Rousseau’s Emile, an educational treatise for the 21st century?

Born three hundred years ago, this year, Rousseau remains one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment if only for the variety of his literary output. Rousseau’s political works are probably the most studied among academics and students. But what of Rousseau, the pioneer of Romanticism? His hyper-sensitivity – not to call it his ‘paranoia’ – led to his pouring his heart out in his Confessions and his bucolic Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Yet, one of the Swiss-born writer’s most enduring works is Emile, his long treatise on education, published in 1762, which encapsulates his key ideas on the corrupting influence of social conventions and prejudice on the intellectual development of children.
In his book, Rousseau is not interested in bringing up a high society gentleman but a well-balanced, happy individual, living in harmony with his human and natural environment. The young Emile is not allowed to read books until he turns 12, at which time he is given a copy of Defoe’ s Robinson Crusoe. His practical education relies exclusively on first-hand observation and everyday experience. He does not spend his time deciphering long Latin passages but is encouraged, instead, to take physical exercise such as swimming and to try his hand at making useful wooden contraptions. When Emile eventually chooses a profession, he opts for carpentry as the activity best suited to his manual skills.
Rousseau does not neglect the religion of the heart or ‘religion naturelle’ which Emile learns in his various contacts with Nature before his first encounter with the delightful Sophie, his perfect alter ego and future spouse. Before settling down to a life of marital and artisanal bliss, it is time for the young man to open his heart and mind to humanity at large. Rousseau takes him out of his ‘comfort zone’ on foreign travels meant to refine his general knowledge as well as his understanding of customs and ideas different from his own. But there is no time for an introduction to a royal court or a tour of the literary salons to feel the political pulse of the country! Rousseau, the hermit, remarks: ‘To study a nation outside its cities is the only way to know it.’ Emile, like Ulysses, eventually comes back from his two-year European (rural) travels a wiser man endowed with a more ‘enlightened’ mind.
I recommend the study and discussion of Emile as the book offers a unique insight into the mind of Rousseau, the educationalist, whose radical views were not only prescient in his days but can still be a source of philosophical inspiration for a twenty-first educational programme.

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