“True inaugurator of modern romantic naturalism.”
Rousseau was the son of a watchmaker of Geneva. His mother died at the time of his birth, and his early training was sadly neglected. This fact makes his eloquent words to mothers most touching.
“Where there is no mother there is no child. Would you recall each one to his first duties? Begin with the mothers. You will be astonished at the changes you will produce.”
Rousseau was a dreamy, romantic, sentimental, rebellious and adventurous youth, who read much of every kind of literature and philosophy, and lived, for the most part in great poverty, in France, although he traveled much. He tried many things and probably succeeded in few. He was an engraver’s apprentice, a vagabond, a house servant, a private secretary, a traveling salesman, a musician, an author, and in everything a radical revolutionist. He composed an opera, The Village Soothsayer, which was played at court in Paris, 1752, and which caused the king to grant him a pension. His books, in all of which he bitterly attacked the social institutions of his day, made him famous, and for a time the idol of the French people. He was invited everywhere, and petted by some of the foremost representatives of the social order which he sought so valiantly to demolish. But soon his influence began to be felt, and violent controversies raged about his theories, and he suffered persecution. It has been said that the publication of his Emile was “the greatest educational event of the eighteenth century”. Yet the work was publicly burned at Geneva and its author was arrested, so strange and revolutionary were the views therein advanced. From that time on he again lived in great poverty, supporting himself by copying music, until he found a refuge in the house of a faithful friend where he spent his last days in peace.
Living in a century of discontent, Rousseau became its mouthpiece. He was the supreme interpreter of the ideas, feelings, and passions that were fermenting in the decomposition of the ancien regime. His was the fierce spirit of negation. He was plebeian by birth and preference. He disdained all the ideals of the aristocracy, and all strong assumption of authority in church or state. He was skeptical, unsocial, and violent. His books contained more of passionate feeling than of logic, and were all true pictures of the man out of whose heart they came. One of his books was entitled The Solitary Stroller, and such indeed the author was. He was “a romancer who made theories,” for his theoretical works are interesting stories. If they are at times morbid and extravagant in statement, it is because genuineness of his feeling, and the great sincerity of his words and because of his genius that he created so profound an impression upon the world.
Rousseau had wonderful literary gifts, and the world has become imbued with many of his most radical ideas. “An alluring, an irresistible guide, he has not been an infallible one. Many have gone astray in following him.” In spite of his faults there was much in him that was truly noble, especially his hatred of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood, injustice, and cruelty. And perhaps best of all was his love of children. It is said that he used to secrete himself where he could listen unobserved to the conversations of little children. Surely no lover of children can read the first and second books of Emile without pronouncing a blessing upon its author.
This remarkable book is the story of an imaginary youth, Emile, with a detailed account of his education as Rousseau would have planned it. In this eloquent and absorbingly interesting book the author discusses almost every conceivable problem of education. Emile’s student life is divided into three parts, from infancy to twelve years of age, from the twelfth to the fifteenth year, and from the fifteenth to the twentieth. During the first period Emile had no formal instruction, and no introduction to books. He was kept in the country, far away from the institutional life of men, and taught to use his senses, to measure distances with the eye, to listen intelligently to nature’s music, to distinguish things rather than words. Especial attention was given to his physical training, and the utmost liberty was accorded him. The author’s chief desire is that Emile shall not learn anything during these first twelve years that he will need to unlearn later. “The most important, the most useful rule in all education, is not to gain time, but to lose it,” says Rousseau. He had no patience with the desire to produce infant prodigies. Above all, he said, “let a child have all possible freedom. Encourage its sports, its pleasures, and its instinct for happiness. Why fill with bitterness and sorrow those first years so quickly passing which will no more return to them than they can return to you?”
During the second period, from twelve the fifteen, Emile was taught to physical sciences, and geography by travel, and allowed to read Robinson Crusoe. It was an extremely narrow curriculum. But Rousseau sharply protested against the custom of teaching boys history, and foreign languages, before the age of fifteen. He would prescribe few studies and require the greatest thoroughness in such subjects as the boy could really understand. He would fiercely attack the method that would permit the student to run from one subject to another without rhyme or reason, as so many students of music do in our day.
At fifteen Emile learned to trade and entered upon his higher education. Rousseau’s contention is precisely the opposite of that of Aristotle. The French writer believed in specialization. He would have all the young man’s studies selected with reference to their bearing upon his chosen pursuit.
this book is full of extreme, and sometimes absurd statements; but it set the world the thinking anew on educational problems. The great philosopher Kant paid our author the following tribute: “The first impression which a reader derives from Rousseau is that this writer unites to an admirable penetration of genius a noble inspiration and a should full of sensibility, such as has never been met in any other writer, in any other time, or in any other country. The impression which immediately follows this is that of astonishment caused by the extraordinary and paradoxical thoughts which he develops.”
Some of Rousseau’s Sayings
“I would rather have Emile with eyes at the ends of his fingers than in the shop of a candle maker.” (That is, the fingers should be trained to guide themselves without the light of a candle, or any help that others can give.) “For the body as for the mind the child must be left to himself. Let him run and folic, and fall a hundred times a day. So much the better; for he will learn from this the sooner to help himself up. The welfare of liberty atones for many bruises.” “When I see a man enamored of knowledge, allow himself to yield to its charms, and run from one kind to another without knowing where to stop, I think I see a child on the seashore collecting shells, beginning by loading himself with them; then tempted by those he still sees, throwing them aside, picking them up, until, weighed down by their number, and no longer knowing which to choose, he ends by rejecting everything, and returns empty-handed.” (This is a perfect picture of the activity of a large portion of our music pupils.) “Emile has but little knowledge, but that which he has is really his own; he knows nothing by halves. He has a universal mind, not through actual knowledge, but through the ability to acquire it. He has a mind that is open, intelligent, prepared for everything, and as Montaigne says, if not instructed, at least capable of being instructed.” “My object is not at all to give knowledge, but to teach him to acquire it as he many need it, to make him estimate it at its exact worth, and to make him love truth above everything else. With this method, progress is slow; but there are no false steps, and no danger of being obliged to retrace one’s course.”