*This is the first in a series of posts examining some of the foundational assumptions/ideas/theories used to justify recent educational debates/policy directions and despite the appearance of respecting knowledge, there exists a form of anti-knowledge and anti-intellectualism propelling discussions and reform.

England, 1765. Inspired by a book on education which had, “all the power of novelty, as well as all the charms of eloquence”, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was determined to raise his young son based on what he understood as the truths within its pages. Freedom, the outdoors and practical learning were the order of the day: rules and learning by heart were to be rejected. The boy became fearless, free, generous and regarded as clever. The child also did not obey, showed little deference to others and disliked control. Edgeworth later wrote,

I must here acknowledge, with deep regret, not only the error of a theory, which I had adopted at a very early age, when older and wiser persons than myself had been dazzled by the eloquence of [the writer]; but I must also reproach myself with not [preventing] the formation of those habits, which could never afterwards be eradicated. I dwell on this painful subject to warn other parents against the errors, which I committed.” Memoirs, p.175

Edgeworth’s contemporary and friend, Thomas Day, was also mesmerised by what he took as the ‘extraordinary work’ on education. After a romantic disappointment, Day decided on a radical plan. He would take the ‘truths’ written in the book and raise two girls. Two twelve-year old girls, Lucretia and Sabrina, were adopted with the design that one of them would become his wife. Day, and the two girls, moved to Avignon in France, as it was reasoned that the lack of language would remove any possible corrupting influences from the wider society around them. Unable to converse with the people they met, bickering, sickness and a duel with a French officer eventually led to their return to England. Lucretia was apprenticed and Sabrina moved in with Day. In order to bring about Sabrina’s ‘Spartan’ qualities, a necessary feature in a Day’s wish list for a wife, he poured dripping hot wax on the neck and arms of the then thirteen-year-old. She reacted as you might expect. Eventually, Day gave up his educational plan and sent Sabrina off to boarding school. He did not end up marrying her.

The book that inspired these two men in their educational endeavours was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and there was clear evidence, soon after the book was published, that using Emile as a guidebook on curriculum or pedagogy led to monumental failure. This should not be surprising, for Rousseau never intended it as such. Despite this, an orthodox view on Rousseau seems to have set in over time, and one that critics bought into too. Rousseau and Emile have made a comeback in framing educational discussions in England over the last decade and a recent speech by Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, represents the orthodox view, despite his criticism:

[D]espite the importance of education, over the past 60 years we have seen a steady but remorseless decline in standards in England and other parts of the West where education has been dominated by a progressive ideology: an ideology that rejects the importance of knowledge; that is hostile to didactic, teacher-led instruction; that’s against remembering facts and deeply opposed to testing and exams. While this approach took hold in the West, the international rankings have been dominated by countries from Asia, where the grip of this progressive educational doctrine has yet to gain a stranglehold.

The roots of educational progressivism lie with Jean Jacques Rousseau and his romantic treatise ‘Emile’. From its opening line, which declares that ‘everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man’, Rousseau rails against traditional methods of education, believing that education should focus more on a child’s interaction with the world.

The romanticism of this tale, with the child unencumbered by the supposed prejudices of his teacher, has appealed to the political left for over two centuries. And this view still persists among some today. For example, at the Wellington Festival earlier this year, detentions used to sanction poor behaviour were described as ‘violence’ done to pupils by teachers.

Over the last quarter of a millennium, ‘Emile’ has influenced and inspired progressives, social constructivists and leftists of all stripes as they seek to redesign society according to their will – to the detriment of children’s life chances.

The view of Rousseau and Emile in the speech and the common-sense understanding, can be summed up in three points:

  • Education should be child-centred with little need for discipline;
  • Teacher-led instruction is wrong;
  • Interactions with the world are the most important than learned knowledge.

The common-sense nature of the orthodox view has certainly been helped by various quotes taken out of context and arguments made in influential books and blogs. However, if one was to actually read Emile and Rousseau’s other work, there are a number of problems with this orthodox view. In Emile, Rousseau’s exploration does not apply to all children; the education explored in Emile is not the kind to be offered to a girl, as many feminist scholars have pointed out, nor someone with darker skin or who has physical and mental needs. When outlining the ideal student, Rousseau posits that extremes of temperature within geographic regions have an effect on the mental development of people from that region. Therefore, the ideal student should come from a place that has a climate not unlike a few select countries in Western Europe. He explains,

