Rousseau's Emile and Its Contribution to the Development of Educational Theory


by R. Graham Oliver - 1982

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's educational and political thought is compared to that of John Locke. Rousseau's theories, as expressed in "Emile," are placed in the context of some of that author's other works to show how his educational theories can seem practical in terms of his views on social and political inequality. (Source: ERIC)

I wish to express my appreciation for the support and criticism provided by Barbara Flavell, Philip Gawne, and Ralph Page. I am also grateful to Audrey Thompson for the translation of the opening quotation. All errors and misunderstandings are my own.


I know that your advisor affirmed in his response that, according to the author’s intention, the Emile is intended to serve as a guide for fathers and mothers: but that assertion is inexcusable, as I made clear in the Preface and several times in the book an entirely different intention. I am concerned with a new system of education whose plan I submit for the examination of the wise, and not with a method for fathers and mothers, a concern for which never occurred to me. If occasionally, through some fairly common figure of speech, I seemed to be addressing them, it is either to make myself better understood, or to express myself in fewer words. It is true that I embarked upon my book at the request of a mother; but this mother, while so young and agreeable, has had some philosophy and knows the human heart; in her figure, she is an ornament to her sex, and in her brilliance an exception. It is for minds of that quality that I took up my pen, not for any mister this or that, nor for other men of similar quality, who read me without understanding me, and who insult me without offending me.1


There are at least two different ways of reading Rousseau’s Emile that differ in terms of the extent to which we understand the work as being organically bound within the context of his other writings. It is possible to view the Emile as a part of one large and coherent theoretical project on which Rousseau was embarked, but it is also possible to approach it as lying loosely within a matrix of other writings that may be no more than roughly “instructive” with respect to the form and purpose of the work.


Our assessment of the nature and value of the contribution of the Emile to the development of educational thought will inevitably be shaped by the decision we make as to the proper relationship that must hold among these writings. It is the purpose of this article to suggest that the Emile forms a part of a general theoretical quest on which Rousseau was embarked, and that if we are to understand the compass of educational theory as Rousseau developed it, then we will need to proceed beyond those writings of Rousseau that are usually considered his “educational” ones.


If the character of the Emile itself sufficiently captures our attention to the point where we are only occasionally reminded of the backdrop of work that he undertook, we can be led to view this particular piece as presenting an educational program flawed by individualism and ultimately impractical in significance, however intriguing and challenging we may find the presentation of Rousseau’s subject matter. Such perceptions may well lead us to consider that the significance of the Emile lies in the influence it has had on the growth of the field of child development, and on the part it has played in the history of techniques such as “discovery method.” But this would be to underestimate the significance of the work as a milestone in the history of the development of sophisticated conceptions of educational theory. Taken together with the other writings, the Emile shows us a good deal about what an educational theory should be like, and what it should be capable of doing. Placed firmly in its theoretical context, the Emile does more than contribute to the general study of human development. It sketches an approach to human development in which empirical analysis is guided by norms having a uniquely educational justification. The sophistication of the theory involved is one that is rarely achieved today.


On its own, the Emile can seem to present a particularly individualistic picture. Primarily, what we seem to have is a picture of what is involved in bringing a single male child toward maturity. And this “bringing to maturity” involves both an undivided attention to this one individual and a holding at bay of as much of the general social world as possible. If we crudely generalize this picture, we gain an image of all children being treated as separate social atoms—each receiving individual attention and being brought up apart from each other and from the rest of the social whole. Somehow these social atoms must come to relate to each other and collect together into an organized society. And yet such an atomistic and additive view of the social order is quite at odds with the organic conception of society as that presented in the Social Contract. It seems to violate the organic character of the most fundamental principle in this latter work—that of the General Will.


The problem lies in the form and purpose of the Emile, and the gulf that exists, both in form and in apparent level of generality, between it and the Social Contract. The Emile appears to have been designed to exemplify certain general theoretical principles and certain general concerns about the nature of human development in quite specific terms—specific enough for Rousseau to speak of it as a “system of education.” But it seems possible to interpret the specific detail and the examples as illustrating and clarifying principles of lesser generality and significance than those with which Rousseau was ultimately concerned. It is easy to lose sight of the general thrust of the work as a whole.


In this connection, it is interesting to consider the book that Rousseau did not produce, but that was very much on his mind while he was working on the Emile. It is interesting because our perception of the relationship between the specificity of the Emile and the generality of the Social Contract might well have been different if such a work had come down to us in their company.


