In the introduction to his 1979 translation of the Swiss-French, post-Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s classic, Emile, or on Education, the late American classicist, Allan Bloom, observed that his subject, a proud member of continental Europe’s 18th-century middle class (which, in those days, meant educated, not ‘monied’), despised the ‘bourgeois’ in his midst. Today, of course, we make no such fine distinctions between the well-educated and the economically successful.
In Emile, however, Rousseau was, in Bloom’s opinion, determined “defend man against a threat which bids fair to cause a permanent debasement of the species, the almost inevitable universal dominance of a certain low human type which (he) was the first to isolate and name.” As Bloom explained, Rousseau’s enemy was not society’s ‘less-than-one-one per cent’ of the age – not the “ancien regime, its throne, its altar, or its nobility.” The philosopher was convinced that surging egalitarianism in his own and other neighbouring societies would effectively crush the old order under a wave of revolutionary zeal.
Rather, he worried about what would surely replace it. “The real struggle would. . .concern the kind of man who was going to inhabit the (new) world,” Bloom wrote.
Parsing Rousseau’s term, the American scholar explained that “the bourgeois. . .is the man motivated by fear of violent death, the man whose primary concern is self-preservation or. . .comfortable self-preservation. . .To describe the inner workings of his soul, he is the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks only of others. He is a role-player. . .The bourgeois distinguishes his own good from the common good. His good requires society, hence he exploits others while depending on them. He must define himself in relation to them. The bourgeois comes into being when men no longer believe there is a common good.”
As for Rousseau, himself, writing in 1760 (Emile was first published two years later), he began his 500-page masterwork thusly:
“This collection of reflections and observations, disordered and almost incoherent (this brand of self-effacement was common among writers of political tracts and treatises at the time) was begun to gratify a good mother who knows how to think. I had first planned only a monograph of a few pages. My subject drew me on in spite of myself, and this monograph imperceptibly became a sort of opus, too big, doubtless, for what it contains, but too small for the matter it treats.”
He continued: “I will note that for the longest time there has been nothing but a cry against the established practice without anyone taking it upon himself to propose a better one.”
At this point, a reader familiar with both Rousseau’s and modern thinkers’ rumination on early childhood education might be tempted to assume a direct evolutionary descent (or ascent) from the former to the latter.
Indeed, strategic considerations about how best to present, or “make proposals”, to those empowered to accept, or reject, them appears not to have changed much in 250 years. As to the substance of cutting-edge thinking on best practices in early education, the alignment between the 18th and 21st centuries is, in this instance, even more provocative.
“Childhood is unknown,” Rousseau wrote. “Starting from the false idea one has of it, the farther one goes, the more one loses his way. The wisest men concentrate on what is important for men to know without considering what children are in a condition to learn. They are always seeking the man in the child without thinking of what he his before being a man.”
As for the clerics, masters, mothers, fathers and all other educators of his era, he enjoined them to “begin. . .by studying” their “pupils better. . .for most assuredly, you do not know them at all.”
How much has actually changed in two-and-a-half centuries? The wheels of social progress grind far more slowly than those of technological innovation. Our access to the Internet appears to make each and every one of us geniuses, if only in our own callow opinions.
But the finest lessons of the past, if we choose to heed them, are immutable.
Citizens of decent, intelligent, sympathetic societies are made, not born; and they are made when people collaborate on the tough, often fractious, project of educating and nurturing an empathetic, thoughtful child.
Read your history, dear reader, to appreciate the possibilities of a far finer future.