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Rousseau's Emile: Blueprint for School Reform?

by David C. Bricker - 1973

Believes Rousseau's preoccupation with nature and methods of morality can suggest appropriate reforms for today's schools. (Source: ERIC)

In 1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau completed both his Social Contract and Emile. There are, to be sure, numerous differences between these two works. The Social Contract is a study of the basis of a modern state; Emile is a description of an unorthodox educational program. In the Social Contract Rousseau stresses the freedoms and responsibilities which are a part of citizenship; in Emile he makes a sharp distinction between manhood and citizenship, saying that citizens must forsake their own desires for those of others. He proceeds to renounce citizenship as an acceptable way of living and devotes himself to the development of an educational program which will teach a person how to satisfy his own needs. At first glance, the Social Contract and Emile oppose one another in their views of the relationship between citizenship and personal fulfillment. Can citizenship serve as a vehicle to personal fulfillment, or must it be an obstacle to fulfillment? In the Social Contract Rousseau seems to look kindly on citizenship, while in Emile he rejects it.

I believe, however, that there is a continuity of interest and sentiment that extends through both the Social Contract and Emile. This continuity arises out of Rousseau's preoccupation with the nature of morality and the means for cultivating it in the young. In the Social Contract, Rousseau argues that the foundation of a modern state must lie in the realm of morals instead of politics, and in Emile he envisions a lengthy educational program which, fundamentally, is devoted to the cultivation of virtue in a young man. Rousseau's preoccupation with the nature and methods of morality can guide us in defining what is wrong with our schools today and in devising appropriate reforms. In his Social Contract, Rousseau emphasizes the moral principle that all persons are equal. In Emile he organizes the relationship between a student and his teacher by respecting this principle of equality. In contrast, this equality is not respected in our schools, especially our junior and senior high schools, and, I believe, that it must begin to be respected if the disquietude of many adolescents over their lives in schools is to be successfully treated.


In his foreword, Rousseau announces that his Social Contract is a mere shell of a more ambitious project which he has been unable to complete. This should be obvious even without his announcement, for in form the Social Contract is condensed and sketchy: there are abrupt breaks between books and chapters, and the entire work has the appearance of being a plan for a larger, more expansive effort. However, Rousseau does succeed in making clear his major concern. He wants to establish the structure of a state in which each citizen will both remain free to act as he will and be able to depend upon the united strength of his fellow citizens to defend him in time of need: "Where shall we find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and the property of each associate, and by which every person, while uniting himself with all, shall obey only himself and remain as free as before?"1 Rousseau's interest is in the relationship between the freedom of a citizen and the legitimate authority of the association to which he belongs. If an association is to defend and protect its citizens, it must have the authority to do so, and Rousseau wants this authority to be legitimate. How can a citizen be under such an authority without diminishing his freedom to act as he will? This is the dilemma which engages Rousseau's attention in the opening pages of the Social Contract.

Rousseau proposes that this dilemma can be resolved by appealing to a special kind of contract, a contract which states that all citizens are equal to one another in their rights, and that their freedom as citizens will be compatible with their association's authority so long as they respect this equality:

The articles of the social contract will, when clearly understood, be found reducible to this single point: the total alienation of each associate, and all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as every individual gives himself up entirely, the condition of every person is alike; and being so, it would not be to the interest of any one to render that condition offensive to others.2

Rousseau's magnificent insight is that the basis of a state is not political, as it is ordinarily thought to be; rather, it is ethical. The authority of a state must rest upon its embodiment of the principle of equality.

I shall conclude this chapter and book [the chapter is a consideration of real property] with a remark which must serve as a basis of the whole social system: it is that, instead of destroying the natural equality of mankind, the fundamental compact substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and legal equality for that physical inequality which nature placed among men, and that, let men be ever so unequal in strength or in genius, they are all equalized by convention and legal right.3

