Rousseau and the Age of Enlightenment - Émile, or Concerning Education


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.

Critical ideas

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.

Critical questions

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,


Nico Francella juin 8, 2019, 17:00

Mira, I really like how well you summarized Rousseau’s beliefs of education and how children should be raised. Rousseau believes that exposing children to learn the lessons of life on their own will help them physically endure life’s pains. To combat this claim, you mention that scientists have explained that early life adversities affect the lives of children especially if these adversities are severe (such as poverty and nutritional delicacies etc). I think it is hard to argue that when faced with these severe experiences, it won’t affect the child in his or her life. However, if they do overcome these obstacles, the child will be resilient and are able to overcome any obstacles that they may face in their lives. As a teacher, I found myself reflecting and connecting Rousseau’s beliefs to the education system today. While Rousseau is adamant that we should allow students to experience the hardships of life (failing a test and social problems at school), I feel that we have moved away from allowing students to experience those hardships. One of these hardships that I feel that we have moved away from is failure. Whether it be failing a test or a class, I think it is fair to say that as teachers we are told to give our students every chance possible to allow them to avoid failing. It is crazy to me that today (in comparison to older generations of teaching) due dates seem to not even matter anymore. In my first semester of teaching, I felt as the semester went on, my expectations for certain grade levels dropped. Due to the quality of work being submitted (and late), I felt as if I was giving students who deserved a level 1 or 2, a 3 and so on. However, we as teachers are pressured to avoid giving failing grades. Does this not all go against Rousseau’s beliefs of allowing the student experience the hardships of life? Disabling the ability to understand and learn from failure contributes to students having a hard time in the first couple years of post-secondary education. As Rousseau states, “our first teacher is our nurse” (Rousseau, 1888). Thus, are we then not doing our students a disservice if we are protecting them from the hardships that they should face? However, I do agree with you and disagree with Rousseau that we cant allow children to face hardships on their own. With our guidance, we can help limit those hardships but still allow our children to learn valuable life lessons. In contrast to Rousseau’s beliefs, Locke explains that we as teachers and parents must preserve, nourish and bring up our children until they have fully understood law and achieved a degree of reason (Locke, 23). Thus, you are right to say that we need find an important equilibrium for our children. I think you do a great job with providing an additional resource to support and go against Rousseau’s ideas but I would like to hear more of what you think about our education system today? I would love to compare and contrast the opinions of yours and others on this matter! **References:** Locke, John. “Of Paternal Powers,’ Second Treatise of Government, ed. Jonathan Bennett, 2017, pp. 19-25. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or Concerning Education (Extracts), translated by Eleanor Worthington, edited by Jules Steeg, Heath, 1888,

Kelly Milliken juin 11, 2019, 17:00
Replying to Nico Francella

Hi Nico, I enjoyed reading your response. I agree with you that there are a lot of instances now where it seems we have moved away from failure. I have two young daughters and at the end of their swimming lesson sessions all kids receive a ribbon, regardless of whether they passes the swim level or not (either a participation ribbon or a ribbon with their swim level badge on it). My kids are too young to understand what the ribbons mean but I often think about at what age it would be beneficial to explain to them the difference between them. I agree with Rousseau that experiencing hardships/failures can cause understanding and growth in children; however, I believe that in a classroom environment students need to feel safe to fail. If they do not feel safe, a failure can result in embarrassment and discouragement verses a learning opportunity and motivator.

