The Perfect Childhood

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, ou de l’Éducation.

Published by Jean Néaulme in The Hague, 1762.

Children treated like little adults: this is exactly what Rousseau didn’t want. Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Girl in a Blue Dress, 1641.

Picture the scene: you’re growing up away from the big city, in the fresh country air, surrounded by nature. You’re more or less free to decide how to spend your days, you get to choose what you want to learn and you don’t have to read any books or grapple with any bothersome maths problems until you’re twelve years old. These kinds of approaches – returning to nature, experimental education, anti-authoritarian educational methods and self-determined learning – have become rather popular in recent years. But they’re nothing new. Back in the 18th century, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book about the ideal childhood. Rousseau was convinced that Emile, or on Education was his best work. Although his ideas profoundly influenced modern pedagogy in later decades, many of his contemporaries did not share his views at first.

Children Treated Like Little Adults

Jean-Jacques Rousseau grew up in a middle-class family, in 18th-century Europe. He lived in Geneva first and then later in Paris for a long time. There, children were treated like little adults. They wore pretty clothes and learned the rules of etiquette, as well as how to curtsey politely, play piano and speak foreign languages. They had to sit still for hours at a time while their private tutor taught them how to read, write and do sums. There were lots of rules and regulations and if they broke one, they were punished.

Rousseau was convinced that this method of educating children didn’t raise them to be truly useful people. He believed that humans, in their natural state, were free and good from birth. Society, on the other hand, he considered to be problematic. He wrote: ‘Everything is good when it leaves the hands of the Creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man.’ People were jealous and vain. They cared too much about what others thought of them and bent over backwards to meet certain expectations. Although they were born free, they had all sorts of unnatural constraints imposed on them by society until they were no longer in touch with themselves.

This painting represents a different conception of childhood: the children are allowed to play in the garden; the fact that they are outside the fence symbolises their freedom from domestic constraints. Philipp Otto Runge, The Hülsenbeck Children, 1805.

In opposition to this, Rousseau presented his radical new ideas. He believed that childhood needs to be regarded as a separate stage of life that has value in itself. Children should be able to play, they should be allowed to develop their own physical strength, their feelings and preferences, free from any constraints. To illustrate these ideas, Rousseau went ahead and invented a boy, Emile, and his tutor, who also happens to be called Jean-Jacques, just like himself. In a half-novel, half-treatise, he told the story of Emile and his tutor and used this example to illustrate his ideas about education.

Rousseau found models for his educational agenda in Greek mythology: the centaur Chiron teaches the young Achilles.

Nature As a Teacher

Nature plays a central role in Rousseau’s utopia. Emile is raised in the countryside, far away from evil society, with lots of fresh country air and exercise to develop his physical strength. The illustration depicts a scene from Greek mythology as an example to follow: the centaur Chiron teaches the young Achilles about flora and fauna. Chiron was highly respected in the world of ancient gods and the most popular private tutor for a whole host of young heroes, including Jason and Odysseus. So, like Achilles, Emile would also learn about the world naturally, by actually interacting with it.

Another important metaphor in Rousseau’s work is that children themselves are like plants. They should grow naturally and, if you just make sure they get enough water and sunlight, they will. Instead of the traditional image of a tutor, who tries to funnel as much knowledge into the child’s brain as early as possible, Jean-Jacques rather takes on the role of a gardener. His main task is to protect the plant from harmful influences so that it can develop freely. This approach is also known as ‘negative education’ and can be quite radically anti-authoritarian: for example, the tutor Jean-Jacques never imposes any rules or bans, but rather subtly ‘guides’ (you could also say ‘manipulates’) the young Emile in such a way that he chooses the good and right things of his own accord.

Learning By Doing

Rousseau also set great store by learning through experience. By doing experiments and observing for himself how objects react, Emile learns something about their properties. This approach is based on the fundamental belief that anyone with good common sense is capable of developing through experience and perception alone. It is quite possible that Rousseau came to this conclusion as a result of his own life experience. He had a turbulent childhood, during which his education was repeatedly interrupted and which ultimately turned him into a brilliant autodidact.

Experimental learning, holistic education, allowing children to develop freely: it may not sound like a bad idea to us now, but it was a scandal at the time. Although Rousseau didn’t believe that reason was inherently harmful, he certainly thought that too much reason too early in life could be damaging. Instead, he pleaded with readers to give equal weight to physical ability and emotional sensibility. This caused enormous offence to his contemporaries, who believed that reason was more important than anything.

It also didn’t help that Rousseau’s Emile included a sermon by a fictitious ‘Savoyard Vicar’, lasting a good fifty pages. In this section, the author stated his own religious beliefs under the alias of the vicar. He was against the Catholic Church, against the Calvinists, in fact, he was against any form of institutionalised religion. For him, faith was something very personal, a matter of the heart. He did believe in the existence of God and that He manifested Himself in all aspects of the natural world he created – but whether there was anything to believe in beyond this fundamental nature religion was something every reader had to decide for themselves.

Just a few days after Emile was published in 1762, the book was banned in Paris and Geneva and publicly burned. The edition in the MoneyMuseum collection was therefore printed in The Hague, as so many controversial works were at that time. And, as was also often the case with controversial books, the banned work was widely read and enjoyed, and quickly spread through Europe. His ideas influenced philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and educators such as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Maria Montessori.

As influential as his theoretical work was, Rousseau himself failed as a father. He gave up his five children to a home for illegitimate children – an act that would trouble him for the rest of his life. This demonstrates once again that the people who have great ideas about something on paper are not always the same people who truly understand it in real life…


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can read an excerpt from the German translation of Emile, or on Education here.

You can read the complete original French text here.

If you’d like to delve even deeper into the book, I’d recommend the excellent BBC podcast In Our Time. In the episode ‘Rousseau on Education’, three respected Rousseau experts discuss the ideas in and context of Emile (in English).

Just one month after publishing Emile, Rousseau published his famous theory about the social contract. We at Bookophile presented the book here.