Rousseau and Education 3000 words

Discuss how one of the following has examined the purpose of education.  You must direct your response to issues in Education Studies. You must select ONE from the list below: Ivan Illich (1926 – )

Howard Gardner (1943 – ) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)



It is somewhat surprising that the study of education as an academic discipline in its own right is a relatively recent phenomenon.  However, the question of how educational approaches towards children and young people should be undertaken has firm historical foundations.  Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle dedicated significant attention to how human beings learn and develop from childhood in later life (Noddings, 1995).  Therefore, accurately and effectively proffering supportable assumptions regarding the education process has long been an aim of those with philosophical persuasions.

As a discipline, education studies is ultimately concerned with accurately accounting for the manner in which people learn and develop throughout their lives (Bartlett & Burton, 2007).  Given that the focused study of education is a fairly new area of academia, education studies has invariably adopted strong interdisciplinary approaches which take account of the wider connotations of education, development and learning (Bartlett & Burton, 2007).  One key area of such interdisciplinary endeavour has centred on how education impacts upon both the individual and wider society, and how the interaction between social structures and individual learning affect educational outcomes.  Thus, at the outset it is essential to emphasise how the study of education encapsulates a wide array of academic areas.

Given the above, the purpose of this work is to provide a detailed assessment of how the eighteenth century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau conceptualised the purpose of education.  Not only was Rousseau one of the first theorists to offer a detailed appraisal of the educational process, his assertions and assumptions also personify the interdisciplinary nature of education studies in general.  As an educationalist, Rousseau was concerned with how educational processes affect the development of human beings (Boyd, 1986).  However, as a moral and political philosopher, his assumptions on the nature and purpose of education were intrinsically linked to his wider interpretation on the nature of man, and the sociological investigation of social structures and their impact on the individual (Moore, 2004).  Thus, Rousseau serves to act as a pertinent example of how the study of education requires as a prerequisite an effective understanding of wider social processes and functions.

The assessment which follows below draws heavily on Rousseau’s political philosophy and the manner in which it affected his understanding of education.  As such, his innate confidence in the intrinsic nature of man as being naturally good is utilised as a means of explaining the educational philosophy detailed in his seminal work Emile, or On Education.  In addition, on the basis of such assessment and examination it is also possible to draw clear parallels between the assumptions made by Rousseau and many of the prevailing issues which dominate academic discourse in education studies.  Ultimately, it is certainly credible to argue that Rousseau outlined a comprehensive appraisal of the individual in education long before such concerns were addressed in actual educational processes.  Thus, his legacy as a seminal thinker in educational studies is certainly secure.

As suggested above, Rousseau’s understanding of education was inextricably linked to the wider assumptions he made regarding the natural state of human beings and their interaction with society.  Therefore, in order to provide for a full exploration of Rousseau’s assumptions with regards to education, it is prudent to briefly outline the wider theoretical foundations on which such assumptions were based.

Above all, Rousseau was determined that in a natural state, man was innately good natured (Dent, 2005).  As such, he disagreed vehemently with the outlook espoused by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes had declared that in a natural state of being men were intrinsically brutal and lacked moral virtue.  This assessment of the natural state led Hobbes to conclude that an overriding power was required in order to ensure that men were prevented from engaging in their natural destructive tendencies; the sovereign state (Dent, 2005).  However, Rousseau argued that in a purely natural state free from external intervention, man was innately good and thus directed by what he termed “uncorrupted morals” (Dent, 2005; p. 54). The intervention of external forces upon mankind was what made men descend into immoral activities and destructive behaviour.   As such, Rousseau suggested that the natural nature of man is good but corrupted by wider society (Riley, 2001).

As such it is possible to see the degree to which Rousseau considered the natural state of man to be based on goodness and virtuous action.  Only when external forces came to impact upon this natural state would the negative actions of human beings become dominant.  As a leading member of the Enlightenment, Rousseau adhered to the view that social structures in eighteenth century Europe directly served to limit and constrain the innate potential of individuals (Riley, 2001).  As such, from the earliest age, individuals were subject to controls and impacts from external forces which directly resulted in the eradication of natural virtuous action.  Thus, Rousseau suggested that in order for man to develop along the virtuous lines his nature decreed, it was necessary to reduce the influence of negative external forces.  This understanding of the natural state heavily influenced Rousseau’s assumptions regarding education and the purpose of the educational process itself.

