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This essay will analyse the educational theories presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne as expressed in their formative treatises on education, titled respectively Emile: Ou de l’education and de l’institution des enfants. By examining the writers’ theories of education and a consideration on the theme of authority within these inspiring works, a greater understanding of the historical and progressive path of education is achieved.
Before embarking on the essay, a brief history of the two novels will be examined. “Les Essais” was published in 1580, whereby Michel de Montaigne wrote a series of 107 essays, each describing certain themes, such as humanism, religion, law, philosophy and education openly in order to describe human nature. He was inspired by events that happened during his time and one of which was education, where he believed there should be a new method of educating children in order so that they can develop within themselves as a person.
Emile ou de l’Education was written in the eighteenth century, in 1762 and Jean Jacques Rousseau explained mostly his concepts on education in society where he compares the relationship between an individual and the society of which he lives in. Most of his concepts are still valid even today, with regards to the educational system. As he was an eighteenth century French philosopher, according to him, children should be able to study by themselves and should not be dictated what to learn. In other words, through their own living experiences, they will be able to educate themselves, rather than studying through men, as society is corrupted and evil. In order for Rousseau to present his ideas to the public, he uses his main character ‘Emile’ to do so. Emile is shown to be a young boy, who lives in the countryside. The book has three parts, where Rousseau explains Emiles early life until 12 years old, 15 years old and then adulthood.
Both these authors had their own views on education which they believed was the right manner for children of that time. These theories supported by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne reveals striking similarities, and the influence of Montaigne in Rousseau’s work is undeniable. In William Harris’s edition of de l’institution des enfants, he describes a chart which presents the similarities in both the philosophical and styles of the writers. Both theorists aim to remove the traditional thought of education, which was to teach the student a variety of facts and figures, so that there head knowledge would be filled. As an alternative, they take on an open-minded concept of education, that would later be repeated.
Rousseau and Montaigne believed that a child should learn by themselves, by personal experience. This is a major theme in Emile, whereby at the age of twelve she is “vigoureux, adroit, heureux de vivre: il n’a guere de notions abstraites, mais son intelligence pratique s’est formee par l’experience.” (L&M : 1965: 297) Rousseau knew that children were only fascinated by events which concerned them and therefore it was not necessary to teach them anything else which would be no use to them. According to Ronald Grimsley, “they base their lives on ‘l’interet present et sensible‘; since they make little use of their memory and imagination, they are content to accept their physical environment and live in a ‘present’ that excludes all concern with the past or future; they are happy because they limit their needs and desires to their immediate experience, thus illustrating the principle enunciated by Rousseau.” (Grimsley :1974:38) In other words, the moral way whereby the method can be exercised is by the child’s own experience. The focus of education must be on understanding the process of learning itself, rather than the memorisation of knowledge.
Even though the underlining message of both writers is to shift the emphasis of education away from socially constructed knowledge towards natural learning, they do differ in several ways.
While Montaigne understands the necessity of questioning specific elements in society, he eventually accepts its essential role in personal development. On the contrary, Rousseau understands that socially constructed knowledge is to be unsound and encourages the questioning of its foundational concepts. Harris writes, “Humanity is too complex to reach the millennium through any single revolution, whether it be in religion, politics, or education. Montaigne saw this vaguely, yet more clearly than did Rousseau two hundred years later.” (Harrison 10).
As Rousseau’s central preoccupation is how man should be educated naturally, it follows that his view of authority is equally progressive. According to Rousseau, the worst part of formal education is the misery which is apparent in social engagement. Indeed, central to Rousseau’s theory of education is nature and up to what extent it provides human intellectual and emotional development. That is, the ultimate goal of education is for man to take into account that worldly facts exist, but they are separated from the traditional structure that is shown in the education process. “Tout est bien sortant des mains de l‘Auteur des choses, tout degenere entre les mains de l‘homme.”(Rousseau P35) It is worth noting that while this takes on many forms, throughout Emile: ou de l‘education, one element of the negative effects of social education concerns the tutors with whom the student is engaged with.
Despite the fact that Rousseau recognises the dangerous effects society can have on a student, he is content throughout Emile, due to the fact that it is possible that the main figure, whether it is the tutor or the parents, can successfully help the student to engage in ways that will help their well-being, by continuing to protect them from the corrupting forces of society. While Rousseau presents the distrust of the traditional authority figure, in which plays a big role in the corrupt society, he acknowledges that the only way in which this ‘naturalised’ method of education within society can be achieved, is by receiving guidance of a teacher to direct him away from the social corrupts such as greed, envy, manipulation, and deceitfulness. Without the help of the authority figure, the student is unable to achieve this ‘natural’ form of education.
Rousseau does understand that the authority figure in the child’s emotional development has an essential role to play, however these thoughts are not directly acceptable to the normal student – teacher relationship. If anything, the traditional thought of a student being obedient, an open-minded individual whom accepts teacher guidance, is an antithesis of what Rousseau had anticipated. It is exactly this form of structured knowledge and instruction that Rousseau believes is corrupt. Instead, Rousseau believes that in order for a student to access the right and perfect knowledge that highlights the natural world, the teacher must not take the student as being an open receptacle of knowledge. It must be taken into consideration that this does not mean that traditional authority is disregarded for the development of a child. In actual fact, Rousseau appreciates that it is important for the authority figure to take control when a child is being exposed to specific perceptions. For instance, he argues that Emile should not be open to the concept of religion until he is older, preferably a teenager, as if he were to be involved in it earlier, it would only result in the pupil acting as an naive person of social authority, “it is a lesser evil to be unaware of the divinity than to offend it (Rousseau pg. 259).
Theorists of progressive education have been in debate when it comes to analysing the exact extent to which Rousseau illustrates authority when it is linked with education.
While some believe that the authority figure must guide the pupil towards the complete truth and reality of the world, others embrace Rousseau’s philosophical insights into the nature of instruction. In other words, they believe that it is important to move the emphasis away from the teacher being the authority figure, to instead showing or directing the pupil towards having a better understanding of the ways or processes of knowledge. With this thought, the student can now only understand the rejection of the traditional authority figure, for the essential and natural process knowledge and self-reliance.
Much like the work of Rousseau, Montaigne’s theory of education set out to restructure traditional representations and practices of educational authority. As previously mentioned, the work of both theorists share many similarities, and of course theorists have been recognising that in Rousseau there are significant influences of Montaignes’ thoughts and opinions. Furthermore, it seems that ultimately Rousseau is more willing to express the great qualities of natural knowledge. On the other hand, Montaigne remains committed in believing that when you work within a socially confined bound, you can achieve personal and intellectual development. In this regard, Rousseau’s theories can be said to have a more profound and advanced edge, while Montaigne, even though he is no less revolutionary and influential, is less willing to abandon culture and tradition.