Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778)


Reproduced from the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education (
This page is about the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) [1] and his impact on modern education. Rousseau challenged the preexisting child depravity theory, a Puritan concept that held that children were born evil, tainted with original sin, and 77therefore must be harshly disciplined and factually educated. [1] Rousseau's principal contribution to education was the 1762 novel Emile, and it influenced many later educational pioneers. Have we reverted back to the child depravity theory? It doesn't seem so, as child-centered progressive education continues to grow. Its slow development may owe something to the reluctance for child-depravity theorists tobfbnfbkjnfb abolish their belief that children are "bad".


Jean-Jaques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised by his father and an aunt, as his mother died a few days after he was born. His father later died, and the remainder of his upbringing was at the hands of his uncle. [2] He left Switzerland at the age of sixteen, after working three years as an apprentice to an engraver. He made his way to France, where he became the secretary of Madame Louise de Warens, and under her patronage became a music teacher in 1732. [2] He began a period of "intense self education" [2], eventually becoming commissioned by a man named Diderot to write articles about music for a French encyclopedia, the Encyclopedie. [2] He moved from Warens' house to Lyon, France, and then to Paris in 1742. He then became the secretary to the French ambassador to Venice, but he was fired due to personality conflicts. He thought his boss was stupid and arrogant. [2]
Rousseau moved back to Paris in 1745. The intellectual ideas flying around France at this time forty four years prior to the revolution sparked his interest, and he, at Diderot's urging, began to write his thoughts on the matter. [2]. Rousseau is most famously known for his novel, Social Contract, written in 1762, which is still a prominent fixture in political theory, and was one of the biggest logs in the fire fueling the French Revolution. [2] He died of apoplexy (a hemorrhage) on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, France. [2]

Educational philosophy prior to Rousseau

The theory that Rousseau primarily attacked in his philosophy of education was that of child depravity. This theory stated that children are born with a tendency to evil, and are naturally, therefore, inclined to misbehave. The only way to combat this is to instill authoritarian teachers that rule their classroom with an iron fist. [1] Rousseau was certainly not the first to attack this theory, but he was one of the greatest champions of anti-child depravity. Child depravity was a Puritan concept, and play was looked upon as idleness and their talk as nonsensical. [1] This theory shaped education in the northern states of the U.S., over a hundred years before Rousseau wrote Emile, and it remained powerful in the northern U.S. for almost two centuries afterward. [1]

Philosophy of Education

Rousseau's philosophy of education rejects the previously held theory that children were naturally evil. [1] A child, he believed, must be free from "society's imprisoning institutions" and free to explore the environment and learn from direct experience of the content being taught. [1] This built on pre-existing theories by Aristotle, Comenius, and John Locke. [1] The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education breaks down his suggestions for teaching in bullet form [2]:

  • The instructor has to keep control of what the child is learning. Things that are beyond the developmental capacity of students shouldn't be taught to them. (This principle is important to Rousseau)
  • Children are naturally good, they are innocent and pure.
  • Children develop in stages.
  • In order to teach a child, you have to consider what stage that child is in in terms of his development.
  • Keep in mind that individuals vary in stages: not every kid is going to be completely mature in each stage.
  • Kids are going to want to move around. If this is encouraged, the physical activity will lead to mental activity.
  • The student should be aware they are being socialized for public citizenship, but they should place equal importance on their personal education.
  • People should develop ideas for themselves, and reason through tasks to the end, drawing their own conclusions. This as opposed to simply taking the word of the authoritarian teacher.
  • The environment the child is in is a factor in how much he learns.
Rousseau also recognized the importance in understanding child development, and outlined stages of development.[1]
  1. Infancy (birth to age 5)- the child learns directly from his senses
  2. Childhood (5 to 12)- the child begins to construct personality as he grows cognizant that his actions will cause consequences that are either pleasurable or painful. The child is curious by nature, and explores his environment, learning increasingly more through his senses. Rousseau argued that this method is much better than pouring endless lecture into the child, enforced by the threat of beating.
  3. Boyhood (12-15)-The child can now begin to learn through books about why the things in nature work the way they do, thus making a connection between the physical realm and the academic one.
  4. Adolescence (15-18) The child is now ready to cope with the real world, and learn about big concepts such as society, economics, business and government. He's ready to go out and cultivate his "aesthetic tastes" as well, exposing himself to theater, art, and literature.

