Emile, or On Education
The second book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the List is not really a novel but a treatise on education. For a list of novels including this book is a bit of an odd choice.
Anyway, “Emile, or On Education” is a tough book to get through and not just because it is long.
I know that we are talking about a 260 year old treatise, but it is difficult not judge such a text with modern eyes. Half the time his ideas are monstrous and I feel like shouting: “KEEP THAT MAN AWAY FROM MY CHILD!!!”, while on the other half Rousseau are remarkable modern for his time and some of the ideas are not alien today. Whether you focus on the first or the later I suppose is a matter of temper, but it makes for a weird experience reading the book.
Rousseau takes us through the raising of a boy from infancy until marriage in that order and Rousseau has a lot to say for each stage. His main idea is that nature does things right so as closer you keep things to nature the better things are. Human civilization is the opposite of nature and that is the source of everything wrong. Therefore, a boy must be raised in the countryside spending his time in as natural activities as possible. Towns, books and science however, not to mention theater and other sophistry, is to be avoided at all cost.
A consequence of this is that Rousseau wants to avoid stuffing knowledge into the young boy’s head, claiming that knowledge the boy does not understand is useless and actually counterproductive. Instead Rousseau prepares the boy to learn. He encourages curiosity and train the child to search and deduce the answers himself by observing nature. In all things he refuses to provide the answers, and rather nudge the boy in the right direction.
To a modern ear that sounds about right. Certainly, the Danish education system has now for many years abolished root learning in preference of teaching the children the learning process. To the extend that I am sometimes shocked at how little young student actually know. Instead they are superfast at acquiring knowledge.
This principle extents to religion where Rousseau wants the boy to work out for himself what he believes in and then join the denomination that fits him the best. Again, fairly modern, but this position caused, rather predictably, quite a scandal in its time. For somebody to say that no religion can monopolize the truth and that one should stay away from dogma would, in a world where every sect believes that they and only they know the truth, be considered the worst kind of heresy. Rousseau’s book was accordingly banned and burned in many places.
Considering how big a fan of nature Rousseau was, it is surprising how antagonistic he was towards science. Doctors he considers as frauds and books are simply not worth reading. Scientific research in any form that goes beyond observing nature he considers a was of time.
On the other hand, he chooses to include a part of his own treatise on the Social Contract, a very complex, and highly regarded, piece of political science. Talk about being inconsistent.
By today’s standard the most controversial part concerns the education of girls. Rousseau was of the opinion that it is a waste of time to send girls to school. They only need to look pretty, be adept at domestic work and be submissive to their husband. I found many paragraphs that were so outrageous I had to read them aloud and laugh. Even thinking such thoughts today would get you crucified. Seriously. Though at the time, this part went down with the general public much better than the sections on religion and politics. We have, thankfully, come a long way.
Rousseau has a meandering style. Although there is a general structure to the book, the individual chapters run all over the place with segments tangential to the main themes. He was probably having a lot of fun imagining how he would like to raise children and got carried away. It was a lot less fun being the reader of this.
I cannot with a clear consciousness recommend “Emile, or On Education”. I suppose it is a good window into Rousseau’s ideas, but as casual reading this is very much uphill and any feminist would be in risk of an apoplectic stroke.