In light of Rousseau’s assumptions regarding the natural state of man, he argued that childhood education should be ordered on as natural a basis as possible.  The primary purpose of the educational process itself was to ensure that external limitations and negative social elements should not impede upon the natural development of a child (Moore, 2004).  As such, Rousseau’s assumptions regarding education centred on the preservation of the natural state of man himself.  Indeed, the opening passage of Emile begins with the line “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man” (Rousseau, 1979; p. 2).  However, ensuring such preservation in the midst of obvious social structures would clearly be difficult.  Therefore, in Emile Rousseau outlined how the dialectic between mans’ natural state and the negative influence of society could be overcome.  Above all, Rousseau’s response to the dialectic between the natural state of man and a corruptive society was to argue that children should be free from indoctrination on the basis of religion and other societal formations (Dent, 2004).  As such, in order for children to be free from the most negative effects of society it would be necessary to remove the child from formal style educational processes aimed at actively passing information and knowledge from tutor to child.  Therefore, for Rousseau, the purpose of education was to allow the child to develop along a developmental path directed by natural processes (Dent, 2004).  The individual child would thus be allowed to learn and develop on the basis of experiences undertaken and encountering the consequences of such experience.  The primary role of the tutor in this process was simply to allow the child to grow along the natural path dictated by nature (Dent, 2004).  Given that in a natural state man was innately good, Rousseau argued that the intrinsic goodness of children would manifest itself provided that natural unimpeded development was ensured.

Therefore, Rousseau addressed the conflict between individual nature and negative societal impact by arguing that the latter should be curtailed in the education process in favour of the former.  As such, the purpose of the education process itself was to ensure that a child’s moral character could naturally develop as nature intended.  The philosophical position Rousseau adopted therefore paid little attention to practical techniques of imparting knowledge from tutor to pupil.  Rather, the purpose of the education process was to allow the individual child to develop reason and virtue on the basis of learning experiences (Ward, 2004).  Given Rousseau’s preoccupation with the negative effects of wider society on children, he argued that the urban climate was not desirable for effective natural development to take place (Riley, 2001).  As such, Emile himself is educated in the countryside in a way which allows him to learn from actions he undertakes, free from protracted external influence.

The discussions and assessments undertaken above have outlined the primary assumptions which directed Rousseau’s outlook in relation to educational processes.  As suggested, Rousseau viewed the primary purpose of education as being the means through which children could develop in-line with their natural state.  This ultimate assumption was relatively unique for its time; however, although Rousseau was critical of formative structural processes in education he nonetheless outlined a clear developmental path along which a child’s education should take place (Ward, 2004).  In this regard Rousseau was one of the first theorists to systemically detail a clear outline of developmental progression among children (Ward, 2004).  Given that the educational process itself could thus be split into age-based developmental stages, then Rousseau suggested that different educational techniques should be adopted depending on the stage in question.  As with much of his outlook in relation to education, these stages of development were clearly documented in Emile.

In Emile, Rousseau outlined three primary stages of educational development among children.  The first of these occurred from birth up to the age of twelve.  In this formative stage Rousseau argued that children were motivated solely by their natural “emotions and urges” (Rousseau, 1979; p. 63).  Therefore, this formative state represented the natural basis on which later educational development would rest.  Rousseau thus concluded that traditional structural education should be avoided at this stage.  This conclusion led him to argue that books and other traditional means of learning should not be used prior to the age of twelve (Moore, 2004).  The second stage of educational development took place between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During this period of adolescence, children would begin to utilise the natural reason which had developed during their formative years.  Although greater interaction with the societal world would naturally take place during this period, Rousseau argued that it was essential that children be allowed for develop their social response naturally and as free from external intervention as possible (Rousseau, 1979).  Structural learning techniques such as books could be used at this point; however, Rousseau reasserted the primacy of individual experience during this second stage and thus reiterated the importance of natural individual development.  Finally, from the age of sixteen onwards, a child would have developed the necessary natural experience to adequately equip them with the skills necessary to exist in the social world.  Thus, provided that natural development occurred prior to the age of sixteen, Rousseau concluded that an adequate response to the nature/society dialectic could be achieved (Rousseau, 1979).

As such, it is possible to see how Rousseau’s understanding of education centred on the assumption that educational processes should be ordered in a way which would allow natural development and thus ensure individual reason could prevail in a disjointed social world.  The purpose of education was thus to allow effective freedom for children to develop in a natural fashion.  However, although the philosophical thesis outlined above would seem to suggest a strong element of utopian justice in the educational process, Rousseau’s outlook was heavily affected by innate discriminatory assumptions.  In particular, given his preoccupation with nature, Rousseau concurred with the prevailing opinion of the time in arguing that girls could not develop along the same educational line as boys (Kaseem et al, 2006).  Therefore, the thesis put forward by Rousseau contains a clear and deliberate patriarchal focus, supported on the basis of the natural state of human beings.  In this natural stage, Rousseau argued that women were by nature of their birth inferior to men, and thus their education should centre solely on their ability to act as wives and mothers (Kaseem et al, 2006).