Let the inhabitant of a temperate country visit the two extremes one after the other. His advantage is still evident, for although he is affected as much as the one who goes from one extreme to the other, he is nevertheless only half as far from his natural constitution. A Frenchman can live in Guinea and in Lapland; but a Negro will not live likewise in Torne [Sweden], nor a Sayomed in Benin. It appears, moreover, that the organisation of the brain is less perfect in the two extremes. Neither the Negroes nor the Laplanders have the sense of the Europeans. Emile, p.52

Rousseau also makes it clear that the child to be educated should be healthy in body and mind because if they rely on the medical profession for anything, they will ‘unlearn to die’ (p.57). He writes,

I would not take on a sickly and ill-constituted child…I want no pupil always useless to himself and others, involved uniquely with preserving himself, whose body does damage to the education of his soul…[l]et another in my stead take charge of this invalid. I consent to it and approve his charity. But that is not my talent. I am not able to teach living to one who thinks of nothing but how to keep himself alive. p.53

Far from being against discipline, Rousseau is very clear on what the tutor should expect in Emile:

It makes no difference whether he has his father and mother. Charged with their duties, I inherit all their rights. He ought to honor his parents, but he ought to obey only me. That is my first or, rather, my sole condition. p.52-53

With this golden rule in place, Rousseau also sets clear boundaries based on the necessities of life; force.

Treat your pupil according to his age. At the outset put him in his place, and hold him there so well that he no longer tries to leave it. Then, before knowing what wisdom is, he will practice its most important lesson. Command him nothing, whatever in the world it might be, absolutely nothing. Do not even allow him to imagine that you might pretend to have any authority over him. Let him know only that he is weak and you are strong, that by his condition and yours he is necessarily at your mercy. Let him know it, learn it, feel it. Let his haughty head at an early date feel the harsh yoke which nature imposes on man, the heavy yoke of necessity in things, never in the caprice of men. Let the bridle that restrains him be force and not authority. Do not forbid him to do that from which he should abstain; prevent him from doing it without explanations, without reasonings…let “no”, once pronounced, be a wall of bronze against which the child will have to exhaust his strength at most five of six times in order to abandon any further attempt to overturn it. [My emphasis in bold]. p.91

Educating Emile should be based on the use of force. Rousseau is not clear on exactly what he means here, but physical force would likely fall within the description. Contrary to the common-sense view, Rousseau had rather traditional views on managing behaviour.

It is important to say something about the curriculum here. Recent discussions have raised its importance on a national scale and Rousseau is seen, according to the orthodox view, as someone who did not believe in it. Once again, reading Emile provides a different version, as we learn that Emile’s education is not a matter of chance; it is a planned, orchestrated and responsive curriculum. When Emile sows and attempts to grow some beans, they are eventually removed by the gardener who had planted melons in the land in the first place. The tutor supports Emile in the planting of the beans to teach him what property means and to have respect for it. The tutor carries out his other lessons in a similar fashion. The curriculum may be hidden from Emile, but it is deliberately designed and manipulated to reach an identified end.

What is more mystifying in discussions of Emile and Rousseau is another limit in the text that has been ignored; Emile deals with a privileged situation where one boy is educated by a tutor, not a teacher in an institution educating many students. Rousseau did write specifically on state education, but these texts have been ignored. In his Discourse on Political Economy published in 1755, seven years before Emile, Rousseau wrote,

Public education, following rules prescribed by the government, and controlled by officers established by the sovereign, is therefore one of the fundamental principles of the popular or legitimate form of government. p.28

He did not go into detail about what this meant, but he returned to the same subject some years later in the Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772). Produced on request, the text was meant to provide direct guide on the construction of a political system and a form of education that was central to its function: “It is education that must give souls a national formation, and direct their opinions and tastes in such a way that they will be patriotic by inclination, by passion, be necessity.” He explains,

At twenty, a Pole ought not to be a man of any other sort; he ought to be a Pole. I wish that, when he learns to read, he reads about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history; at sixteen all its laws; that all in Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice…the law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. [my emphasis in bold] p.176-177

Rousseau explicitly writes about a defined curriculum, regulation by government, assessment points related to age, and content to be memorised/recalled at a ‘moment’s notice’. This is not dissimilar to the education system Nick Gibb would like to have. Yet to recognise this demands a desire to interrogate easily reached conclusions from surface level readings, blog posts and conference talks. It would mean becoming truly engaged with education and knowledge, rather than professing as such and borrowing lazily from others. We can point out, from our vantage point, the strangeness of Day and Edgeworth’s educational experiments, but it seems that we are set compounding their mistakes, not learning from them. In one sense, maybe it should not be a surprise. It was Rousseau, after all, who argued in a fashion, that everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author, but it degenerates in the hands of man. He may have had a point.


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