This winter, as I began reading more about the history of progressive education in the US, it seemed to me that some of the most interesting critics were the ones the textbook I was reading called “The Romantic Critics” (Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, et al.) because of their indebtedness to Romantic forefather Jean Jacques Rousseau.  I told myself then that I had to go back and revisit Rousseau’s seminal work on education, Emile.  When I saw this book on a list of the thirty best ed books, coming from a blogger and author whose opinion I respect, I ordered the book.

I was first exposed to Rousseau in high school in a survey course, and even then, I remember he stood out.  Senior year I took a great semester-long course about Romantic literature: the teacher, my favorite in high school, really brought the material alive, and Rousseau was hovering behind all of that Keats, Blake, and Wordsworth that we read.

It is only recently that I have begun to realize what a long shadow he has cast over education as well.  Multiple books I’ve read this year cite (often decry) his influence on Progressive education of the early 20th Century, which is still very influential.  Ed critics rarely seem to attack Rousseau; they usually attack his progeny, but I figured it was high time to get into Emile and see what I could find — all in the name of trying to get back to origins and discover the places where real differences exist and alternate paths truly are possible.

I had actually read Book 1, the first thirty pages or so, a few months ago and have only just gotten back to Book 2.  My initial thoughts are that Rousseau is a good writer, but his form is relatively formless.  His writing is lyrical, sometimes vivid, and easy to follow — a joy to read.  I remember well how sometimes my only respite in reading Dewey were the times when he would quote Rousseau and suddenly the turgid Dewey-ian prose would give way and Rousseau’s words would snap you back alive.

The problem is, the book feels so formless.  It’s long — my copy is over 400 pages, and it’s only broken up into a few books.  Book II, which I’m on now, is almost 100 pages, and there are no chapters or headings within.  I like a little more organization.

That said, it’s great stuff.  There’s nothing like starting into a classic and quickly realizing why it’s a classic.  I found Emile to be fresh and new even though it was written in 1762.  That’s impressive.  It is less a book on education, at least in the early stages where I am, and more a book on parenting.  This too is germane for me — my son is about the age of Rousseau’s imaginary Emile by the time Book II begins.  The whole book is loaded with great wisdom and insight, which I’ll get into in a later blog post.  

Rousseau is basically arguing for a parenting style that lines a child up to experience “natural consequences.” It’s certainly idealistic, but it’s also incredibly modern and persuasive, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he says, and being impressed by how persuasive he is.  You get the sense reading him that he really has a fully formed, detailed way of seeing the world, and you want to know all of it.  It’s a pretty cogent system, in other words, and you’re eager to hear him explain how he’d use this system to address different problems.  It’s great.

And the whole notion of nature as uncorrupted, the best instructor for children — it’s all there.  I can see already how influential this book has been on education.  

I am picking off relatively short sections for now, but I’ll write more about it once I get further in.

So far — four stars out of four!