For this web-presentation dedicated to the Age of Enlightenment, I have decided to analyze Rousseau’s first chapter of his work entitled Émile, or Concerning Education and more specifically the first two parts of Book First which are the Object of Education and the New-born Child. I will reflect on the critical ideas of these two sections and then will formulate an argument that responds to a critical question relating to modern education.
The main idea of Book First is that education should begin from the moment of birth. He explains that there are three types of education that the child receives during his or her lifetime. The first education is that of nature, which we have no control over. The second education is that of life circumstances that one encounters, which we can control to a certain extent. The third and final education is that of humankind in which we think we are experts. He says that these three educations are crucial to a child’s survival and not one can be ignored.
Rousseau states that a man is the best educated when he is able to endure all that life has to offer, the good and the bad. It is when one can survive any point on that spectrum that he is considered to be well-educated. He says in the third page of Book First that “[w]e think only of preserving the child: this is not enough. We ought to teach him to preserve himself when he is a man; to bear the blows of fate; to brave both wealth and wretchedness; to live, if need be, among the snows of Iceland or upon the burning rock of Malta.” (Rousseau, p. 3)
Rousseau examines later how when parents sternly shelter their offspring, those become weak and practically disabled. He continues by comparing those children to those who were not coddled as infants and looks at their differences in adulthood. “In regions where these extravagant precautions are not taken, the men are all large, strong, and well proportioned. Countries in which children are swaddled swarm with hunchbacks, with cripples, with persons crook-kneed, stunted, rickety, deformed in all kinds of ways.” (Rousseau, p. 4). He refers to mother of all things, the ultimate caretaker, mother nature, and the way she cares for humans. She inflicts pain and trouble upon them to teach them how to endure it in the future.
To summarize these two sections of Book First, we can say that Rousseau believes that one must not shield children from the sometimes-harsh reality of life during early childhood as it could be seen as a disservice to their own safety and survival, but on the contrary, parents must expose their offspring to everything life throws at them in order to strengthen them for future life challenges. With this mind, I must ask the following: Assuming that Rousseau’s theory is accurate and applicable to all eras, what are the possible secondary effects these children might face after being hardened by life? Although they would physically benefit from the lack of constraint, would it be possible that children could be intellectually affected by what they faced at a young age?
Debate within modern education and argument
According to Rousseau, exposing children to the ups and downs of life will help them physically endure life’s pains. They will grow up to become stronger. However, studies have showed that living a harsh life has implications on their intellectual development. According to the article Early childhood development coming of age: science through the life course from the peer-reviewed general medical journal entitled The Lancet, “early life adversities affect life course development, especially when multiple adversities such as poverty, nutritional deficiencies, high-crime communities, and low-quality resources coincide” (Black et al, 2017, p. 80)
However, this article also proves one of Rousseau’s theories which is the importance of affection and nurture in early childhood. He says that “the child ought to love his mother before he knows that it is his duty to love her. If the voice of natural affection be not strengthened by habit and by care, it will grow dumb even in childhood; and thus the heart dies, so to speak, before it is born.” (Rousseau, pp. 5-6). That being said, he says the same consequence will arise if there is an excess in care as if there was no care at all.
For a child to reach, to a certain extent, their maximum intellectual potential, they should have a somewhat nurtured and comfortable life devoid of the burdens of socio-economic and health issues.
It has also been proven that part of nurturing is to allow children to explore life and to be somewhat unleashed so that they can be protected from misfortune as they have the constitution to efficiently deal with it (Black et al, 2017, p.79). The article defines nurturing care as “a home environment that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, responsive, emotionally supportive, and developmentally stimulating and appropriate, with opportunities for play and exploration and protection from adversities.” (Black et al, 2017, p.79).
In conclusion, Rousseau’s theory can have side effects that would provoke crucial and central consequences in adulthood, especially in our modern societies. It is then important to find an appropriate and educated equilibrium which is what Black et al. did in their 2017 article. They stated that “[p]ositive associations between nurturing care and children’s health, growth, and development have been demonstrated worldwide, supported by neuroscientific evidence that nurturing care during early childhood attenuates the detrimental effects of low socioeconomic status on brain development.” (Black et al, 2017, p.79)
Black, M. M., Walker, S. P., Fernald, L. C., Andersen, C. T., Digirolamo, A. M., Lu, C., . . . Grantham-Mcgregor, S. (2017). Early childhood development coming of age: Science through the life course. The Lancet,389(10064), 77-90. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(16)31389-7
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or Concerning Education (Extracts), translated by Eleanor Worthington, edited by Jules Steeg, Heath, 1888, www.gutenberg.org/files/30433/304