18 Mar

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or Treatise on Education (1762)

 Rousseau published Émile, or Treatise on Education in 1762. This philosophical treatise traced the nature of education through Émile, a fictional man, from infancy to adulthood. This work was radical for its insistence on familial, child-rearing, educational, and religious reform. The most damning critiques of Rousseau’s treatise emerged from the Catholic Church. Rousseau insisted, contrary to his contemporaries, that a child’s religious education should not begin until late adolescence (15 to 20). Rousseau also suggested that children should come naturally to religion with free and skeptical minds. In eighteenth-century France, most genteel, male children began their religious education at the age of six or seven by rote memorization. Émile was banned in Paris and Geneva, and publicly burned the year it was published. Nevertheless, Émile was widely read and influenced educational reform in France after the revolution. Educational reformers (Basedow, Pestalozzi, and Froebel) adopted and adapted Rousseau’s ideas in Germany and Switzerland. By the late eighteenth-century, Americans employed Émile to discuss the differences in and values of men and women’s education in the United States.

Rousseau divided Émile into five books on education, which correspond to the five stages of human development: infancy, ages 5 to 12, ages 12 to 15, ages 15 to 20, and ages 20 to 25. Rousseau suggested that there was a sixth stage of development called the “Age of Happiness.” However, the treatise ended with the fifth stage in Book Five. Book Five (ages 20 to 25) also included Rousseau’s thoughts on the nature of education for women. Below I will outline Rousseau’s arguments about education.

Book One started with some general remarks on education. Rousseau argued that “education comes to us from” three teachers, or “nature itself, or from other men, or from circumstances.”[1] The education that Rousseau outlined is meant strictly to train men for manhood and their adult vocations. Education remained a male’s domain. Nevertheless, Rousseau emphasized an equality in male education that others had not broached. Rousseau suggested that “In the natural order of things, all men being equal, the vocation common to all is the state of manhood; and whoever is well trained for that, cannot fulfill badly any vocation which depends upon it…How to live is the business I wish to teach him.”[2] Education prepared men for their obligations to humanity as fathers, to society as producers of other good men, and to the state as citizens.[3] This emphasis on nature and man’s natural abilities made room for equality in male education. These ideas were harnessed during the French Revolution to create France’s first national system of education.

Book One suggested that the education of man begins in infancy with children’s bodies. Children’s bodies should be freed from swaddling so that their movements were not restricted. Restriction made children fussy, and hindered their experience of objects, people, and nature. Moreover, children should be breast-fed by their mothers, not nurses.  Breast-feeding children would reform the family by bringing mothers and children to love one another. According to Rousseau, breast-feeding was the “first duty” of mothers.[4] The reinstitution “of this one abuse would soon result in a general reform; nature would resume all her rights. When women are once more true mothers, men will become true fathers and husbands….. If mothers are not real mothers, children are not real children toward them. Their duties to one another are reciprocal, and if these be badly fulfilled on the one side, they will be neglected on the other side.”[5] Correcting the physical relations between mothers and children would aid in the reform of familial relationships and children’s education. Finally, adults should not force children to speak too early as there is a dissonance between children and adults languages that prohibited mutual understanding.

Book Two continued the argument about education through experience in infancy. Rousseau suggested that children should be allowed to play in the open air in order to enjoy life, experience pain and suffering, and calm their dispositions. Rousseau noted that as “soon as they can feel the pleasures of existence allow them to enjoy it; and at whatever hour God may summon them see to it that they do not die before they have tasted life.”[6] The traditional, eighteenth-century education of children bothered Rousseau because it restricted children’s bodily experiences of the natural world and made them like galley slaves. It also bothered him because it trained children in polite niceties that masked arrogance and classism. Rousseau suggested that “As for me, I would rather have Émile rude than arrogant; I would much rather have him say in making a request, Do this, than in commanding, I beg you. It is not the term which he uses that I care about but rather the meaning which he connects with it.”[7] Thus, Roseau outlined ways not to educate children in arrogance.