The observation has been made, that most men, in the course of their lives, are frequently unlike themselves, and seem transformed into quite different men. It was not to establish a truth so well known that I desired to write a book; I had a newer and even more important object. This was to investigate the causes of these changes, confining myself to those which depended on ourselves, in order to show how we might ourselves control them, in order to make ourselves better and more certain of ourselves. For it is unquestionably more difficult for an honourable man to resist desires, already fully formed, which he ought to overcome, than it is to prevent, change or modify these same desires at the fountain-head, supposing him to be in a position to trace them back to it. A man resists temptation at one time because he is strong; another time, he yields to it because he is weak; if he had been the same as before, he would not have yielded.


While examining myself, and endeavouring to find, in the case of others, upon what these different conditions of being depended, I discovered that they depended in great part upon the impression which external objects had previously made upon us, and that we, being continually modified by our senses and our bodily organs, exhibited, without perceiving it, the effects of these modifications of ourselves, in our ideas, our feelings, and even in our actions. The numerous and striking observations which I had collected were unassailable, and from their physical principles, seemed to me well adapted to furnish an external rule of conduct, which, being altered according to circumstances, might place or keep the mind in the condition most favourable to virtue. From how many errors would the reason be preserved, how many vices would be strangled at their birth, if mankind knew how to compel the animal economy to support the moral order, which it so frequently disturbs! Different climates, seasons, sounds, colours, darkness, light, the elements, food, noise, silence, movements, repose—all affect the bodily machine, and consequently the mind; all afford us a thousand opportunities, which will almost infallibly enable us to govern those feelings in their first beginnings, by which we allow ourselves to be determined.2


If the Social Contract had as its primary object the establishment of the principles of reason proper to the moral order (and that should guide the social order, if it is to be moral), then two related and fundamentally difficult educational questions can be seen to have emerged in Rousseau’s thought. First, for the unwritten La Morale sensitive, or Le Materialisme du sage, we have the question, What course of developmental experience would support the moral order? And the second question, generated in the Discourses and fueling the Emile: “What is there that can be said regarding the proper course of developmental experience where virtue is our concern, but where one is confronted with a social order that is not moral?”


In part, the form the Emile was to take tended to generate the impression of atomic individualism, which is at odds with the Social Contract. The impression is almost inevitable when the discussion of human developmental experience is sheeted home to the specifics of an individual case. This tendency to lose sight of the organic social whole can arise in a reader even when both aspects have been clearly elucidated and related in one work—such as in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.3 It is possible, in the case of this recent heir to Rousseau’s work, to perceive an individualism in the discussion of the development of a child growing up in a family that exists under conditions of justice. But to do so one must fail to carry through into the later educational discussion the texture of Rawls’s discussion of the principles ordering the Original Position (a metaphor that, as a theoretical device, parallels Rousseau’s “state of nature”). Even so, Rawls did not address himself to the practical paradox that must be faced when we consider fostering virtue in educational development under conditions where virtue has been debased. Rousseau did, and hence the prospect of producing individuals who will be moral islands in an immoral social fabric heightens the sense of alienated individualism that we inevitably gain, and sharpens the practical paradox with which the theoretician must contend.


Paradox was Rousseau’s trade. Both in form and content, his work seems constantly to whirl around it. Yet he did not “create” paradox in the sense of inventing artificial puzzles to distract us from real issues.44 He explicated contradictions and tensions in thought and in the fabric of social life so that they might be seen to be the contradictions that they are. Life and thought were and are paradoxical. Rousseau often used artifice to portray paradox, but he was not merely representing features of his own inner confusion. Paradoxes in social life and in social thought often represent the cutting edges of our social and intellectual development. How they are resolved often decides our fate.


In order to gain some sense of the scale of Rousseau’s social (and hence educational) vision, it is salutory to compare his work with that of Locke, to whom he was, in certain respects, an heir. In the arena of educational thought Locke is a minor figure in comparison to Rousseau. Locke advanced traditions of thought concerning knowledge and political society that have influenced the development of particular styles of educational theorizing, but his impact in these respects has come about independently of his views on education itself. His educational ideas assumed great prominence among his peers and successors, but the nature of this prominence is better understood in terms of his stature as a philosopher than in terms of the profundity of his educational views. In no way could it be said that he penetrated into the heart of the educational enterprise and its paradoxes as did Rousseau. In many respects, he assembled and reiterated the better educational wisdom of his age.


