Emile: On Education Summary

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Emile: On Education

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Emile: On Education Summary

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Emile, or On Education, or Treatise on Education, is a treatise on the nature of education as well as the nature of man. It was written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, first published in the year of 1762. Rousseau considered this book to be the best and most important of anything he had written. The book was banned in Paris and Geneva, and publicly burned in the year of its release. This was due to a particular section of the book called, “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar.” During this rather well-received chapter, Rousseau insists that God and religion should be discovered freely, and should not be preached to small children. This infuriated the eighteenth-century church and clergymen, who considered and questioning or critique of their religion as a direct threat. The irony of this is that Rousseau famously considered himself a devout Christian for his entire life, unlike so many of his fellow contemporary philosophers, many of whom were secular or even atheists. The book, however, became the inspiration for what eventually became a new national education system during the French Revolution.

The novel discusses fundamental political and philosophical questions regarding the individual and society. Specifically how the individual might hope to retain what Rousseau considered innate human goodness while remaining a part of a corrupting collectivity. Rousseau tries to describe a way to organize the education system that would allow the natural man to survive in a corrupt society, which he defines in The Social Contract, written in 1762. He employs Emile and his tutor, telling the life story of this fictional man and his journey through education, to illustrate his ideas, such as how an ideal citizen might be educated. It isn’t a parenting guide by any means, but it does give some advice on child rearing. It is considered one of the first bildungsroman novels, as well as being one of the first philosophy of education pieces in Western culture.

Rousseau traces the course of Emile’s development and the education he receives, one which has been designed to create all of the virtues in him which Rousseau decided made up a natural man. This would be an educated, uncorrupted, idealized man. This can only be attained if the man is nurtured and held to the highest standards. This model was notably different than any other accepted form of education of the time.

Rousseau specifies a pedagogy for each stage of life, including methods that correspond to the characteristics of that stage of human development. Emile is divided into five books, each one a different developmental stage.

For Books I and II, Rousseau describes the Age of Nature, up to the age of twelve. Rousseau insists that young children in this age group must emphasize the physical aspect of education. They are like small animals, and must be freed of constrictive swaddling clothes. They must be breastfed by their mothers, and allowed to play outside. This will help them develop the physical senses that will become the most important tools during their future stages. When they begin to approach puberty, they should be taught a manual trade, such as carpentry. They should be encouraged to develop within it, which will assist children in creating a skill set and furthering their physical abilities, motor skills, and hand-brain coordination.

When Emile enters his teenage years, he should begin his formal education. This Rousseau defines as only working with a private tutor, and studying and reading what he is curious about, or what is useful or pleasing. In this argument, Rousseau claims that Emile will basically educate himself, and will be motivated enough to learn because he is excited and interested about what he is learning. He will nurture his love for all things beautiful, and will learn not to suppress these feelings. Early adolescence is the best time for this because children are physically developed but not yet corrupted by adulthood. He is therefore able to develop his own faculties of reason, under the careful guidance of the tutor. The tutor must observe the personal characteristics of his student and suggest suitable materials for his individual nature.

Emile also becomes ready for religious education, which Rousseau describes in a subsection of Book IV. Emile has a lesson from a priest who tells of the proper relationship between a virtuous man and God, the scripture, and the church. The main idea is that Emile should approach religion with a skeptical perspective, and that of a free thinker. He should not be forced into religious dogma, but discover the goodness of it through his own choice.

Only after a final period of studying history and learning about the corrupting nature of society can Emile begin his venture, unprotected, into society. This will be without any threat of him becoming corrupted. The Age of Wisdom corresponds roughly to the ages of twenty through twenty-five. It is during this section that Emile encounters Sophie, and the rest of Book V details their impending love story as well as his ideas for the purpose of female education.

Rousseau notes that there is a final stage after the Age of Wisdom, but he doesn’t address this Age of Happiness in Emile.