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Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712-78

learning through experience

French philosopher, social and political theorist, musician, botanist, and one of the most eloquent writers of the Age of Enlightenment.

In 1750 Rousseau won the Academy of Dijon award for his Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, 1750), and in 1752 his opera Le Devin du Village (The Village Sage) was first performed. In his prize-winning discourse and in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Mankind (1755), he expounded the view that science, art, and social institutions have corrupted humankind and that the natural, or primitive, state is morally superior to the civilized state.

Rousseau left Paris in 1756 and secluded himself at Montmorency, where he wrote the romance Julie, (1760). In his famous political treatise The Social Contract (1762) he developed a case for civil liberty and helped prepare the ideological background of the French Revolution by defending the popular will against divine right.

In the influential novel Emile (1762) Rousseau expounded a new theory of education, emphasizing the importance of expression rather than repression to produce a well-balanced, free-thinking child.

"The Creator makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil."

Contending that the traditional means of teaching moral character through discipline and learning by rote produced tyrants and slaves, Rousseau proposed to teach …mile by exposing him to appropriate stimuli that would generate life experiences. Rousseauís teacher offered the boy choice but controlled him through the choices available.

Let him always think he is master while you are really master. There is no subjection so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom; it is thus that the will itself is taken captive.

Rousseau's unconventional views antagonized French and Swiss authorities and alienated many of his friends, and in 1762 he fled first to Prussia and then to England. In 1770 he completed the manuscript of his most remarkable work, the autobiographical Confessions (1782), which contained a penetrating self-examination and revealed the intense emotional and moral conflicts in his life. He died July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, France.

"Each individual is born with a distinctive temperament . . . We indiscriminately employ children of different temperaments on the same exercises; their education destroys their natural abilities and leaves a dull uniformity. Therefore after we have wasted our efforts in stunting the true gifts of nature we see the short lived and illusory brilliance we have substituted die away, while the natural abilities we have crushed do not revive."

Although Rousseau contributed greatly to the movement in Western Europe for individual freedom and against the absolutism of church and state, his conception of the state as the embodiment of the abstract will of the people and his arguments for strict enforcement of political and religious conformity are regarded by some historians as a source of totalitarian ideology. Rousseau's theory of education led to more permissive and more psychologically oriented methods of child care, and influenced the German educator Friedrich Froebel, the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and other pioneers of modern education. He also affected the development of the psychological literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophy of existentialism of the 20th century, particularly in his insistence on free will, his rejection of the doctrine of original sin, and his defence of learning through experience rather than analysis.

Emile (Everyman Paperback Classics) by Jean Jacques Rousseau, P.D. Jimack (Editor). Reissue edition (November 1993). Buy today from

Rousseau and Pestalozzi

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