Locke and Rousseau both saw the social world in which they lived as being unjust and full of artifice and stupidity, and they both recognized that a key to the development of virtuous and intelligent human beings in such a world lay in careful educational thought and practice. Both were sufficiently skeptical about the institutions that surrounded them to feel that individual tutoring was preferable to schooling. Locke was skeptical of schools as a consequence of the practices he had seen in them, but Rousseau’s disquiet was much deeper—a mistrust born of principle.


From the standpoint of the history of educational thought, this is a fundamental difference between them. Locke, following Hobbes, went some way toward constructing a new view of the political world, and the significance of that constructive task is to be perceived in the ways in which elements of his thought can be found written into many contemporary institutions and ideologies. His task was one that had to be carried through in the Western world once the legitimacy of the medieval and feudal political world was seen to be decaying into the past. Yet the new view was nevertheless too new and undeveloped to serve Locke as a wide-ranging and penetrating tool of social criticism. Rousseau, the third of the great social-contract theorists, gave the notion of the “social contract” some of the additional power it needed. It is as if Locke had polished the lens of the social-contract theory that Hobbes had made explicit in rough form, and through it he could see new things, though it still had some blemishes and distortions that made other things obscure. Through this lens, Locke could see things that needed improvement, and some practical steps that might be taken. But Rousseau, working in a later time when it was perhaps possible to examine the tool beyond the most superficial aspects of the power and novelty it may have possessed at its first introduction, was able to refine the lens very much further, and through it he could see just how complex social and educational phenomena were. He could also see what Locke could not have seen, namely, that many of the things that seem most practical in Locke are in fact only marginally practical, if practical at all. Locke saw only a part of the picture. He saw the social world as being hard, unjust, and full of traps and temptations for those who would be virtuous and wise. He thought that, with careful rearing, a gentleman could be stiffened against temptations and viciousness, and equipped to be a rational and self-determining individual.


But Rousseau’s insight gained via the social-contract model was more penetrating, and disturbing. He saw artifice, degradation, and injustice woven deeply into the social fabric. And the social fabric was not something divorced from the individuals who participated in it. “Civilization” was constantly woven anew out of active encounters among individuals who were, on the one hand, motivated by forces and dispositions with which they were born, and who were confronted, on the other hand, by the character of social institutions, social products, and already socialized human beings. Whether such encounters and participations would produce persons who would then possess the expanded freedom and advantages civilization had the potential to offer would depend on how properly civilized the civilization was. Since the individual would encounter and participate in the civilization as it was, the nature of civilized character that emerged in the individual would be dependent on the cast and shape of the civilization encountered.


Thus, a civilization poorly ordered could mold disposition, attitude, belief, feeling, and desire so that its participants were less free as a consequence of their relations to each other than if they had remained apart like unsocial animals. Social relationships necessitate social bonds, yet the ways in which the bonds are formed and maintained can permit them to function as a fulcrum enabling greater personal freedom and opportunity. Or social bonds can function to enslave and entrap human beings to such a point that they are so bound by unwise convention and rule as to be more dependent and subject to necessity than they would be as isolated, unsocial individuals with their aptitudes and desires shaped only out of their animal interaction with the physical world. It is highly unlikely that Rousseau thought that an educational program in the ordinary sense (such as had been offered by Locke) could be devised to produce a fully independent and free person in the kind of systematically and unsystematically unjust and debasing society that the lens of the social contract revealed to him. An educational program designed to produce an independent person in a society where independence (properly understood) was virtually unknown would fail because the unhealthy dependence of others would corrode independence in much the same way that the freedom of a master in a master/slave relationship is perverted by all of the consequences of having to maintain subservience. The independent person would hardly try to maintain the dependence of others, but if he or she were to participate in that social world rather than remain aloof, the dependency of others would be a constant feature of social interaction. Not only would the independent one be robbed of social peers who could contract as equals, in contrast to people seeking emotional and intellectual patronage, but he would also have to contend with the continual suspicions and fears of those who lean on illegitimate authority without questioning. To such people, the independent one would be untrustworthy, unreliable, and dangerous insofar as foolish, established convention was critized, ignored, or defied. The impossibility of producing an educational program in the ordinary sense, which would result in adults who were good and wise and could survive untarnished in the world of injustice and degradation, helps to explain why Rousseau’s program in the Emile seems impractical, whereas Locke’s proposals seem practical.