These stages of development would be expanded upon and revamped by psychologist Jean Piaget in his famous and still widely-accepted stages of development almost two hundred and fifty years later.[1]


Rousseau's 1762 novel, Emile, embodied his educational philosophy. Emile is a young boy who is raised completely separate from other children, educated in the outdoors, encouraged to explore his environment, and is instructed in accordance with Rousseau's developmental stages. [1]

"We are born capable of sensation and from birth are affected in diverse ways by the objects around us. As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we are inclined to seek or to avoid the objects which produce them: at first, because they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, later because we discover that they suit or do not suit us, and ultimately because of the judgements we pass on them by reference to the idea of happiness of perfection we get from reason. These inclinations extend and strengthen with the growth of sensibility and intelligence, but under the pressure of habit they are changed to some extent with our opinions. The inclinations before this change are what I call our nature. In my view everything ought to be in conformity with these original inclinations" ((Émile, Book 1 - translation by Boyd 1956: 13; see also, 1911 edition p. 7). [Reproduced with permission from the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education (]

Emile, as the manifestation of Rousseau's educational philosophy, was his main contribution to the field of education. Future educational pioneers would
be influenced by Emile and the philosophies presented in it. The book was banned by the Catholic Church in France because of a "'heretical' religious discussion" that took place in one of the chapters. [2] The book survived, however, and went on to influence many thinkers.


Many later pioneers of education were influenced by Rousseau's permissive, nurturing educational philosophy. Rousseau's broad conceptual influence is that he argued a curriculum should be structured around the child's needs and interests, not around factual information the teacher has to teach. This marked the beginning of the child-centered education movement, one that continues today. [1]

Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, designed a curriculum that gave children freedom to play and explore their physical environment. [2] Johann Pestalozzi placed special emphasis on providing almost paternal love to the children, feeding them before he tried to teach them anything, and loving humankind in general. He and Froebel both stressed sensory learning. [1] John Dewey in the United States a hundred years after Emile was published used the method of teaching through experience, as did Maria Montessori in Italy. Montessori schools are very tactile-oriented, teaching tasks such as doing dishes and setting the table. [1] but the students are still learning in the environment the situation at hand would provide. These concepts of child-centered teaching and developmental stages would grow ever more powerful in both Europe and the United States, and are growing still in present day education.

Is Child Depravity dead?

Judging from the fact that universities and colleges teach, generally speaking, child-centered progressive education, one would say so. Prospective teachers are taught child development, curriculum design with student's needs in mind, the different types of learners, and even special education accomodation practices. These practices are also taught to existing teachers through staff development days and workshops. Child-centered curriculum that is permissive enough to allow time for play and exploration has been slow to take root in the United States, particularly in the North that was Puritan for so long, and remained Protestant. Children in earlier times too were viewed more as a source of labor, either farm or industrial, so play and emotion was not emphasized that much in schools. Eventually though, children were recognized as needing to be in the center, and teachers are now being trained with that philosophy in mind. It is permissible to think, then, that child depravity truly is dead in the United States. We may be in danger, however, of erring back towards it, with the recent emphasis being put upon standardized testing. This tempts the teacher to pour simple facts into them. We then have a danger of becoming teachers that Charles Dickens had warned against:

"Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them." [3]

He attacked this view, this directly counter-Rousseauian view, in the novel Hard Times. But the fact that future teachers are being trained to focus on the child and not on the "facts" that need to be taught, this bodes well for the survival of Rousseau's philosophy of education.


  1. Ornstein, Allan C. and Daniel U. Levine. Foundations of Education pp 130, 136-140, 143, 147-148. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. Copyright 2006.
  2. Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark. K. Smith (1997) "Jean-Jaques Rousseau on Education" The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Last update Nov 5, 2007. Site visited Nov 8th, 2007.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Hard Times pp 1. First published 1854. Dover Publications, Inc., 2001

External Links

  1. Children in a Rousseauian school in France video
  2. Jean-Jaques Rousseau at Encyclopaedia of Informal Education