The education of children from ages 5 to 12 should not focus on teaching children languages or history because children are not able to fully form ideas and apply them to experience (i.e., teaching geography does not teach children how to get from one place to another; experience of traveling does). Children should not be forced to read or write. Rousseau criticized Locke for his emphasis on methods for teaching children to read (dice and cabinets).[8] Rousseau suggested that adults should read to children what interested them in order to cultivate a desire for reading, writing, and learning. The cultivation of the desire to learn was the best method for educating children. Children should also exercise so that the body and mind may move together to experience the world. Rousseau concluded, “In order to learn to think, we must then exercise our limbs, our senses, and our organs…Thus, so far is it from being true that the reason of man is formed independently of the body, it is the happy constitution of the body which renders the operations of the mind facile and sure.”[9] Rousseau outlined learning in terms of phenomenology: what men knew came from their bodily and sense experiences.

Rousseau also emphasized the importance of vision and learning to see for developing a reasoned mind: “Sight is the sense which is the most intimately connected with the judgments of the mind, it requires a long time to learn to see.”[10] Rousseau argued that children should learn to measure, judge, and estimate numbers, bodies, and heights by drawing. The experience of seeing and then drawing real object forms impressed Nature on children’s imaginations. Art cultivated knowledge through embodied experiences.  Rousseau suggested that “I shall discourage him [Émile] even from tracing anything from memory…for fear that substituting odd and fantastic forms for the truth of things, he lose the knowledge of proportions and the taste for the beauties of Nature.”[11] Like Locke, Roseau also encouraged children to learn by sleeping in different types of beds and experiencing different circumstances in order to accustom their bodies to different settings. These methods for educating children enhanced the physical senses of children so that their bodies and minds developed together. The physical, sensual experience of Nature molded children properly.

Book Three argued that after infancy children should learn a trade from the ages of 12 to 15. This stage was the most important in a child’s development because it was the “interval when the power of the individual is greater than his desires.”[12] Nature marked this period as “the period of labor, of instruction, and of study.”[13] Rousseau emphasized the education of children through bodily experience in this section by giving examples of Émile’s education at fairs and with jugglers.  Rousseau also warned against teaching children about instruments through books. Instruments “invented to guide us in our experiments and to supply the place of accurate sense-perception cause us to neglect the exercise of it.”[14] Rather, children could learn about instruments and the labor behind them by being employed in workshops. “Instead of making a child stick to his books, if I employ him in a workshop his hands labor to the profit of his mind; he becomes a philosopher, but fancies he is only a workman.”[15] Physical work enhanced the mind of children through direct experience. Work also taught children the differences between work and play, and what was useful and what was not.

The one book that children should read was Robinson Crusoe because it taught self-preservation and judgment through experience without the assistant of fellows and instruments. Children should not be taught about social norms and public opinion through books and teachers as these should be experienced directly. Rousseau also discussed the ability of men to be educated. He did not distinguish “class ranks or fortunes nor shall I distinguish them scarcely more in the sequel because man is the same in all conditions…. providing for them ought everywhere to be equal.” Rather, teachers should “Adapt the education of man to man and not to that which he is not.”[16] Dismissing class and requiring children to learn a trade was scandalous to the upper-classes. But, for Rousseau learning a trade and relying on one’s own labor and experience for education meant accessing a “rank which he cannot lose, a rank which will honor him as long as he lives.” Rousseau opposed Locke’s suggested trades for men, which appeared useless. Locke argued that men be embroiderers, gilders, and varnishers. Rousseau also opposed the professions of musicians, poets, and comedians. Education through labor and physical experience would raise children to a state of manhood. Training the body and senses trained the mind and judgment.

Book Four argued that between the ages of 15 and 20 children should be instructed in religious and moral education. This stage represented the second birth of children and “it is here that man really begins to live.”[17] This education centered on children’s relations with other men, not with things as before. Religious education controlled the passions by directing the love of self, which “regards only ourselves, [and] is content when our real needs are satisfied.”[18]  Love of self is far better than self-love, which makes comparisons and is never satisfied because it requires “that others prefer ourselves to them—a thing which is impossible.”[19] This stage is also the time to educate young men in “agreeable books,” “books of the ancients,” discussion, analysis of discourse, diction, and elocution. Languages should also be studied at this time, not so much for their own use but because they teach grammar in one’s first language.