The discriminatory foundation of Rousseau’s educational outlook would seem to suggest a lack of egalitarian justice.  Indeed, when measured against modern standards this is certainly the case, however, the focus on natural individual development as outlined above contained considerable connotations for political and moral equality in eighteenth century Europe.  As such, Rousseau was one of the first theorists to fully appreciate the impact of childhood education on later adult development (Bartlett & Burton, 2003).  Moreover, the assumptions and assertions he made regarding educational development in children remain hugely relevant to educational studies in the present day.  As such, it is necessary to offer a detailed appraisal of how the philosophical thesis outlined above has direct relevance for the study of education in the modern setting.  Indeed, when such assessment is undertaken, it is possible to draw clear parallels between the issues raised by Rousseau and those which continue to dominate academic discourse in education studies.

Firstly, Rousseau’s assumption that societal forces directly impact upon the educational development of children remains a key feature of debate in education studies.  Although the nature of the debate may have altered since the publication of Emile, Ward (2004) suggests that the interaction between children and their environment remains a central issue of concern for education professionals and academics.  Indeed, the degree to which education and wider society interact as a fundamental level highlights the continued necessary for interdisciplinary approaches in education studies.  Moore (2004) suggests that Rousseau’s interdisciplinary approach to the issue of education in many ways lay the foundation on which the discipline of education studies itself is based.  Thus, the modern relevance of Rousseau is quite clear, along with the need to utilise sociological concepts when assessing educational processes and outcomes (Moore, 2004).

Moreover, as suggested above, Rousseau’s conclusion that different stages of childhood require different educational approaches remains a consistent feature of modern education in general (Ward, 2004). Accurately defining developmental stages has proved somewhat irksome, however, the fact that such stages exist is widely accepted.  However, the foremost example of how Rousseau’s conclusions can be actively applied in relation to modern issues in education studies lies in the assumptions made in relation to natural educational processes among children, and the techniques utilised in order to ensure effective educational development.

The extent to which Rousseau’s assumptions regarding education were unique for their time is bore out in the fact that education practices have only fully appreciated their scope relatively recently.  Bartlett & Burton (2003) point out that Rousseau’s understanding of natural development in children under the age of twelve was rarely applied in practical processes prior to the 1970s.  As such, education as a method of learning invariably tended to focus on structural processes such as books and other practical materials (Bartlett & Burton, 2003).  In more recent years it has become widely recognised that informal learning processes such as play are central to effective development, particularly among younger children (Bartlett & Burton, 2003).  The extent to which such informal methods should be adopted remains a consistent area of debate, however, the assumption that such methods of learning assume an active role in educational development is widely accepted (Ward, 2004).

However, the essential issue which remains at the heart of academic discourse can be found in Rousseau’s determinations regarding natural development and placing the child at the centre of the education process itself.  Indeed, Ward (2004) points out that Rousseau is generally viewed as being the first theorist to comprehensively document the importance of what has become termed the ‘child-centred’ approach.  The modern relevance of placing the child at the centre of the education process can be found in a wide-array of academic output on the issue.  Indeed, since the mid 1990s there has been an increasing willingness to attempt a child-centred approach to education both in Western Europe and North America. (Ward, 2004).  The arguments used in favour of such approaches often tend to rest on the same assumptions as those proffered by Rousseau, namely that educational development among children is best achieved when the individual child is allowed as much freedom as possible to progress naturally and free from external impediment.  Naturally, there exist concerted arguments which suggest such approaches are detrimental.  For example, Darling (1994) argues that the child-centred approach is only successful with children who exhibit strong personal attributes and higher levels of natural educational ability.  In addition, a plethora of feminist writers beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft have offered determined denunciations of the gender based inequality on which Rousseau’s assumptions regarding education were based (Riley, 2001).  Of course, in the modern setting such conclusions would render an academic outlook redundant and open to ridicule.  However, the degree to which one offers concurrence with such arguments does nothing to alter the fact that Rousseau’s theoretical assumptions in relation to the essential purpose of education itself remain as applicable in the modern setting as they did in eighteenth century Europe.  Indeed, the fact that debate and argument persists highlights the potency of the original assertions themselves.

In conclusion, the various discussion and examinations undertaken above have provided a detailed outline of how Rousseau conceptualised the purpose of education. Above all, this outlook was ultimately based on two concurrent assumptions.  Firstly, the natural state of man is good, and that only through interaction with wider society does moral corruptness occur.  Secondly, only through effective education at a young age can men develop into their desirable natural state.  These two conclusions have remained central to the theoretical debate regarding educational purpose.  Moreover, in recent years the increasing willingness to place the child at the centre of the education process personifies the attractiveness of Rousseau’s original assertions.  Indeed, Ward (2004) points out that Rousseau’s outlook regarding the purpose of education heavily influenced the academic endeavours of later educationists such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey.  As such, it is possible to see how Rousseau can be viewed as being the first modern theorist to fully outline a philosophical understanding of education.  In many respects the continued relevance of this understanding rests in the interdisciplinary approach adopted by Rousseau.  Philosophical and sociological concepts are therefore central to the study of education in the modern setting.  The fact that education studies often represents a hybrid of other disciplines thus accounts for the diverse nature of the subject.








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