Zuri Lewkowicz-Lalonde juin 8, 2019, 18:39

Hi Mira, Thank you for the clear summarization of the first two chapters of Rousseau’s work. I agree with you that Rousseau emphasizes the need for children to experience the harsh reality of life to be able to endure it later on. However I think the reasoning behind this isn’t simply for their safety and survival. Rousseau seems more intent, in my opinion, on having all three areas of education (circumstantial, nature and that of men) be in harmony which he believes rests primarily on the education of nature. He describes this by saying “The pupil in whom their different lessons contradict one another is badly educated, and will never be in harmony with himself; the one in whom they all touch upon the same points and tend toward the same object advances toward that goal only, and lives accordingly. He alone is well educated.” (Chapter 1, para 6). Rousseau describes how the education of nature is the foundation and that “In the natural order of things, all men being equal, the vocation common to all is the state of manhood” (Chapter 1, para 10). Everything else is built upon that education, Rousseau even describing how he is not teaching students to be a “magistrate, soldier or priest” but rather first and foremost a man. In preserving our children too much, being over protective, shielding them from the harms of the world, then we don’t allow them to receive this crucial education from nature and thus their life becomes out of balance as a result of not having this foundation. The quote you chose echoes this sentiment “We think only of preserving the child: this is not enough. We ought to teach him to preserve himself when he is a man;...” (Chapter 1, para 14). He closes out this section/quote by discussing how it is fruitless to overprotect, as we will all die eventually, and that living means being able to endure the hardships of life, not to be protected from them. I think the link you made with your choice of article is an important one. Rousseau advocates for us to work alongside the education of nature, even when it comes to sickness “Nearly the whole of infancy is sickness and danger; half the children born into the world die before their eighth year. These trials past, the child has gained strength, and as soon as he can use life, its principle becomes more assured.” (Chapter 2, para 11) which is extreme. The old saying of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” has been proven to be false as we all know (surviving measles for example can leave your immune system compromised as well as a host of other complications). I wonder how Rousseau would see vaccines, if he would consider them a way of harnessing the education of nature or if it is us going against the plan that mother nature has for us. As an educator, I couldn’t help but link Rousseau’s ideas on enduring hardship to teaching resilience in students. Part of our responsibility as educators is to teach the skills required to thrive outside of a sheltered school environment. The board I work for has Resilient as an exit outcome and they define it as “Students who are resilient face and overcome adversity and challenging situations. They take risks, learn from mistakes, persevere, and move forward confidently” (OCDSB Exit Outcomes) which is strikingly similar in my opinion as much of what Rousseau discusses in the first few chapters. Resources: OCDSB Exit Outcomes. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or Concerning Education (Extracts), translated by Eleanor Worthington, edited by Jules Steeg, Heath, 1888,

Lauren Schmidt juin 9, 2019, 18:56

Hi Mira, Thank you for your thoughts. This is an interesting topic even today as I have experienced that feeling of wanting to shield a young child from harm, but inevitable everyone will experience some sort of pain. What is important is that children have a support system there to help them manage this pain, then when they are older, they will be able manage their pain. Rousseau says in book 1 paragraph 16 “We think only of preserving the child: this is not enough. We ought to teach him to preserve himself when he is a man”. It reminds me of Locke who believes that parents must ensure “the forming of their minds and the governing of their actions; that is while the children are still young and ignorant; when reason comes into play the parents are released from that trouble” (Locke, 2017, p.20) Both believe that this early childhood experiences of helping children deal with pain is ultimately so that when they are older, they will be able to handle adversity appropriately. While I do believe some things, as Mira said like, poverty, living in high crime areas, and I would add drastic changes in a child’s life (divorce or death) can have more lasting affects. I believe children can learn to persevere through smaller more manageable issues. Linking to Nico's question **I would like to hear more of what you think about our education system today?** I am a kindergarten teacher and especially now at the end of the school year, I feel so proud of students who are more able to solve problems with friends, work as a team, take risks and handle difficult situations. Their ability to self regulate at this young age is so important as this is what I believe are the skills they require to succeed in school. Their parents may ask to be about their reading, writing, or math, but I know my answers usually come back to self regulation skills. For example, I have students who choose activities because they want to get better at something, so they make the decision to do something that is hard for them, to get more practice. Working as a team and sharing can be hard too, so their ability to work through these issues with increasingly less support from me, is what I work towards and a big part of the K curriculum in BC. **References:** Locke, John. “Of Paternal Powers,’ Second Treatise of Government, ed. Jonathan Bennett, 2017, pp. 19-25. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or Concerning Education (Extracts), translated by Eleanor Worthington, edited by Jules Steeg, Heath, 1888,