In order for this principle of equality to be effective, it must be acknowledged and obeyed by the citizens themselves, and it is in an individual citizen's obedience to the moral principle of equality that Rousseau finds a way of reconciling a citizen's freedom with the authority of his association. It will be recalled that Rousseau wants each citizen to "obey only himself and remain as free as before." However, in obeying only himself, each citizen should also obey the "general will." "Each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one body we all receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."4 Most readers of Rousseau agree that the "general will" is an enticingly ambiguous creation. I interpret Rousseau to be saying that citizens are acting according to the "general will" when they respect the principle of equality. The authority of a state should rest upon the justness of its individual citizens. A just citizen is one who acts as he chooses, and thereby expresses his own will as he acts, not the will of others. In this sense he is free. However, a just citizen freely chooses to respect the principle of equality in his actions. According to this principle, what he wills for himself must comply with the "general will." A just citizen regulates his own freedom by refraining to will for himself that which his fellow citizens cannot also will for themselves. He freely refrains from exploiting others, and in doing so he respects the principle of equality. The principle of equality prohibits the exploitation of one citizen by another because all citizens cannot be exploiters: universal exploitation would leave no one to be exploited, and it is thus bound to fail. In the Social Contract, Rousseau proposes that the conflict between freedom and authority in the life of a citizen can be resolved by having such a citizen freely will to act according to the moral principle of equality and thereby refrain from infringing upon others. When everyone is his own authority in this manner, each citizen is in fact preventing his freedom from being violated by others.


Rousseau's investigation of the moral basis of political life stands him in good stead as he turns to education. In his view, the essential problem in education is to envision a relationship between a student and his teacher which will permit a student to achieve his own self-fulfillment, unhampered by any imposition of tasks which he would not choose for himself. It is crucial that the wills of a student and his teacher be properly related to each other; if not, the student's growth will, in one way or another, be corrupted. In practice, the relationship between a student and his teacher usually swings wildly back and forth between two extremes. At times, the teacher's will reigns supreme over his charge. On other occasions, the student finds that he can get exactly what he wishes by playing upon his teacher's vanity and sense of compassion: "The newborn infant cries, his early days are spent in crying. He is alternately petted and shaken by way of soothing him; sometimes he is threatened, sometimes beaten, to keep him quiet. We do what he wants or we make him our own. There is no middle course; he must rule or obey."5 Rousseau argues that both extremes are unhealthy for a student, and he therefore devotes himself to the envisionment of a "middle course" between them. It is unhealthy for a student's will to dominate over that of his teacher because this gives a student an exaggerated sense of his own importance and capacities. He will become accustomed to having his own way, and his demands will become increasingly outrageous. Rousseau paints numerous portraits of vexatious, tyrannical children:

Man naturally considers all that he can get as his own. In this sense Hobbes' theory is true to a certain extent: multiply both our wishes and the means of satisfying them, and each will be master of all. Thus, the child who has only to ask and to have, thinks himself master of the universe; he considers all men his slaves; and when you are at last compelled to refuse, he takes your refusal as an act of rebellion, for he thinks he has only to command. . . . How should I suppose that such a child can ever be happy? He is the slave of anger, a prey to the fiercest passions. Happy! He is a tyrant, at once the basest of slaves and the most wretched of creatures. I have known children brought up like this who expected you to knock the house down, to give them the weather-cock on the steeple, to stop a regiment on the march so that they might listen to the band; when they could not get their way they screamed and cried and would pay no attention to anyone.6

Rousseau seeks to avoid recommending an educational program which will indulge students to the point of such self-centeredness. He does not want a student to be free to get whatever he will out of his work with his teacher. Neither does he want a teacher to be free to impose his will upon a student. This is what ordinarily happens. Students, too young to comprehend their teachers' justifications for their guiding choices, infer that justification must always serve a person's self-interests:

When you try to persuade your scholars of the duty of obedience, you add to this so-called persuasion compulsion and threats, or still worse, flattery and bribes. Attracted by selfishness or constrained by force, they pretend to be convinced by reason. . . . What does it all come to? In the first place, by imposing on them a duty which they fail to recognize, you make them disinclined to submit to your tyranny, and you turn away their love, you teach them deceit, falsehood, and lying as a way to gain rewards or escape punishment; then, by accustoming them to conceal a secret motive under the cloak of an apparent one, you yourself put into their hands the means of deceiving you, of depriving you of a knowledge of their real character, of answering you and others with empty words whenever they have the chance.7

The situation is no better when a teacher simply makes demands of a student without bothering to offer reasons. Experiencing the compelling will of his teacher, a student will become aware of his own will, and soon he will discover devious ways of satisfying his will despite the fact he is under his teacher's thumb.

