Freedom for the noble savage

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Why do we follow the ideas of a failed teacher who could not even help his partner to become literate? Victoria Neumark asks

On what grounds can 18th-century Jean-Jacques Rousseau be considered the most influential thinker on education after Plato? He was, after all, a solitary child, brought up by his widowed father and uncle who found solace in reading and wandering the Swiss countryside; he was an inadequate adult who could not sustain relationships with women and gave his children away to orphanages; and as a failed teacher he could not get his life partner to read and write.

Rousseau was not a successful citizen and could hardly bear others' company or his employers, and as a writer he fell out with his patrons. To be sure, he was not the man to lead an Ofsted team. But his reputation rests not on his personality but on his writings, which make him one of the two great geniuses of pre-Revolutionary France, the other being Voltaire.

Emile, which was burned by various religious authorities, explored Rousseau's belief that, since children were born good and society corrupted them, a good education would develop the child's nature. In light of the later work of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Piaget, this might seem a truism today, but it was earth-shaking in its reach. It challenged and well-nigh replaced a dominant European belief: that children were born out of sin, which had to be beaten, or at least trained. Take any primary school: every nature table, class trip, every appeal to a child's better nature is founded on Rousseau's conviction.

Emile is not a practical guide but a narrative exploration of ideas. The first four sections describe the ideal education of a fictional boy, the Emile of the title; the fifth section features girls, including Sophie, raised and educated to be his helpmate. Her education is fun, but far from equal.

Emile is raised in the country, rather than the corrupt city. A guardian - as tutor and example - is needed to teach him to live, preserve him from selfishness and foster individual development: "Every mind has its own form." Rousseau prescribes five stages for this male child.

Infancy: 0 to 2 Allow physical freedom, encourage the youngest child to do as much for himself as he can. "Give more real liberty and less power."

The age of nature: 2 to12 Since calculating and complex thinking is not possible, let boys live like animals, physically restless but secure. "Leave the mind undisturbed." He is to be kept from knowledge for which he is not ready. Teaching is done only through the senses - as modern educationists would say, experientially. Activity is child-centred, tasks problem-centred; morality is learnt by suffering consequences, with no punishment from the teacher.

There is an emphasis on physical education and simple, wholesome diet.

Pre-adolescence: 12 to15 Reason starts to develop, driven by curiosity. The young adolescent is like a "noble savage", who can grasp ideas quickly but only when he shows an interest. The only book allowed is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, to foster self-reliance.

Languages are learnt naturally through everyday conversations. Geography begins with the child's immediate surroundings, then extends outwards into the wider world. Observing the motion of the sun leads to knowledge of astronomy. Gardening teaches science. Motivation - Rousseau is adamant on this point -creates self-discipline. Finally, Emile is taught the trade of carpentry to prepare him to earn a living.

Puberty: 15 to 20 "We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being and born a man." As a result, there is a gradual, reluctant introduction into human society and moral problems. From 16, Emile can meet others. This section also contains the Profession of Faith, which urges natural (non-Christian) religion and caused Rousseau trouble with the religious authorities of his day.

Adulthood: 20 to 25 When the adult emerges, he learns to reason and to conclude from his own experiences, rather than from authority. Then along comes a young woman who complements him - sympathising, cooking, adoring (passive where he is active). For her, drawing, counting, reading and writing are learnt from the dressing of dolls, and lessons in personal grace and pleasing others follow by "following taste rather than thwarting it".

A section called The Profession of Faith discusses natural religion. A Savoyard vicar (based on a couple of free-thinking clergymen of Rousseau's acquaintance) claims that God can be known through observation of the natural order and one's place in it, rather than from divine revelation or the Christian scriptures. So, controversially, any organised religion which identifies God as creator and preaches morality is valid, and any citizen who practises his or her native religion, as long as it is in line with the religion and morality of nature, is virtuous.

In the restive atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, where church and monarchy propped each other up, this was dynamite, and the book was burnt in public.

Rousseau's philosophy of education is not a matter of techniques, though it is responsible for many: immersion in foreign languages, classroom experimental science, PE, local study in geography, to name but a few examples.

From Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) to Johann Froebel (1782-1852), Maria Montessori (1870-1952) to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Rousseau's underlying attitudes have borne fruit, and not only in the progressive schools, where education is at the will of the child - John Dewey (1859-1959) or Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). And beyond: the Indian educationist Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) stressed learning from nature, and the Cuban Jose Marti (1853-1895) urged the value of the "noble savage". Rousseau has also inspired his opponents: Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759-1797) Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is said to have been stimulated by dismay at Roussseau's programme for the soppy Sophie.

* http:www.iep.utm.edurrousseau.htm

* http:www.infed.orgthinkerset-rous.htm


The educational fruits of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau are enjoyed by all.

His most influential writings spanned approximately 15 years - from his fiery articles on social inequality, published in the Encyclopedie (the world's first encyclopaedia), to the publication in 1770 of Confessions, which re-invented the genre of autobiography.

In Confessions, Rousseau baredhis experiences, sexual and otherwise, to an extent that is shocking in its honesty even today.

The intervening years saw his ground-breaking novel The New Heloise (1761), which was probably the first novel to explore characters' inner lives and feelings.

The following year, The Social Contract concluded: "Man was born free and is everywhere in chains." It suggested reciprocity - emotional and economic - as the vital basis on which to create and renew social relations. In the same year, the acclaimed Emile, which describes the education of a young boy, offers the infamous line: "Children are born good and it is the company they keep that corrupts."

The influence that Rousseau has had is widespread: a brief checklist might include:

* Age-appropriate instruction (Piaget, Froebel, Montessori), * Teaching general principles by extension from concrete problems (Froebel, Pestalozzi) * Building self-esteem as a foundation for cognitive development and good conduct; learning right and wrong from classroom experiences(Pestalozzi) * Learning from experience; realising individual potential in curriculum choices (Dewey) * The importance of infancy and physical freedom (Montessori) * Respect for nature and things green (Steiner) * Moving from observation to action (Froebel) Next week: rudolf Steiner

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