Jeff Dowling juin 10, 2019, 07:56

Hi Mira, I enjoyed reading your synopsis of Rousseau, throughout the course I’ve seen a lot of ideas repackaged to fit the current context in which the philosopher finds himself. While reading Rousseau, I instantly connected his ideas to the Stoic philosophy of the ancient world, as well as the Protestant work ethic, where all three stress that crap will inevitably hit the fan, but your ability to exert internal control in such situations will dictate whether you truly suffer or end up turning it into a positive. As such, I like the idea of schools teaching self-regulation, grit, perseverance and resilience, but question if it is truly possible to teach these soft skills effectively in such an environment. As well, the trend seems to be moving further and further towards catering the student (and their overbearing parents) rather than let them experience the vicissitudes of life in a somewhat safe manner. As well, I’d like to comment on this specifically, “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.” Although much research posits that socio-economic status does have an impact on student achievement levels, I’d point to the previous 5000+ years of civilizations that have been much worse off compared to the majority of people living in the western world today and that poor home environments are less of an issue in an age of compulsory schooling, the internet and public libraries. And increasingly well-off children are beginning to experience psychologically adverse childhoods in spite of their higher SES. Having said that, to limit the effects of SES, the Brookings Institute has found that the bar is rather low to do so, which is wonderful news as it means children who can achieve just three things, finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, are going to put themselves and their future children in a much better position to thrive. Although schools are relatively easy scapegoats, with downright disturbing results from Adverse Childhood Experience studies, I would welcome more criticism of unethical parenting practices within a society where too many children are exposed to male or female genital mutilation, parental divorce and Lord of the Flies daycare environments, which in my view completely destabilizes the inner world of the young child. This would need to be coupled with more of a push in schools to explicitly promote nonviolent communication (to also enhance better mate selection) and peaceful parenting to students thinking about having children. Bringing it back to Rousseau, life is going to present it challenges, but children do not need to be further burdened or harmed unnecessarily by those closest to them, and although schools will play a part, the family unit needs just as much attention if children are to be capable of dealing with future adversities.

Lauren Gazmin juin 11, 2019, 02:37

Hello, Mira! Thank you for your insights regarding Rousseau. His statements about society's overprotection of children and youth were interesting to me and raise a good point (one that I have heard in many other ways). His theories may prove beneficial pertaining to physical development and training the body to overcame the challenges of nature; however, you raise a good point as well pertaining to side effects of exposing children to negative aspects of life. I think that too much exposure can result in negative mental and emotional effects for children, especially if exposed at an impressionable age. Having said that, Nico and Zuri raised the important skill of resilience. Exposure to all aspects of life, including the negative, develops students and help them prepare for the 'real world.' I like that Zuri's school board has resilience listed as an exit outcome, as this is an incredibly important trait to possess in order to be successful in society. The reality is there is positive as well as negative in the world, and students and children need to be exposed to both of these sides. Having said this, Mira, you make a good point about the need for balance, as too much exposure I think can be detrimental. An example such as Nico's regarding the school system's avoidance and fear of the concept of failure was especially interesting. This is something that we, as educators, need to correct in our education system. Failure, in my opinion, helps students better themselves and grow as individuals and as intellectuals. If we continue to allow students to pass when they shouldn't have, and to surpass due dates and still be allowed to submit assignments, then we are contributing to their stagnation.

