Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Childhood Education

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PostSun Sep 05, 2010 1:00 am » by Tertiusgaudens

A nice article on the famous Rousseau:

Rousseau and Childhood Education
An interesting aspect of Rousseau’s child-raising techniques is his reliance on things to constrain and train a child rather than people. Rousseau rightfully asserts that education begins at birth, a very modern concept. However, in his mind early education should consist mainly of allowing as much freedom as possible for the child. Rebellion against people is to be avoided at all costs because it could cause an early end to a student’s education and result in a wicked child. He puts it this way: "As long as children find resistance only in things and never in wills, they will become neither rebellious nor irascible and will preserve their health better."{14} Rousseau believed that a teacher or parent should never lecture or sermonize. Experience, interaction with things, is a far more effective teacher. This dependence on experience is at the core of modern progressive education as well.

As a result, Rousseau was remarkably hostile towards books and traditional education’s dependency on them. From the very beginning of Emile, he is adamant that books should play little or no part in the young man’s education. He claims that, "I take away the instruments of their greatest misery--that is books. Reading is the plague of childhood and almost the only occupation we know how to give it. At twelve, Emile will hardly know what a book is."{15} At one point Rousseau simply says, "I hate books. They only teach one to talk about what one does not know."{16}

A corollary aspect of this negative view of books is Rousseau’s belief that children should never be forced to memorize anything. He even suggests that an effort be made to keep their vocabulary simple prior to their ability to read. This antagonism towards books and facts fits well with Rousseau’s notion that people "always try to teach children what they would learn much better by themselves."{17}

He also believed that children should never memorize what they can not put to immediate use. Rousseau acknowledged that children memorize easily, but felt that they are incapable of judgment and do not have what he calls true memory. He argued that children are unable to learn two languages prior to the age of twelve, a belief that has been refuted by recent research.

Prior to that age, Emile is allowed to read only one book, Robinson Crusoe. Why Crusoe? Because Rousseau wants Emile to see himself as Crusoe, totally dependent upon himself for all of his needs. Emile is to imitate Crusoe’s experience, allowing necessity to determine what needs to be learned and accomplished. Rousseau’s hostility towards books and facts continues to impact educational theory today. There is a strong and growing sentiment in our elementary schools to remove the shackles of book knowledge and memorization and to replace them with something called the "tool" model of learning.
Rousseau’s Philosophy and Modern "Tools"
Rousseau argued against too much bookish knowledge and for natural experiences to inform young minds. Today, something called the "tool" model carries on this tradition. It is argued that knowledge is increasing so rapidly that spending time to stockpile it or to study it in books results in information that is soon outdated. We need to give our students the "tools" of learning, and then they can find the requisite facts, as they become necessary to their experience.

Two important assumptions are foundational to this argument. First, that the "tools" of learning can be acquired in a content neutral environment without referring to specific information or facts. And secondly, that an extremely child- centered, experience driven curriculum is always superior to a direct instruction, content oriented approach.

The "tool" model argues that "love of learning" and "critical thinking skills" are more important to understanding, let’s say chemistry, than are the facts about chemistry itself. Some argue that facts would only slow them down. Unfortunately, research in the real world does not support this view of learning. Citing numerous studies, E.D. Hirsch contends that learning new ideas is built upon previously acquired knowledge. He calls this database of information "intellectual capital" and just as it takes money to make money, a knowledge framework is necessary to incorporate new knowledge. To stress "critical thinking" prior to the acquisition of knowledge actually reduces a child’s capacity to think critically.{18} Students who lack intellectual capital must go through a strenuous process just to catch up with what well-educated children already know. If children attempt to do algebra without knowing their multiplication tables, they spend a large amount of time and energy doing simple calculations. This distracts and frustrates children and makes learning higher math much more difficult. The same could be said for history students who never learn names and dates.

The second idea is that students should learn via natural experience within a distinctly passive curriculum. While there is wisdom in letting nature set as many of the limits as possible for a child--experience is probably the most powerful teaching method--Rousseau and progressive educational theory go too far in asserting that a teacher should never preach or sermonize to a child. At an early age, children can learn from verbal instruction, especially if it occurs along with significant learning experiences. In fact, certain kinds of learning often contradict one’s experience. The teaching of morality and democratic behavior involves teaching principles that cannot be experienced immediately, and virtually everything that parents or teachers tell children about sexual behavior has religious foundations based on assumptions about human nature.

The bottom line seems to be that if higher math, morality, and civilized behavior could be learned from simply interacting with nature, Rousseau’s system would be more appealing. However, his version of the naturalistic fallacy--assuming that everything that is natural is right--would not serve our students well. Rousseau’s observations about the student-teacher relationship fall short first because of his overly optimistic view of human nature and because we believe that there is truth to convey to the next generation that cannot be experienced within nature alone.

1. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 27.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 273.

4. Ibid., 277.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 278.

7. Ibid., 281.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 282.

10. Ibid., 291.

11. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Schools We Need & Why We Don’t Have Them (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 81.

12. Ibid., 84.

13. Ibid.

14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Alan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), 66.

15. Ibid., 116.

16. Ibid., 184.

17. Ibid., 78.

18. Hirsch, 66.
Hope is the thing with feathers...
Emily Dickinson

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PostSun Sep 05, 2010 1:06 am » by sockpuppet

Do you believe this?
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PostSun Sep 05, 2010 1:14 am » by Tertiusgaudens

No, but I understand Rousseau's approach - at his time (after Descartes "mathematization" of nature) going back to nature
Hope is the thing with feathers...
Emily Dickinson

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