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Jean Jacques Rousseau: His Contribution to Education

The article is on Rousseau’s naturalist view on children which is his lasting contribution to education.

The 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like so many of his contemporaries, favored the natural state. Perhaps as a reaction to the many excesses of European societies at the time, this movement, which is defined by a quest for simplicity, gained momentum. Rousseau’s contribution to education is through his novel, Emile. The underlying principle in the work is that man is naturally or intrinsically good. He encourages that this inherent goodness in man should be “cultivated” or developed (Delaney 2005; Bertram 2010).

‘The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason! This beginning at the end; this is making an instrument of a result. If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated.” –Rousseau, Emile.

In Rousseau’s Naturalist Philosophy, society is polluted. A child born into this world, into any society, is born uncorrupted. Corruption begins when the child is exposed to evils which abound in societies. Raising the child in an environment that is less polluted, less exposed to the ills of this world is ideal. Also, learning experiences should be arranged for the child. Rousseau maintains that children learn from the consequences of their experiences rather than from punishment. Learning is more meaningful when it is acquired through experience. Furthermore, Rousseau advocated age-appropriate teaching according to the stages of child development.

However, while Rousseau promoted that man (literally representing males) should be developed into self-governing individuals; he discussed that the ideal woman should be trained to be the subordinate of man, her husband. This aspect of Rousseau’s philosophy has expectedly been under fire (Okin 1979; Weiss 1987). With the ideal woman limited to the domestic sphere, her role is that of a wife, a mother, a homemaker. Notice that this is the function of most women in 18th to 19th century Europe (Naish 1991). This patriarchal view is no longer favorable today and may no longer be applicable in raising 21st century boys and girls. And yet, Rousseau’s philosophy in raising boys into thinking, independent individuals could now also be applied to girls.

What is good, what is bad


In Rousseau’s philosophy, goodness is equated to simplicity – a state of nature, a state of being uncorrupted by the excesses and evils of society. What is “bad” is its opposite – a state of being corrupted. It is characterized by the extravagance, decadence, debauchery which also characterized many societies in Europe at the time. A child, being born uncorrupted, cannot then be judged as innately bad. Whatever misbehavior the child commits, he has learned from his environment. A child can only be innately good.


Bertram C (2010). Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  [Accessed 19 August 2011]

Delaney J (2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Accessed 19 August 2011]

Naish C (1991). Death comes to the maiden: Sex and Execution, 1431–1933. London: Routledge.

 Okin S M (1979). Rousseau’s Natural Woman. The Journal of Politics. 41(2):393-416.

Weiss P A (1987). Rousseau, Antifeminism, and Woman’s Nature. Political Theory. 15(1):81-98.

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