Rousseau knew that the only practical answer to the problem of producing people who would be virtuous and wise would be to do so in a society that was just and free. The practical answer in the society that he viewed through his lens was, as a consequence, the answer we popularly take to be the most impractical, namely to bring about large-scale and fundamental social change toward that end. The person who wants to know how a child should be reared so as to be virtuous and wise rarely sees the extent to which an attempt to answer the question must be a fatal compromise, or the extent to which any attempt to answer it in our practice will be inconclusive, since we are being asked to propose an educational sequence for a predominantly indoctrinational environment. The apparent practicality of Locke’s proposals is a partial consequence of a simplistic political theory, and a socially simplistic theory of knowledge.


The paradox or tension Rousseau faced is one that is intrinsic to educational theorizing. One may work at the articulation of theoretical principles and produce a refined and sophisticated core theory—as he did in the Social Contract. But the value of the theory will remain limited to the extent that we are not provided with some guidance as to the more specific application of the principles. The principles need to be given some content consisting of examples and situations that approach the conditions of everyday life. And here we meet two problems. First, to the extent that the guidance is provided in terms that are somewhat specific to a particular historical set of social conditions, the guidance may become more ambiguous as history moves and social conditions change. More profoundly, if the general, abstract theory is concerned with what ought to be the case, and if, in the particular historical circumstances, there is a gulf between what ought to be the case and what is the case at the moment, then there is a good chance that almost any detailed exemplifications will give both guidance and misguidance. The examples will give guidance as to what should be done, but to the extent that they are drawn from a world that is not as it should be they will contain perceptions, modes of description, the content of all kinds of institutions, social products, and values, that will not only fail to be a part of what is being illustrated (which is normal enough in the case of illustration), but will also contain elements antithetical to the principle being illustrated—although they may not appear to be. There is no easy escape from this dilemma, since in describing cases that will illustrate what ought to be we must cleave very close to a language roughly tuned to a social world that currently is the case—if we are to be understood. The best that can be done is to test and retest one’s understanding back and forth constantly between one’s understanding of the theory and numerous plausible applications of it.


The fact that a theorist is confronted with such a dilemma may seem to damn theorizing as a futile and practically irrelevant activity. And this inclination to spurn theory can be heightened to the extent that we are impatient with the lengthy process of theory building and application. It is so easy for the pressure to provide a “practical solution” to lead us to jump the process of careful thought about the development of practical points of view. It is easy to be seduced into a sense of being practical if one is active—even though the rationale for the activity may be quite poorly conceived. Many so-called practical people earn that description on grounds of little more substance than that they are doing something—even though their accomplishment, over the long term, may be quite empty. Locke’s program seems more actionable than Rousseau’s description in the Emile, and hence it can appeal to a sense of the practical in a way that the Emile cannot. But Rousseau was quite explicit that the Emile is utterly misconceived if it is viewed as a piece of curriculum design or a handbook on teaching method. 5 It is important to notice the novelistic form of the Emile, and to remember that Rousseau claimed that he would not mind it’s being read as a novel.6 The work is a “pointing” —a way of drawing attention to fundamental educational considerations that should be entertained by those who wrestle with this area of practicality. Insofar as Rousseau offered the work as a system of education, we must have a care as to the sort of system we are to find there. We will make little progress toward understanding him if we limit our interest in the Emile to a consideration of the specific proposals he made. It is far more fundamental that we try to consider why it was that he made this or that proposal rather than some other.


What was it that Rousseau could see and that Locke could not? There were two basic things, one of which is primarily educational, the other more generally ethical and political.


In drawing attention to the concept of experience and its educational importance, Locke made an important contribution to educational thought. But in Locke the range of the concept of educational experience is little more extensive than it is for most of our contemporary lay and professional educational thinkers. That is, the concept of educational experience never does extend very far beyond experiences of teaching. Experiences of things other than teaching or deliberately controlled habit formation are of educational significance to Locke, but as one moves away from these kinds of experiences the relative importance of penetrating into their educational character falls off sharply. Rousseau was rather more acutely aware of the ways in which the basic structure of the society enters into thought, language, and convention as a whispering but effective voice. Injustice in that structure may enter educational situations at various points.