In face of the undesirable consequences which flow from these extremes, Rousseau tries to apply to them the moral principle of equality. He tries to envision a way of making student and teacher equal in the sense that each is prohibited from making choices which the other must accept and act upon. Parity between wills arises when a teacher adopts the perspective of his student. Having taken on the curiosity and innocence of his student, a teacher can present himself as an equal: "I will only remark that, contrary to the received opinion, a child's tutor should be young, as young indeed as a child himself, that he may be the companion of his pupil and win his confidence by sharing his games."8 Rousseau is recommending that companionship serve as the model for the relationship between teacher and student. So far as the student is concerned, the relationship should arise spontaneously, and he should not suspect that his companion is committed to teaching him anything. Their relationship should have the mutuality and openness normally associated with friendship. But a teacher also needs to be wise; he will need to use this wisdom in his teaching. It is here that Rousseau creates a dilemma for himself. How can his teacher be both innocent and wise, both responsive to his superior competencies and obedient to the moral principle of equality?

Rousseau resolves his dilemma by recommending that the principle of equality should only appear to hold in a student-teacher relationship. In reality a teacher should choose the goals of the relationship and set up situations within which his student will be guided toward them. All the while his student should be led to think that he and his companion are each making their own choices for themselves, that they are each free to act as they will. Rousseau's insight is that good teachers appear not to be teaching.

Occasionally Rousseau becomes so enthralled with this solution to the conflict between freedom and authority in teaching that he overstates his position; ". . . let him [the student] always think he is master while you [the teacher] are really master. There is no subjection so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom; it is thus that the will itself is taken captive."9 Against this sort of exaggeration Rousseau places its antithesis, which he also likes, but does not accept unconditionally: "Give him [the student] no orders at all, absolutely none. Do not even let him think that you claim any authority over him. Let him only know that he is weak and you are strong, that his condition and yours puts him at your mercy; let this be perceived, learned, and felt."10 Neither exaggeration is the complete truth; Rousseau's final position is that both should pertain. He wants the teacher to be very much in control, but this control should be concealed, with the student regarding himself as an entirely free person in his association with this adult whom he regards as his companion.


There is ample documentation of a crisis in contemporary education. For example, in his now famous Carnegie study, Charles Silberman relates incident after incident in which a student's sense of self-respect and capacity is mocked by thoughtless teachers; he describes the docile manner in which students customarily are expected to respond to what they see and hear, as well as the pallid lessons which are supposed to be the substance of their lives in school.11 Some schools have become so bland in substance and coercive in form that their students have felt compelled to cry out in anger and frustration. John Birmingham, a 1969 graduate of Hackensack High School, has edited a collection of articles taken from high school underground newspapers.12 Although they have various ways of putting it, the concern of many of the authors represented in Birmingham's collection is the disrespect for the personhood of students which they find expressed in violations of their freedom to say and write what they think. They speak of censorship of school newspapers and intimidation of the outspoken as common occurrences, and they express desperate frustration over their teachers' inability to help them become competent in ways relevant to the problems of their times. Silberman's investigations and the cries of Birmingham's authors persuasively indicate that a common cause of student frustration and anger is the sense of being constrained and brutalized by their experiences in school.

One way to approach the issue of school reform is from a consideration of the kind of relationships students should be having with their teachers. With such an approach, conclusions about changes to be made in school structures are derived from judgments of what must be done to improve the relationships between students and teachers. It is here, in a contemporary discussion of the relationships we should be seeking, that Rousseau can be particularly helpful. He maintains that good teaching must embody both the principle that teacher and student are equal morally and the principle that a teacher's superior competency gives him the authority to make basic choices with respect to the purposes of his relationship with his student. I quite agree that both of these principles need to be respected in teaching. As persons, student and teacher are equal. There is a sense in which individuals are persons unconditionally, however they may differ in such qualities as charm, intelligence, and fortitude. Moreover, a person does not abrogate his personhood when he becomes a student, for personhood is not a condition which people choose to accept or reject for themselves or others. All people are persons, and their relationships with one another should reflect this, even their relation ships as they teach and learn.

