Education is one of the most important exam questions for Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to him, education is the key to forming responsible and free citizens in a democratic society. In this article, we explore the role of education in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thinking.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when he began to write about what a good education is, thought he would write only a short text of good principles, which would not be more than a few pages long. In the end, it is an imposing work devoted to school, to education, to what it means to be and to become a man or a woman that the author ends up with.
The very beginning of his work entitled Emile or Education already sheds light on what Jean-Jacques Rousseau thinks about education. It is these few reflections that we will examine here in order to understand the role of education, and how it intervenes for each human being.
Role and Goals of Education
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the role of education is to grow, to shape, to develop. This is how he compares the development of plants with the development of men. It is by gardening, by cultivating, that plants develop; similarly, it is by educating that a man develops.
However, Jean-Jacques Rousseau recalls the essential role of childhood. It is a primordial stage in which man is deprived of everything, and which has the advantage of letting other men assist, help, rescue the child. This interaction would not be possible if man did not have this fragility proper to childhood. But it is an important and beneficial interaction for human society.
Thus, education has a double role: not only to make man grow, but also to bind men together, dependent on each other since childhood.
Plants are shaped by cultivation, and men by education. If man were born big and strong, his size and strength would be useless to him until he had learned to use them; they would be detrimental to him, by preventing others from thinking of assisting him; and, left to his own devices, he would die of misery before having known his needs. We complain about the state of childhood; we do not see that the human race would have perished if a man had not begun as a child.
We are born weak, we need strength; we are born deprived of everything, we need assistance; we are born stupid, we need judgment. All that we are not born with and that we need when we grow up is given to us by education.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau –
The three kinds of education
Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguishes three kinds of education, which we master by various degrees:
- Education through nature: the physical development of our body and our intellectual faculties (no control)
- Education through men: learning to use our body and our intellectual faculties (great mastery).
- Education through things: our own experience according to our environment (partial mastery)
This education comes to us from nature, or from men or from things. The internal development of our faculties and organs is the education of nature; the use that we are taught to make of this development is the education of men; and the acquisition of our own experience on the objects that affect us is the education of things.
Each of us is thus trained by three kinds of teachers.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau –
How to exploit these three kinds of education and where to direct one’s efforts
After having taken care to explain these different sources of education, it is a question of knowing which kinds of education are important for man, and towards what goal they should tend.
The rule is the following: there must be no contradiction between these three kinds of education.
From this imperative, it follows that man must direct the educations of which he has control in the same direction as the only education of which he does not have control: the education of nature.
It is therefore the education of nature that sets the direction that traces the path that the other two educations must follow.
The disciple in whom their various lessons contradict each other is ill-bred, and will never be in agreement with himself; he in whom they all fall on the same points, and tend to the same ends, goes alone to his goal and lives accordingly. He alone is well educated.
Now, of these three different educations, that of nature does not depend on us; that of things depends only in certain respects. That of men is the only one of which we are really the masters; and yet we are only masters by supposition; for who can hope to direct entirely the words and actions of all those who surround a child?
As soon as education is an art, it is almost impossible for it to succeed, since the necessary contribution to its success depends on no one. All that can be done by dint of care is to get closer or closer to the goal, but happiness is needed to reach it.
What is this goal? It is the goal of nature itself; this has just been proved. Since the combination of the three educations is necessary for their perfection, it is on the one we cannot help that we must direct the other two.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau –
Finally, Jean-Jacques Rousseau reminds us that man cannot foresee and satisfy 100% of a good education. Indeed, man does not master the education of nature, he masters only a little and in some respects the education of things, and he is not even certain to master totally the education of men.“Who can hope to direct entirely the speech and actions of all those who surround a child?”
It is therefore partly by chance and luck that man will have a good education, which is here the true meaning of the word “happiness” used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.“happiness is needed to achieve it” does not mean that one must be happy, filled with joy, to receive a good education; this phrase under the pen of Jean-Jacques Rousseau means well that the hazards of life will also preside over good or bad education, and that the whole objective of men is to do everything possible to get as close as possible to good education, to promote education.
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