Thoughts - Emile (Rousseau)

This is the fourth in a series of short posts that stem from readings and classroom discussions in the course EDU S105 Philosophy of Education. Here is a link to the first post that also serves as an introduction to the series. Each post contains a link to the next post.

As always, try to make connections between the points and your past and current experiences in life. Ask yourself if (or how) you see these points playing out in the world around you today.

Each text and classroom discussion brought forth many ideas - not always connected and sometimes even at odds with each other! Thus, the posts in this series might lack the comfort of coherence. Think of the points as scattered seeds of thought...

For this classroom session, the assigned text was Emile by Rousseau. The reading is freely available online and can be found here.

Personally, this was one of the texts that raised points on learning-teaching-education which I often didn't agree with. However, I believe that considering such viewpoints is important as it makes one question the assumptions on which their beliefs rest.


  • The premise of Emile is that knowledge can be obtained from nature, things and people. Rousseau believed that these three ways were antithetical to one another.
  • Rousseau believed that children below the age of 12 should not be reasoned with. Over time, they will understand the 'why' behind the things that adults tell them by learning through their own experiences.


  • Teaching towards an end goal of a test might seem irrational to children; however, they do it because they are forced to with the promise of a brighter future and better opportunities.
  • Rousseau was concerned about keeping Emile from wrong. He believed that it was better for Emile to be ignorant about certain things than to make grave errors.
  • Between the ages of 12 to 15 years, let a child discover. Substituting authority for reason may result in the child ceasing to reason altogether.


  • Rousseau believed that the first education that a child should receive is about man and his/her environment.
  • Humans need to experience some suffering to be able to show empathy. We never show pity unless we realise that we may suffer in a similar way.
  • Should children have freedom? If so, to what degree and in what spheres? How can adults see that children have freedom while being protective of them when they are vulnerable?
  • All freedom comes with limitations - be it political, social or educational.
  • Books may help us in understanding views from the perspective of the writer/narrator. However, Rousseau did not trust fiction and books as he lived in a corrupt time where the social order could change any day.
  • Since Rousseau was skeptical of the social order, he aimed to provide Emile with an individualistic education to make him autonomous and prepared for whatever turn society might take.
  • Claiming a child's obedience in return for the care you bestowed upon him/her is unfair; it binds the child to a bargain that he/she never made or agreed to.
  • History tends to magnify evil deeds. It is unable to track the evolution of facts and only captures snapshots of individuals and events.


  1. Very important to read into his context. Thanks for sharing the article and reading, Shreyas.

    1. I agree. Frankly, Rousseau was one of the philosophers whose ideas I struggled to wrap my head around and often found myself disagreeing with. While being aware of the times during which he wrote 'Emile' is important, the way in which some of his ideas would fall flat (or be highly contentious) today shows how fluid and changing culture is.

  2. I see where Rousseau came from. It would be interesting to see comparison from other philosphers in a couple of generations before and after him, added with your reflections.

  3. I couldn’t read the text. So my observations are solely based on your post. Again, a very thought provoking piece. May be you could help me with these-
    1. By antithetical, are we referring to ‘contrasting’ or ‘connected’?
    2. When Rousseau says u12 children shouldn’t be reasoned with, does he imply the use of authority?
    3. ‘Studying for tests with the promise of a better future’- What do we infer from it about the continuance of the practice?
    4. Children having freedom and keeping Emile ignorant for her protection. We can infer curtailment of the freedom of knowledge for children as well. How does this restriction look like? Does it make sense practically? Till what age, someone qualifies as children? 12?
    5. Claiming a child’s obedience and learning empathy- true they never agreed to it. But can it be expected of a child to empathise with their parents. But at the same time empathising would be a form of reasoning. Which we can’t expect them to do till they are 12. Do I see a slight contradiction in these statements?

  4. Responding to your thoughts in order...

    1.) 'connected'. Rousseau believed that the growth of our body and faculties is the education of nature, the use we learn to make of this growth is the education of men and what we gain by our experience of our surroundings is the education of things. Thus, we are each taught by three masters.

    2.) Yes, he does. In fact, in the text, he says that children under 12 should listen to adults and take what they say as true.

    3.) Perhaps, we can infer that a more suitable alternative is yet to be practically realised? So, maybe it is a case of something better than nothing? Or maybe it is because it aids in categorising children into buckets and drawing generalisations about them? Another way of looking at it is something that I plan to touch upon in a later post - the gatekeeper role of education and how it is, by design, exclusionary.

    4.) Rousseau proposes a close but isolated bond between the teacher and Emile. Personally, I do not find this practical and do not believe that it will prepare Emile to function in society. I also found the ages chosen by Rousseau to be fairly arbitrary and don't think one can say that a child transitions to an adult at a particular age - it is much more nuanced and gradual than that!

    5.) Rousseau meant this in the context of when the child is older. For example, parents insisting that a child go into a particular profession by reminding them about how much they (the parents) cared for him/her when he/she was younger would be an example of trying to claim a child's obedience through an unfair bargain.


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