Rousseau sees something significant here. But it is also significant that he insists that teachers be more competent than their students, and that they display their competence in their judgments of their students' goals and the ways to attain them. I do not think it inappropriate to expect today that teachers be competent, that they know what they are teaching and whom they are teaching, that they wisely judge the purposes of teaching and its methods. No doubt many students are disturbed because their teachers have too little authority instead of too much. This is to say that their teachers, lacking competence and therefore unable to earn the respect of their students, are compelled to fall back upon the punitive measures available to them in their office as teachers. Their authority is all too often a result of their role, rather than something they have earned because of their competency, and it is for this reason that students feel constrained and brutalized.13

In discovering that teaching should respect two principles which are antithetical to one another, Rousseau provides us with a paradox. Because these two principles conflict, Rousseau's teacher can actually observe only one of them, and the other has to be relegated to the level of appearance only. Rousseau proposes that teachers be inauthentic, that they withhold their purposes from students and secretly control the students' environment, thereby eliciting the behavior which they want. All the while the students should regard themselves as freely acting persons. However, this recommendation that teachers be inauthentic is, to say the least, unsatisfactory because this inauthenticity provides for the systematic violation of the moral principle of equality. This principle prescribes that a person leave others free to act as they will; but by withholding his intentions an inauthentic teacher works to get his students to act according to his, the teacher's, will. Rousseau, it seems to me, fails to envision a way of genuinely embodying in teaching these two antithetical principles, each of which he deems worthy of respect.

A standard contemporary solution to Rousseau's paradox is that teachers should exercise their competence by making certain global choices which their students cannot repeal, and in doing so provide for the more limited choices that students will be permitted, or perhaps even required, to make. Thus an American history teacher might judge that his students need to study more intensively the colonial period but allow each student to decide for himself whether he will study colonial trade, ecclesiastical affairs, government, or education. The idea behind this formula is that students should learn how to choose, but that choices should be guided by knowledge; therefore, teachers should supervise the choices of students.

Those who follow this formula can avoid the inauthenticity of Rousseau's teacher, for they can be quite explicit with their students about the conditions under which they will be free to make choices of their own. In fact, this formula usually leads to disillusionment and frustration if the teachers who use it are not explicit: not knowing the matters upon which they can choose and the matters beyond the realm of their choices, students inevitably tread beyond the authority delegated to them. When their transgression is explained, they often begin to doubt whether they can make any choices of importance, and, sensing betrayal, they refrain from making further choices.

Understanding that students cannot be compelled to learn, most teachers who recognize that they have a responsibility to exercise their competency by making global choices with respect to the purposes of their teaching devote themselves to teaching in such a way that their students will come to want to do that which they are initially compelled to do. The intent is to extend and to modify the students' interests so that they become freely willing to work toward the goals which their teachers have chosen. Under this formula, the initial compulsion of a student is to be transformed into his freedom of action through his acquisition of new interests. However, the anger and cries of adolescents in our upper schools indicate that this formula is failing all too often, and that we have not yet found a suitable way of applying Rousseau's antithetical principles to the teaching of adolescents. Many are preoccupied with the compulsory nature of their lives in school, and they are unable to open themselves up to their teachers in the trust and hope that they will come to wish freely to do that which they are being compelled to do.

It is important to note that the modern resolution to Rousseau's dilemma never truly provides for an application of the moral principle of equality to the student-teacher relationship. Under this resolution, a student is, in fact, never free to repeal the global choices of his teacher. His own choices must comply with the global choices of his teacher; this is the condition required of him because of his teacher's superior competency.


In order for a student to meaningfully acknowledge that a teacher's competency is pertinent to his own development, this acknowledgement must be freely given. Freedom requires that a person be able to reject that which he is in fact accepting. Today, our upper schools give adolescents the freedom to reject the competencies of those who have taught them, after they have been taught. But is an adolescent truly free when he is free to reject as pertinent to him the competency of a teacher which in fact has been used to organize his life for a term or a year? A person actually is not free to reject what has happened to him in the past, but this is exactly the sort of freedom which the contemporary formula provides adolescents. Such is not a sufficient basis for the education of adolescents.

