Emile: Rousseau as the Founder of Modern Child-Centered Education

Several years ago, I tried to read Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s uber-classic and revolutionary book on education.  I got about halfway before I had to abandon ship, and I managed only one short blog post about what I’d read.  It was too much.  Rousseau is a spectacular writer, but the book is long, formless, and almost too rich to digest all at once.  Each chapter, each page, has so much on it; when I gave up finishing it two years ago, it was with the clear sense that I knew I’d return in a few years once I was more ready.  Now it’s the time.

I just picked it up again the other day and read the preface and the first chapter – I’m taking it slowly this time – and I was absolutely amazed at how extraordinary this book is.  It is completely mesmerizing and absolutely foundational as an educational text that influenced the way we conceive of schools down to this day.  I once read a quote that said Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile are the only two books you really need to read in order to understand our modern educational controversies.  After reading even this short section of Emile again, I think that author may be correct.

My belief going into the reading of this book, a belief that was heightened as I began reading it again, is that this book was revolutionary, that it changed the way we discuss education.  Rousseau is conscious that he is about to change the conversation dramatically, although he says he’s surely not the first to critique education:  “Go as far back as you will, you will find a continual outcry against the established [educational] method,” Rousseau writes.  And then he immediately stakes his claim that elaborating what a man should know – as most traditional education writers do – is quite different than understanding what a child can learn – which is what he claims he will do.  “We know nothing of childhood,” he writes, “The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning” (1).  He proposes to study children, a revolutionary idea: “Begin thus by making a more careful study of your scholars, for it is clear that you know nothing about them” (1).  

It is tempting for me to imagine that these opening sentences were the genesis of all “child-centered” educational focus that still exists in tandem with the more traditional “teacher-centered” education.  It is tempting to imagine that Rousseau was the first to shift the focus onto children.  I do not have enough historical knowledge to know if this is exactly true, but as best as I can tell, it is.  This is transformational stuff.

The short preface ends, as Rousseau again makes a big claim, telling us that his prescribed process of education will be nothing more than “the course of nature” (1).  Here again, I imagine that this emphasis on natural development is something almost entirely new, if not utterly revolutionary.  Rousseau begins Book One with an immortal line:

“God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (4).  This is certainly reminiscent of his even more famous line, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” from The Social Contract.  It is a preeminent theme in all of Rousseau’s work: the practices and institutions of modern society and civilization corrupt natural man, who would otherwise be naturally good, peaceful, and inquisitive.  “Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are plunged” end up “stifling” us, or running us over like a sapling left in a highway, says Rousseau.  

Rousseau tells us – and I remember this being important later in the book – that there are three elements of education – education from nature (by which he means “the inner growth of our organs and faculties”), from men, and from “things” (by which he means, roughly, experience).  When these teachings conflict, education goes poorly.  After expressing skepticism that we can truly control any of these elements, Rousseau states that because the influence of both men and things are at least somewhat under our control, we should try to understand how education by nature occurs and to ensure that the other two influences align with it.

Rousseau further defines nature as our “natural tendencies,” once again comparing humans to plants which although we can attempt to develop habits in them, will, given their druthers, return to growing according to their nature.  Rousseau compares it to a plant taught to grow horizontally: it is possible for a time, but the plant will always want to revert to its natural vertical growth.

Once again, however, Rousseau’s distaste for society rears its head, and he immediately claims that educating a man according to his nature is incommensurate with educating him for society (a role Rousseau derisively calls “the citizen” and which he roasts in memorable fashion, off and on, for the rest of the chapter!).  But, he tells us, maybe it is possible to do both: to educate a man entirely according to his nature, untainted by society’s corrupting influences, but also in such a way that he is prepared to be a part of society one day, to live harmoniously in civilization.  To determine whether this is possible, Rousseau tells us, we need to observe a truly “natural” man who has been educated according to nature.  This is what he will attempt to show us through the thought experiment that comprises the remainder of the book: the attempt to sketch the process of educating a hypothetical pupil, Emile, by controlling the influence of man and of things in order to best align with the inherent natural tendencies of the child – to follow “the development of the child and the natural growth of the human heart” (16).  In doing so, Rousseau plans to show us “in very great detail, how my theories may be put into practice” and he leaves it up to the reader to judge whether he has succeeded.