While government and laws provide for the safety and well-being of assembled men, the sciences, letters, and arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that liberty for which they seem to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into civilized peoples. Need raised up thrones; the sciences and arts have strengthened them.7


He was suspicious of our power as individuals to eliminate the warp that social history may have built into our thinking and feeling—and I think that anyone who has made serious attempts to eliminate such obvious features as sexism from his feeling and conduct will agree that Rousseau was rightly suspicious. Hence he had no particular reason to suppose that a tutor, no matter how wise or well-intentioned, would be able to eliminate all of the socially inherited distortion from his educational practice. But in addition to this, his conception of educational experience encompassed the full range of the natural and social world with which a child may come in contact, and encompassed this full range much more seriously than did Locke’s concept. Rousseau was therefore conscious that each social contact the child made would very likely involve a touch with a social convention structured with artifice, vanity, greed, envy, or some other symptom of an unjust system. Where Locke saw only the gross distortions of social convention, which could therefore be evaded, Rousseau saw the subtlety and pervasiveness. Where Locke could not have examined the educational or indoctrinational character of a social system as a whole, Rousseau could.


The second difference between Locke and Rousseau that enabled Rousseau to see what Locke could not has to do with the equality of persons. The kind of equality illustrated here must not be confused with similarity. It is not a concern with any claim to the effect that the mental and physical abilities of people are similar, or that their wants and desires are similar. Rather, it is the claim that all people are equal before moral law. Rousseau’s idea of a political social contract reflected this notion of moral equality better than did Locke’s. To begin with, Locke’s contract was to be a majority agreement among the people to form political society, and then to form a government and administration. The government was to have a legislative power. Now, first, Locke took no account of the fact that a majority can tyrannize a minority. Second, the legislative power was entrusted to the government and the sovereign by the people. Though Locke thought that it would be a breach of contract and trust and reason for revolt if the government did not make law and administer for the common good, the power and authority of law making was separate from the people, and at least suggested the possibility of a ruling class. In addition, he saw no incompatibility between the idea that the government had a duty to work for the common good and the idea that the government had a duty to protect established property and estates. In his time there were gross inequalities in the possession of property, and these inequalities went with gross inequalities in economic and political power. Without some other check, the governmental duty to preserve private property would mean that the government and the legislature would represent a dominating class of property owners at the expense of the remainder of the people. That the fundamental injustice of this did not strike Locke is evidenced in his attitude toward the poor. While his major educational work was concerned with the tutelage of the rich, his proposals for the poor went no further than the Dickensian workhouse.


Both Hobbes and Locke were concerned to pick up the pieces after the fall of the medieval constitutional world. The chaotic remnants that confronted them in their own lives were the English Civil War and its aftermath. This was a war of religion and of class. In its class aspect, it was a conflict over the powers of monarchy relative to the powers of the merchants and Commons. And since there was religious conflict also, the traditional justifications of political authority in terms of religion were no longer available. Hence the concerns of the social-contract theorizing of Hobbes and Locke were not centered on the moral and sovereign rights of the populace as a whole. In this respect Hobbes and Locke were looking backward, whereas Rousseau, a lifetime later, was looking forward—a long way forward. Our modern political systems still tend to be Lockean in basic structure, and our popular sensibilities are partly a mixture of both Locke and Rousseau. We often feel, I think, that the authority for law making is finally vested, or should be vested, in the people itself, and not in a separate body; that our political rights should be equal; that our elected representatives should be our representatives and deputies; and that our government and its bureaucracy should be responsible to us, rather than rule over us. These Rousseauian ideals that sometimes emerge are frequently belied by the Lockean fact of our actual systems, in which the government hands out the social welfare payments that we hand in as if it is granting charity; in which government ministers act like corporate executives and patronize us as if the business of government is their business and not ours; in which government departments act as if they have a vested interest to protect that is independent of the public interest. And often we accept these things, too, as if they were legitimate political postures.


Just as these problems were connected with an unequal distribution of political power in Locke’s system, so they are in ours. If the political power of many is relatively insignificant as compared to the political power of smaller interest groups, then the rights of many as political equals can be treated with relative disregard. In Rousseau’s world this distribution of power was often enough related to landed property, and early in his writings he bitterly remarked that “the first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,“8 and he meant “civil society” as it is, in which “slavery and misery were soon to germinate and grow with the crops. "9 In his analysis of slavery, which was referred to earlier, he argued that the master/slave relationship does not only damage the slave; it also damages the master and reduces his freedom in all kinds of ways—cognitive and emotional as well as material—and he saw that a political system of rank and subordination involves the development of certain undesirable kinds of dispositions that are structured out of such prevailing conditions.


