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Main Page - Educational thinkers - Jean-Jacques Rousseau


The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is perhaps most closely associated with the Age of Enlightenment and his ideas had a great influence on French Revolutionary thought. Along with his most famous political tract, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau also contributed to educational philosophy, most notably in his Emile (1762). An unlikely educator - Rousseau deemed himself a second-rate teacher and unworthy father (Boutet de Monvel 1966 p.vii) - Emile has nonetheless been described as "the most significant book on education after Plato's Republic" (Doyle & Smith 1997 introduction).

Rousseau's concept of education is revealed in Emile through the tuition of a young boy. A central thesis of the volume is that education should not treat the pupil as a 'mini' adult, but as an individual in a distinctly independent state. Consistent with Rousseau's political philosophy that man is born good, so he identifies the child as innocent, and one who should learn through experience. For Rousseau, the pupil should not be instructed, but rather guided so that he may discover for himself (Rousseau 1966 p.19). Similarly, Rousseau dismisses the notion that education should act as a kind of vocational training for when the child becomes man: "It matters little whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church or the law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man." (Rousseau 1966 p.9)

Rousseau identifies different stages through which learning must pass, proposing discrete styles of teaching for each. It is possible to categorise three main stages. The first lasts up until the age of twelve, and should eschew books in favour of physical and sensory education. The second, from twelve to fifteen, can be seen as a more intellectual education and stretches beyond the physical and sensory to the mental, including limited reference to books. No moral education has taken place at this point however. Indeed, Rousseau is keen to stress that the notion of 'reason' is anathema to children, stating that reason is "the last and choicest growth." It should be the end product of education, and not its means (Rousseau 1966 p.53). It is only in the third stage that any moral education can take place.

The extent to which Rousseau's ideas can be practically applied is disputed. Clearly, the idea that children's development progresses through stages and encompasses different learning styles has found root in modern education. Similarly, although in Emile the child is removed from society, Rousseau appears to locate education across a number of spheres, aiming for a marriage of public schooling and home education (Rousseau 1966, p.9). However, Emile is not a practical guide to education and some argue that if used as such it can lead to "catastrophe" (Soetard 1994 p.4). Indeed, Rousseau himself derided an admirer who educated his son following Emile, decrying "so much the worse for you, sir, and so much worse still for your son." (cited in Boutet de Monvel 1966 p.vii)


Doyle, Michele Erina and Smith, Mark K. (1997) Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education, The encyclopaedia of informal education, (Visited 01-July-05)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1966), Emile, translated by Barbara Foxley, with an introduction by Andre Boutet de Monvel, UK: Dent.

Soetard, Michael (1994) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Prospects, Vol XXIV, No34, (Paris, UNESCO). (Visited 29-June-05)

Useful Links

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A comprehensive introduction to Rousseau’s life and work. Includes a biography, and useful summaries of Rousseau’s theories and their influence. Also includes a series of key quotations, list of major works and links to online texts. (Visited 29-June-05)

Rousseau Association
This site includes biographies of Rousseau, plus links to Rousseau’s actual texts, including The Social Contract and Emile. (Visited 27-June-05)

Rousseau’s philosophy of education
This brief overview is useful in that it locates Rousseau within the development of educational philosophy from Rousseau to Skinner, Dewey and Freire. It includes brief introductions to critical responses to educational philosophy. (Visited 01-July-05)

The Usefulness of Rousseau’s Emile to Inner-City Adult Students
This paper attempts to show how Rousseau’s ideas can be used in the adult education context, and includes interviews with students on the utility of Rousseau’s ideas. (Visited 01-July-05)