As long as I live I shall need you. I need you more than ever now that my functions as a man begin” (480). This statement by Emile makes it clear that Rousseau believes in both the idea that education is an ongoing endeavor and also that having a mentor or a teacher is something that should be important to all men. Just as the process of learning and understanding the world never ends, the same is true of the process and art of teaching. It is not a task that is ever quite complete as the pupil will be ever-changing to suit and adapt to the world around him. Although there were a number of aspects that stood out to me throughout my experience with this text, this statement by Emile about having a connection with his teacher and never growing out of his need for him made an impact. As a future teacher, I want my students to feel the same way as Emile did about his mentor. I want them to realize that even though their period of education with me may end on a structured academic level, I will always be there to assist with the other learning tasks life presents. Although I will admit that the case of Emile is idealistic and in many ways rather dated the philosophy behind the fictitious sentiments and philosophy still rings true, inspires, and speaks volumes about the power of both education and educator.
This text has been invaluable in my development as a teacher; not necessarily because it offers a host of practical advice about what I can do (since so much of it is dated and almost impossible in today’s world) but because it makes me understand a lot about the philosophy behind education. Without having a broad range of thoughts and ideas about how children and young adults develop, it is easy to get locked into a rigid and inflexible system that ignores the importance of creativity and freedom. After reading this text I feel as though I am better equipped to understand development in young people and will be more open to more natural instructional techniques that allow learning as a result of direct experience and interaction rather than strict codes of formal teaching. Although I do feel as though Rousseau was being very idealistic and that this was set in a very utopian range of understanding and practice, it is not so much that which matters but rather that a deeper understanding of different modes of teaching has become available to me.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Summary and Analysis of Thinking in Education by Matthew Lipman • Common Themes in Romanticism, The Enlightenment, and the Renaissance • Representations of Children in Eighteenth Century Literature • Candide by Voltaire: In the Context of the Enlightenment • In Defense of the Traditional Classroom : An Argument Against The Move to Online Classes