These social perceptions make it inevitable that the Emile must be a compromise of a sort. But it is not a compromise in which what is good is traded for immediate and obvious performance. It is not, in other words, compromise as we are usually accustomed to it, where expediency is cloaked in the guise of practicality. The compromise is wrought out of the difficulties involved in making Rousseau’s domain of problems intelligible to us at all. The Emile is an attempt to remain true to the profound normative insights expressed in Rousseau’s Social Contract, while coming to terms with the nature of existing social conditions as these had been submitted to critique in his Discourses. In the absence of mechanisms that might overhaul these latter conditions the strain is, inevitably, too great—but the effort nevertheless deserves far more attention than pious programs that purport to foster wisdom and virtue while effectively fostering dispositions supportive of a morally bankrupt status quo.


Rousseau proposed that the child should be educated in the country—reasonable enough, since the pervasive distortion of social arrangements will be condensed in cities where the environment will press the prevailing social world more continuously and immediately on the impressionable. This much can be admitted without having to deny that the countryside has been shaped by social forces.


The child’s education should, moreover, be in the hands of a tutor, rather than a school. Again this is reasonable enough, since in a school, the child’s experience will be partly structured by fellow pupils who will tend to mediate the wider social structure. Rousseau’s purpose was to ensure that the child was subject to negative education only, until adolescence. “Negative education” does not, of course, mean “no education.” Negative education is socially negative. It involves the reduction of pedagogy and its authority as far as possible, the reduction of the number and power of social relationships involving dependency and, as a corollary, the retardation of the development of a social will so that its development can be in progressive harmony with the acquisition of other essential intellectual and affective powers and dispositions. The general point is to avoid committing the child to an entry of involvement in any more social arrangements than are absolutely necessary prior to the emergence of capacities essential for a person to be able to do so freely. Certain kinds of dependencies, for example, will abridge the possibility of free entries.


Rousseau claims that reason does not emerge until some time after age twelve, and that positive education should not be undertaken until it does, but care must be exercised to avoid interpreting this in a simple-minded fashion. First, in a sense, Rousseau’s claim can be given some kind of support from contemporary developmental psychology. Technical debates aside, most will concede that significant qualitative changes in cognition characterize development through early adolescence. It is not that Rousseau wishes to deny that much younger people can reason in certain respects. The tutor is concerned to foster reason in the earlier periods of negative education. But Rousseau is concerned that certain crucial kinds of reason must wait on development, and that positive education should not be embarked upon until “reason proper” can be engaged.


Rousseau was concerned with the social, and this whole question of reason in education has to be understood in terms of the requirements for making moral social contracts. In order to gain the benefits of participating in social arrangements, one must “contract” into them. From the moral point of view this entry into arrangements must be fully as witting and uncoercive as possible. The parties to the contract must be able to ensure that the terms of contract are just from all of the various points of view involved, and that something is not being put over in the “fine print.” Conceptual immaturity may (for example) mean that, although the young may be able to recognize injustice or arbitrariness in immediate concrete instances, they may nevertheless be unable to decenter sufficiently to be able to apply their practical concepts and principles to their participation in larger communities—a task that may demand reflection at a level of abstraction not yet available.


And there are certain kinds of “fine print” that prepubescent children could not possibly see. The limitations of psychosexual maturity prior to puberty, together with limitations in conceptual development, suggest “childish” limitations that will be present in reasoning about the self and others. It may be that the transformation of desires and impulses through puberty must be felt before the extension of self-love into sympathy can result in an adult sympathy. An understanding of the varieties of human motivation, their intricacies and distortions, will be available only in a humanly incomplete way prior to the pubescent development, and hence the varieties of human realms of reason and irrationality displayed in history, philosophy, sociology, politics, and interpersonal affairs will not be properly open in the earlier years. This “new beginning,” which is the ushering in of the biological bases of adult sexuality, provides a personal experiential introduction to elements of adult motivation that were formerly inaccessible.