The Modernism and Relevance of Rousseau

One thing I was stuck by, over and over again in just this first chapter, is how amazingly modern and relevant Rousseau’s ideas are.  Below are a few examples.

Education for an Unknown Future

These days it is almost a cliche to talk about “education for tomorrow” or “for the careers not of today, but of tomorrow.” But it’s striking to read this sort of thing – and so powerfully written – all he way back in 1762.  Rousseau writes movingly about the need for a truly “natural” education – one in line with our natural tendencies and innate nature – to avoid the narrowness of vocational training.  “It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church, or the law.  Before his parents chose a calling for him nature called him to be a man.  Life is the trade I would teach him” (8).  And here’s where it really starts to sound modern:  Next Rousseau claims that because the world is changing so quickly, children must be educated to be able to change with it.  He writes: 

“If every man’s fortune were so firmly grasped that he could never lose it, then the established method of education would have certain advantages; the child brought up to his own calling would never leave it, he could never have to face the difficulties of any other condition.  But when we consider the fleeting nature of human affairs, the restless and uneasy spirit of our times, when every generation overturns the work of its predecessor, can we conceive a more senseless plan than to educate a child as if he would never leave his room, as if he would always have his servants about him?  If the wretched creature takes a single step up or down he is lost.  This is not teaching him to bear pain; it is training him to feel it” (8-9).

Teach a child resilience, says Rousseau.  Teach him to “best endure the good and evil of life” – to “bear the buffets of fortune, to brave wealth and poverty, to live at need among the snows of Iceland or on the scorching rocks of Malta.” And you know what?  Carpe diem, says Rousseau!  Don’t try to protect him from danger.  Instead, “Teach him to live rather than to avoid death; life is not breath, but action . . .  Life consists less in length of days than in the keen sense of living.  A man maybe buried at a hundred and may never have lived at all.  He would have fared better had he died young” (9).  Sometimes, Rousseau gets carried away, but he is such a lyrical writer, that it is hard not to want to follow him.

Prepare the Child for the Road, Not the Road for the Child

Again, an old thought, but how beautifully and freshly it is expressed in Rousseau – and how timeless an insight.  He writes, “There is another by-way which may tempt our feet from the path of nature.  The mother may lavish excessive care on her child instead of neglecting him; she may make an idol of him; she may develop and increase his weakness to prevent him feeling it; she wards off every painful experience in the hope of withdrawing him from the power of nature, and fails to realise that for every trifling ill from which she preserves him the future holds in store many accidents and dangers, and that it is cruel kindness to prolong the child’s weakness when the grown man must bear fatigue” (13).

Nature, Rousseau maintains, has contrived it so that children get sick, hurt, and defeated over and over in order to “harden them by all kinds of difficulties” and prepare them for the future at a time when the dangers are lower than when they are older.  “This is nature’s law,” writes Rousseau, “why contradict it?

Fresh Air, Open Space, Cold Baths = Good for Children

It is striking to me, again, how modern Rousseau’s ideas seem.  If you want to raise children in accordance with their true nature, then you have to get them out into nature.  Make sure they eat vegetables, he tells us, a simple natural diet.  Rousseau is a strong, strong proponent of natural breastfeeding by the biological mother.  And get children out into the fresh air, into the open fields, away from the cities and towns and crowded rooms.  “Huddled together like sheep, men would very soon die,” he writes.  “Man’s breath is fatal to his fellows.”

“Send [your children] to regain in the open fields the strength lost in the foul air of our crowded cities” (24).

Give them ice-cold baths, too.  Don’t let them be imprisoned in swaddling clothes.  “Loose and flowing flannel wrappers” are better.

This is all advice that would hardly be out of place at any modern, naturalistic progressive childcare center.  This is proto-hippie-parenting.  This is Rousseau, the true father of the Romantic Movement.

Rousseau the Pragmatist

There is a short line in this first book that feels especially significant: “ . . . True education consists less in precept than in practice.  We begin to learn when we begin to live” (8).  