Dan C. juin 12, 2019, 01:42

Thanks for your clear, concise and well-thought presentation. This is the first time I have read Rousseau and I was impressed, especially at how thought provoking and revolutionary his ideas must have been at the time of their publication. In fact, Rousseau’s book was banned for a year and burnt (Wikipedia, n.d.). This is interesting to note since, from what I could uncover, Rousseau considered himself a devote Christian. I suspect the severe censorship had to do with his ideas that challenge the unquestioned power of authority as laid out by Rousseau here – “Consequently freedom, and not authority, is the greatest good”(Rousseau, np). As an educator, I found his ideas uplifting and empowering as he focuses on the best that a child can be as an individual. “He alone has his own way who, to compass it, does not need the arm of another to lengthen his own”(Rousseau,np) I assert that Rousseau is correct to point out that specific barriers by parents and teachers can block the development or education of the individual child. The abuse or over emphasis of power through authority, as I indicated above, is one of them . Another is the overprotection of parents and the potential harm this approach can cause. In, “The Coddling of the American Mind -, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”, Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018) provide compelling arguments and research. Their findings and characterization of the ‘fragility’ of many modern students is very close to Rousseau’s concern for the ‘weakness’ that can occur when ‘overprotection’ is a primary motivation of raising children. Haidt and Lukianoff (2018) provide the peanut allergy example referencing “Learning Early About Peanut” (LEAP) 2015. This study found that allergies in children decreased with minute but graduated exposure whereas creating environments completely safe from peanuts has led to increases in peanut allergies (Leap, 2015). Another example of the overprotection of many parents is in found in the dramatic decrease of play, especially unsupervised play. Gray’s (2015) research documented the sharp decline in the opportunity and time children have for unsupervised play (Gray,P.2015). He postulates that this was the result of many co-factors including a perceived fear of danger for children by parents that was greatly exaggerated when compared to actual statistics and risk. Most importantly, Gray (2015) asserts that when given the increased freedom of unsupervised play, children develop many ‘social skills in these interactions with other children, as well as an increase in psychological independence. In this way, I argue that Rousseau’s ideas centering on the necessity to respect children’s autonomy lead to a stronger and more developed child not only physically but psychologically and socially as well. I would counter the claims presented by Black et al(2017) by suggesting, as Rousseau points out, there are clearly basic needs of security in areas of health and nutrition, and of loving and caring parents that must be met for children to develop optimally. Black et al (2017) in fact alludes to this in your reference. However, once this baseline of basic emotional and physical needs is met in children, I contend, that children are not intellectually affected by what they faced at a young age. To the contrary, the work of Haidt and Lukianoff (2018) and Gray (2015) strongly suggest the opposite. In fact, “safteyism” as Haidt and Lukianoff (2018) call it, has negatively affected children intellectually. The authors conclude that it has resulted in a decrease in students’ ability to think critically, and also a decrease in their ability to separate the negative intent from people with ideas that they simply disagree with. Thank you for your very engaging presentation. References Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind -, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”, Penguin Press Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or Concerning Education (Extracts), translated by Eleanor Worthington, edited by Jules Steeg, Heath, 1888, Gray, P 2015 “Free to Learn : Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” NY U.S.A. LEAP study 2015 website Wikipedia- Emile or On Education,_or_On_Education Planning with Kids website Book review

Marienne Mambo juin 13, 2019, 03:32

Hi Mira, I really enjoyed reading your post. I do believe that hardship creates a barrier and is a disservice to person’s learning abilities. However, I have also seen people who had to fend for themselves from a very tender age and are the most resilient humans. Regardless, I find it safer to follow Locke’s advice to guide the child until they gain reason. I want to believe that the key to all of this is the timing. My experience working with children from law income families, orphans, and street kids has taught me that some develop survival skills while others remain disoriented if they don’t undergo therapy. As per Rousseau, John Locke’s theory “Of Paternal Power” and Erik Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages theories are just the lesser forms of education— circumstances and man. Thus, toxic forms of education. I will leave you with the following table for you to draw you own conclusions. Erik Erickson’s 8 Developmental Stages: Approximate Age Psychosocial Crises 1. Infant – eighteen months – Trust versus mistrust 2. Eighteen months – three years – Autonomy versus shame and doubt 3. Three years – five years – Initiative versus quilt 4. Five – twelve years – Industry versus inferiority 5. Twelve – eighteen – Identity versus role confusion 6. Eighteen – forty – Intimacy versus Isolation 7. Forty – sixty-five – Generativity versus stagnation 8. Sixty-five and older – Ego integrity versus despair References: Locke, John. “Of Paternal Powers,’ Second Treatise of Government, ed. Jonathan Bennett, 2017, pp. 19-25. Widick, Carole, Clyde A. Parker, and Lee Knefelkamp. "Erik Erikson and psychosocial development." New directions for student services 1978.4 (1978): 1-17.

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