Without this added rational maturity in social understanding, Emile will be forced to enter as a party to social arrangements partially blinded to his own interests and to the concerns and motives of others. The importance of delay in this respect can be well illustrated by the reluctance of Rousseau to have a special kind of promise extracted from Emile—a kind of promise we take for granted in most of our educational transactions.10 It is not the kind of contractual promise wherein the parties are in a position continually to monitor whether the terms are being kept. It is a promise exacted against future performance—a promise that depends on an act of faith toward the person to whom the promise is given: faith that this person will ultimately perform his or her part in return for compliance in the interim. In Emile’s case, he is asked to promise to set aside his concerns about marriage, and it is the only occasion in which such a promise is solicited. The tutor will, in his turn, address these concerns in the final phase of Emile’s education. Emile is to have faith that the tutor will properly address these concerns when the latter judges that the time is right. And he is to have faith in the tutor’s ability to be the better judge of such a matter. It is the kind of promise that teachers tacitly attempt to elicit at the beginning of each school year, or in every course. And the observer of adult-child interaction should not take long to conclude that the faith demanded of children is frequently misplaced. The mature learn to make such promises with caution, and to allow for renegotiation. The immature frequently make them thoughtlessly. And, unfortunately, they are sometimes sanctioned quite severely when thought does lead them to hesitate to offer the trust that is sought.


In considering the point at which negative education is replaced by positive education we may wish to consider the possibility that with certain societal changes the nature of human development itself might change. Under certain conditions it might prove that the required conceptual development would be more rapid, and the problems attendant on the development of the will (which will be discussed shortly) would be ameliorated. A hastening of psychosexual development in an altered environment is similarly conceivable. But Rousseau was considering the problem of devising education for an existing (and still existent) unfavorable environment, and a developmental psychology in which all three elements progressed more rapidly and together would be no more than speculative within the terms of reference he had set for himself.


In the Social Contract, the welding together of free individuals in organic communion so that moral autonomy displaces individualistic self-interest resolves itself into the problem of the reconciliation of the individual will and the General Will. This reconciliation is one that must, in part, occur in the development of the will of each individual—the General Will is neither wholly psychological nor wholly sociological. Hence the problems attendant on the development of will provide a major thread in the Emile and suggest a complex underpinning to the idea of negative education.


Any adequate analysis of freedom involves an analysis of boundaries. The nature and extent of freedom depend on the nature and extent of its bounds. In social contexts, some of the barriers that constitute the terrain of our free action are supplied by the wills of those with whom we act and interact. Others (which Rousseau collected under the category of “necessity”) are provided by wills that are inaccessible to us, and by environmental features beyond our power to modify. The clarity with which we perceive and understand these latter barriers provides one fundamental measure of our capacity to appreciate the realistic possibilities of free action that are open to us, and it is a limiting factor on the free action we can undertake., If the developing child is to become free, he must learn how to classify barriers accurately between those set up by the wills of others, and barriers of necessity. Failing this, the domain of contract and cooperation will be obscure. Given the psychological prominence of other people in the ordinary course of early development, Rousseau seems to have felt that, concomitant with the development of the concept of “intention,” there would be an almost inevitable tendency for the child to err dangerously toward the attribution of impositions of human will to all kinds of barriers that were, in fact, barriers of necessity. For this reason he favored an environment in which the demarcation between barriers of necessity and barriers of will was clearly marked, and in which barriers of will were kept to a minimum.11


And barriers of will should be minimized for another reason. Consider the young child, living under conditions of dependency on large and powerful folk in a world perceived as structured by their wills, and yet lacking the intellectual equipment to discriminate between cases where these people were legitimately exercising authority in contrast to exercising power illegitimately. Is it not likely that, in the first place, the child will grow with a conception of wills as “willful”? Is it not likely that any adequate conception of legitimate authority that is acquired later will be superficially tacked on to a bedrock of will that has willfulness and manipulation as its core structure? It seems unnecessary to elaborate on the manipulative character of infant strategies for coping with their social world, or to expand on the range and subtlety of these manipulative powers relative to the sophistication of infant understanding of human motivation and interest, or the delicacy of infant cooperative ability under principles of mutual respect. These problems are sufficiently serious to warrant a deep commitment to a search for substantial solutions. In such a context the notion of negative education may be inadequate, but the inadequacy of this solution remains our practical inadequacy unless it can be shown that the problems are misconceived, or that we can offer better solutions. Failing this, the proposal of negative education is not a silly proposal in terms of the problems of developing independent human beings in just communities. But how will the solution appear if we are confronted with unjust societies and are animated by concern for the kinds of passions, interests, and will that may emerge in the course of development in such environments?