This was surely a time of burgeoning empiricism – in the wake of Bacon and especially Locke – and the Enlightenment ideal of discovery through observation surely finds some sort of striking new expression here.  I am tempted to read this as the first utterance of the sentiment of “learning by doing”; though I am sure it’s not, I am also sure that this is quite a bit different than the traditional conceptions of 1762, and it’s such a wonderfully modern, beautifully expressed epigram:  “We begin to learn when we begin to live.” Get out and start to learn by doing.

Childhood as a Subject of Study

As I alluded to earlier, Rousseau understands that children are not simply mini-adults.  Accordingly, he seems to me the earliest thinker to really and truly treat childhood as a unique and different period in a person’s education, with its own special kind of learning.  Rousseau defines this as experience – learning by doing, learning by experiencing – and reminds us that even though it does not include formal instruction, learning by experience counts for a huge portion of our most fundamental knowledge about the world.

Accordingly, Rousseau carefully controls the experiences – learning from “things” – that children are exposed to.  He orders and targets these experiences in order to further his goal of building courage and resilience – exposing children to scary things (such as thunder or masks) slowly and by degrees, downplaying their injuries so as to avoid teaching them that they should dwell on their pain, and attending to learning via the senses – what is termed nowadays “sensory activities.” Rousseau actually thinks through this pretty carefully, specifically describing the stages of learning he wants his pupil to undergo: learning cause and effect, basic comparisons, types and part of a whole, distances, even the difference between himself and the world.

He also suggests perceptive ways to understand children’s thoughts and emotions by observing their voices and their facial expressions as attempts to communicate pre-rationally.  

Control Over the Education   

Already you can detect the central paradox at the heart of Rousseau’s educational plan: in order to raise a child “naturally,” the tutor must tightly control every aspect of the pupil’s life.  Man’s corrupting influence is omnipresent, Rousseau explains.  One example he cites is how babies develop habits – which he considers unnatural – as the result of their caregivers.  Feed a child at regular intervals, says Rousseau, and soon the baby will wish to feed at those times partly because of habit – a manmade convention – rather than out of pure natural hunger.  Here is a stark reminder of the challenge Rousseau has staked for himself: even a parent’s care can bend a child away from his natural instincts.  To raise a child in total naturalistic fashion is to be absolutely attentive to the child and to constant be forced to make tough decisions:  Is a particular desire natural or imposed?  To what extent should the child be allowed to pursue his natural inclinations, which might lead him to interact with a corrupting society, or to what extent must he be artificially held back, for the sake of preserving his “nature”?  And are some “natural” instincts acceptable, while others are not?  Early in this chapter, Rousseau outlines the danger in allowing a child’s natural cries to become – in his words – “commands.” Certainly this is a natural impulse on the child’s part, but the tutor or caregiver must “impose” a restraint on the child in order to teach the vaunted self-reliance and self-possession.

Clearly defining what is “natural” is going to be the primary challenge for Rousseau in the rest of the book, and I’m eager to see how he does it.  


And this brings an even wider, more fundamental problem into view: Can a man really be educated, in Rousseau’s view, “naturally” – while also being taught to fit into a society that Rousseau indicates is largely corrupt?  Rousseau raised this contradiction brilliantly, and a reader might be forgiven for imagining that he would respond by simply raising his Emile outside of society, with no eye toward joining it.  But Rousseau, to his credit, elects to do the harder, more practical task and fit the child for modern social life.  Still, he seems to rather offhandedly waive away the contradiction that he himself so devastatingly raised, and the reader is surely concerned already in Book 1 that this is not something that is going to go away.  The reader is surely wondering at this point whether Rousseau’s program is going to become little more than a dictatorship by the tutor, the replacement of one kind of parental protectionism (from the danger of the environment) with another (from the corrupting influences of society).  After all, this sort of thing is common, even to this day – keeping children away from the media, away from music, away from much of our culture: the rough equivalent of raising a child off-grid in a shack with no internet or phone.  We all know the kind of unpreparedness that this approach can often result in, the desperate swing back in the other direction on the part of the newly liberated young adult.  Dewey’s idea was to use public education to shape and tame a wayward society, the school as a model democratic institution, but Rousseau has already claimed that public schools are “impossible” because no state is currently worth a good man’s true allegiance.  The tension is there, inherent in his approach, and I’m eager to see how he resolves it.