Rousseau criticized Locke in this section for beginning education with the mind and then moving to the body. According to Rousseau, this propagated materialism. Children should not think about matter as Locke suggested, but rather they should experience matter. Thinking matter only leed children to think about the material world. Experiencing matter would lead children to think beyond matter to the spiritual world. Experiencing matter would lead children to a religious education and spiritual preparation. Without first knowing how to use the body, one could not think or reason properly in order to educate the soul. Only after the body is well-trained could one absorb religion education. The lover of the self is able to commune with God in finding supreme happiness.

Book Five examined the final stage of youth, the ages between 20 and 25, when men and women marry. This book is dedicated to the education of women. Rousseau argued that Sophie (Émile’s companion) ought to be a woman as Émile is a man. In a sense, Rousseau elevated notions about women’s ability to be educated. He suggested that women required education just as men required education. That is, “she should have whatever is befitting the constitution of her species and of her sex in order to fill her place in the physical and moral world.”[20] Rousseau went as far as suggesting some equality between the sexes:  “All that we know with a certainty is that the only thing in common between man and woman is the species, and that they differ only in respect of sex.” Similarly, Rousseau declared, “With respect to what they have in common they are equal, and in so far as they are different they are not capable of being compared.” [21]  Nevertheless, the law of Nature suggests that sex impacts one’s bodily, religious, and moral education: “it follows that they ought not to have the same education…following directions of nature they ought to act in concert, but they ought not to do the same things; their duties have a common end, but the duties themselves are different, and consequently the tastes which direct them.”[22] Women are to be educated because it is their duty to be mothers and to educate their male children. “Thus the whole education of women ought to be relative to men.”[23]

Women’s bodies should not be developed for strength in infancy like men. Instead, their bodies were to be developed for “personal charms.”[24] This development still included allowing female children to play and run like male children, to free their bodies from physical constraints, and to learn the accomplishments (singing, dancing, etc.) for amusement.[25] According to Rousseau, females were inclined to play more with dolls as fit their station as mothers. Females learned better through embroidery and lacework as these appeared useful and appealed to girls’ desire to adorn themselves. Young women must be taught restraint and duty. “They must early be trained to restraint to the end that it may cost them nothing and to conquer all their whims in order to subject them to the wills of others. If they wish always to be at work they must sometimes be compelled to do nothing.”[26] Like boys, girls were educated, though to a lesser degree, through “industry and talent which form taste.” Taste in turn formed the mind, which is “opened to ideas of the beautiful in all its forms and finally to the moral notions which are connected with it.”[27] Like young boys, girls were not capable of thinking about religion at a young age. In fact, they were not really capable of thinking about religion at all. When at the appropriate age, young girls should have the “religion of her mother, and every wife that of her husband. Even were this religion false, the docility which makes the mother and the daughter submit to the order of nature expunges in the sight of God the sin of error.”[28] Rousseau blamed coquetry in Catholic convents, and convents in general, for the decline in women’s behavior and duties. In doing so, Rousseau elevated Protestantism and its familial relations: “but it seems to me that in general Protestant countries have more family affection, more worthy wives, and more tender mothers than Catholic countries; and if this is true, we cannot doubt that this difference is due in part to the education of convents [i.e., where they let girls run free].”[29]

Some late eighteenth-century American Protestants embraced Rousseau’s plan for women’s education. They recognized the necessity of women’s education for educating male children who would become the leaders of the Republic. Scholars recognize this emphasis on women’s education in early America as the ideology of Republican Motherhood.

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, Or Concerning Education: Extracts Containing the Principal Elements of Pedagogy Found in the First Three Books (Heath, 1886), 14.


[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s Émile: Or, Treatise on Education (D. Appleton, 1909), 45–46.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 106.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 133.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 152.

[15] Ibid., 153.

[16] Ibid., 175.

[17] Ibid., 193.

[18] Ibid., 195.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 259.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 261.

[23] Ibid., 263.

[24] Ibid., 264.

[25] Ibid., 271.

[26] Ibid., 268.

[27] Ibid., 273.

[28] Ibid., 276.

[29] Ibid., 284.

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