When it is only a question of going against the wind, one tacks. But if the sea is heavy and one wants to stand still, one must cast anchor. Take care young pilot, for fear that your cable run or your anchor drag and that the vessel drift without your noticing.12


The state of nature was, for Rousseau, merely an imaginative and hypothetical device. With a similar effort of the imagination on our part, we can apply the notion of the state of nature, as well as the social contract, to individual development instead of to the development of a people as a whole. Rousseau described man in the state of nature as “satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal; and therewith his needs are satisfied.“13 The newborn infant is in just such a state. It is dependent on others to supply the wants—to maintain warmth and nourishment, and to eliminate discomfort. It is, however, unaware of any dependence since it cannot even distinguish between self and other, let alone human organism and inanimate object. It is in a pure, unsocial state. Yet with frightening rapidity the infant leaves the state of nature and begins contracting into social arrangements. Within days the sucking reflex becomes a conditional reflex and a tool of exploration. And as exploration expands, socialized judgment arises out of the social control of exploration and experiment. The child is tumbling forward into a greater and greater complexity of social arrangements and conventions, but it is not entering into them wittingly or from choice. It is not yet intellectually equipped even to perceive what the arrangements are. It does not, for example, “choose” to learn a language. The child is signing blank contract forms, while the culture is filling in all the terms and conditions. Slowly the freedom of the newborn to become any of a vast variety of different kinds of human beings with different kinds of freedoms and powers is inexorably signed away. Speaking of the way in which social contracts were made unwisely and without due consideration of the moral consequences, Rousseau said that “all ran to meet their chains thinking they secured their freedom, for although they had enough reason to feel the advantages of a political establishment, they did not have enough experience to foresee its dangers.“14 Infants do not “perceive the advantages” or “hope to secure their liberty,” because they are too undeveloped to conceive of the “advantage” or the “liberty.” They are not choosing, but are impelled by biology and adaptive demands. Rousseau’s description, however, is not inapt as children advance in childhood. They make bargains with social life when they are yet too immature to understand the terms.


But suppose that an infant could see the implications-suppose that an infant had our knowledge of the ways in which social arrangements influence the development of thought and emotion, attitude and inclination. Suppose that the infant knew that it was utterly dependent, but knew also the power of parents to choose the infant’s religion, establish its sex role, influence its career aspiration, the nature of its marriage, or singlehood, its materialism, competitiveness, conception of success and failure, and its real guilts, fears and shames. Suppose that it knew how the society would enter into its mind through its stories and books, its television, through the relationship between its parents, through the relationships among families, and through the schools. Suppose that an infant could see all these things—see how the society would commit it to its institutions, and how powerless the infant would be to control it—is it not easy enough to imagine that infant standing in its crib, lip trembling, and shouting “Keep your institutions and conventions to yourself! I want to make up my own mind about these things. I want to protect myself with conditions I can understand and accept when I enter these arrangements!” Rousseau was not concerned to slow down development in general. He was concerned to even it up. If the demands for sound social judgment come too soon and if the social will takes its shape against barriers that cannot be properly interpreted, then the possibilities of personal freedom may not be realized. Deep habits of thought, feeling, and action may come to be built on adaptive strategies that may have had short-term adaptive success, but that militate against social and personal maturity over the long run.


It may be possible to appreciate Rousseau’s educational insight and yet still smile somewhat complacently at the naivete of the practical world of the Emile. Yet he can easily turn a shoulder to us and ask us to look at our primary or elementary schools—noting for our sake the absence of serious consideration of politics, history, philosophy, morals, or religion. Is this a partial acknowledgement that he may have been right, or is it a sign of some greater wisdom we have come to possess? And how practical would we appear if he were to advance an argument to the effect that we do not offer much in the way of positive education in our secondary schools? Do our high school students graduate with a political, historical, philosophical, moral, or social understanding that is a match for their accomplishments in mathematics or science? And are we so practical that he cannot take us by the arm and renew his two hundred-year-old criticism by suggesting that our schools, through peer structure, the teacher, the organization, and the content, mediate pernicious ideologies and ideological practices from a social system torn with double standards, competitive contradictions and sources of envy?


“Propose what can be done,” they never stop repeating to me. It is as if I were told, “Propose doing what is done,” or at least, “Propose some good which can be allied with the existing evil.” Such a project, in certain matters, is much more chimerical than mine. For in this alliance the good is spoiled, and the evil is not cured. I would prefer to follow the established practice in everything than to follow a good one halfway. There would be less contradiction in man. He cannot pursue two opposite ends at the same time.15



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 2, 1982, p. 493-508
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 816, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 9:11:42 PM

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