To make the moral principle of equality truly operable in our schools, I would suggest that teachers be asked to publicize the form and content of their courses, that they be asked to make as explicit as possible the global choices which they plan to make for their students, together with the more limited choices which their students will be expected to make for themselves. I suggest that we respect the principle of equality by recognizing the freedom of students to choose to place themselves under the authority of teachers who have so publicized their intentions. Initially, then, students and teachers would equal one another in their freedom to choose. Teachers would be free to choose the form and content of their courses; students would be free to choose whether they will enroll in a particular course and thereby place themselves under the publicized regimen of its teacher.

The freedom of an adolescent is unfairly compromised when he is only free to choose between teachers within a school which he must attend. So long as schooling remains compulsory for adolescents, there will always be teachers in the schools who will have to rely upon the compulsory nature of schooling to produce their students; their competencies alone will be insufficient to attract and hold students. Today artifices abound in the schools for compelling students to enroll in courses even though they are supposed to be free to choose what they are taking. Courses have limited sizes; the popular ones quickly fill up; and too many students for the few good courses efficiently propels those who have been unable to get what they wish into courses they would never freely choose.

If the principle of equality is going to apply to students and teachers, teachers must risk rejection by students. This means that adolescents must be free to choose not to go to school. I suggest that we make available to them alternatives to school. Journeymen, craftsmen, artists, and businessmen should be encouraged to teach their skills. Adolescents should be given the alternative of placing themselves under the supervision of such adults, who would be paid for their teaching out of funds allocated for schools. The apprenticeships which they conduct should be as exacting and lengthy as the development of excellence requires, and failures or changes of purposes should be expected and treated compassionately. Students should be free to choose another apprenticeship, or a different school. There would be waste under this arrangement, but it would in no way equal the waste in money, energy, and time which the compulsory schooling of adolescents is producing today. Counselors should be available to help the adolescents choose, but these counselors should not be dependent upon the schools for their livelihood. They must be detached enough from schooling to see what is gained and lost when a young person chooses to continue his development through school. Finally, I recommend that we acknowledge the freedom of adolescents to choose not to further their education in any way whatsoever. Some might try this alternative, but I suspect few would try it for long in the face of the variety of alternatives I am proposing.

I would justify the radicalism of these recommendations by the fact that many adolescents are now tormented over the most basic features of schooling. And I would justify the content of my recommendations by the fact that most adolescents have purposes which are conducive to their growth into competent, interesting adults. Most know enough about their purposes to make choices on the basis of them, yet most do not know how to achieve their fondest purposes without teaching by capable adults. The intent of my recommendations is to make their association with such adults possible.

1 Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract, trans. Charles Frankel. New York: Hafner Publishing, 1947, pp. 14-15.

2 Ibid., p. 15.

3 Ibid., p. 22.

4 Ibid., p. 15.

5 Jean Jacques Rousseau. Emile, trans. Barbara Foxley. London: Dent, 1911, p. 15.

6 Ibid., pp. 51-52.

7 Ibid., pp. 54-55.

8 Ibid., p. 19.

9 Ibid., p. 84.

10 10 Ibid., p. 55.

11 Charles E. Silberman. Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education. New York: Random House, 1970.

12 John Birmingham. Our Time is Now: Notes from the High School Underground. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.

13 A colleague, Professor Marc Briod, has pointed out to me that the division between teachers and other adults in our society has diminished the authority of teachers in the eyes of students. Students, particularly adolescents, often view their teachers as older people who have failed to be come full-fledged members of an adult world. Non-teaching adults ordinarily produce goods and services for the community, such as the repair of appliances or the sale of food and clothing. However, teachers have made a speciality of the young, and many of the young who are the recipients of their ministrations suspect that they would be unable to contribute to the community's welfare through the production of goods or services. A teacher's association with the young is regarded as indicative of his inability to be an adult. I believe that this is an important observation, and that we therefore need to consider the wisdom of regarding teaching as a profession primarily directed toward the growth of the young.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 74 Number 4, 1973, p. 537-546
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1531, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:14:33 AM

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  • David Bricker
    Oakland University

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