On Rousseau and ‘progressive education’

In a comment that has become popular in the current debates, E.D. Hirsch noted in Cultural Literacy that the two stand-out names in ‘progressive’ thought are Rousseau and Dewey. Indeed, Hirsch argued that Dewey’s role in the formation of progressive education has been exaggerated, and Rousseau’s understated. This is a line which has been repeated on a number of occasions by followers of Hirsch, such as Christodoulou in Seven Myths About Education and Peal in Progressively Worse. In a recent blog post, however, Nick Dennis raised a challenge to this interpretation of Rousseau, arguing that it is just too simplistic to associate Rousseau with ‘progressive’ ideas [n.b. please see Nick’s comment below]. I want to elaborate a little on this argument in this post.

It should be noted, first, that Hirsch and his supporters (Dennis cites the British politician Nick Gibb) are not unusual in associating Rousseau with ‘progressive’ ideas. Richard Pring, for example, defends Dewey against critics of child-centred education, arguing that

‘the difficulties here lie in Dewey being placed within what is referred to as a child-centred tradition of education shared by such figures as Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori and, in recent times, A.S. Neil. They have indeed many features in common, which is what causes them to be lumped together, but there are also significant differences – one being…the importance that Dewey attached to the social and community context of individual growth. Another significant difference is the distinctive philosophical and pragmatist base to Dewey’s position… (Pring, 2007, p.79)

Pring here offers essentially the same conclusion as Hirsch, even if it is more apologetic towards Dewey – yes, there are similarities between Dewey and the ‘child-centred tradition’ of Rousseau, Froebel and others, but, for Pring, there are strong distinctions which set Dewey apart. In terms of Rousseau, he is the first named contributor to a tradition of child-centred education.

This is just an aside in Pring’s commentary on Dewey, but critics have long held that Rousseau’s ideas provided a set of founding principles on which ‘progressive’ education then developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. G.H. Bantock, one of the authors of the infamous ‘black papers’ that criticised the Plowden Report, wrote in his  two-volume history of educational thought that

Rousseau’s book achieved a succes de scandale in its own day; few educational theorists of his times – and theory now began to proliferate – ignored him. Some, like David Williams, largely welcomed his influence, some, like Edgeworth, assessed him critically, other, like Vicesimus Knox, excoriated him. His influence until our own times was largely confined to what might be termed an emerging liberal intelligentsia some of whom, influenced by a climate of opinion to which he contributed much, set up ‘progressive’ schools of their own… At a more popular level, his central notion which he shares with the romantics, that the human being is most truly ‘himself’ outside the conventional social order, has deeply affected our post-war world. It is embodied in such diverse manifestations as the current idealisation of the working classes, often by those with no first-hand knowledge of them, the phenomenon of the ‘drop-out’, the deep revulsion against any suggestion of ‘artificiality’ and the corresponding acceptance of all forms of ‘naturalness’, however repellent, the cult of ‘sincerity’ and ‘authenticity’. The renaissance ideals of achievement and transcendence, a confidence in ‘forms’ of civilised behaviour, an eager identification with sophisticated values based on historical models, a sense of vitality of the past and of the role it had to play through creative imitation, all these are currently in eclipse. (Bantock, p.283)

Writing here in the mid 1980s, Bantock sets up two visions of education – that of the Romantics and that of the Humanists – and argues that the latter is ‘in eclipse’, and with Rousseau’s ideas associated with the former. Darling, writing in the early days of the National Curriculum in 1993, offered a different take on Rousseau. He does not reject associating Rousseau with progressive education out of hand, recognising that

‘there is some validity in this conventional image. The views expressed on educational aims in Emile  are frequently couched in terms of ‘happiness’ and ’freedom’ – concepts which have featured prominently in all subsequent child-centred thinking. Experiential learning and discovery methods are central, as is Rousseau’s refusal to force the pace, aiming for understanding rather than for accelerated learning. Education should be tailored to the capacities and inclinations of the individual child, and the whole operation should be underpinned by an understanding of how children think, and how they develop. All this suggests that Rousseau belongs firmly to the tradition that runs from Froebel and Montessori to the Plowden Report.’ (p.34)

Darling, however, sees Rousseau more as a utilitarian:

‘Far from presenting children’s learning in a romantic glow of the kind that becomes so cloying in the writing of Froebel, Rousseau sees the child’s interaction with the natural environment as essentially pragmatic… Rousseau’s reasons for advocating problem-solving, independent thinking and practical knowledge add up to a utilitarian view of education.’ (p.35)

Rousseau is here, to use Darling’s term, to be taken as a ‘progressive instrumentalist’. From our standpoint a quarter of a century later, this sounds remarkably like the vision of education set out by the ‘21st-century skills’ movement. An even more complex position is adopted by Jurgen Oelkers, who argued that Rousseau was misunderstood by his followers in the nineteenth century. For Oelkers, Rousseau became ‘modern’ education’s hero “mostly due to cult and legend and not because he was read but because he found admiration (p.203).” Nevertheless, Oelkers argued, “before World War II it was common sense in the history of education that “new education” started with Rousseau and no one else (p.204).”

Scholars have therefore brought a great deal of nuance to the idea that Rousseau was the father of progressive education. It certainly was not the case that Rousseau saw himself as aiming to establish a new form of schooling; his educational thought, at least in Emile, was part of a far wider account of the nature of humanity and the relationship of individual to society. It would, equally, be misleading to lift Rousseau out of a trend in educational thought that did promote ideas which were subsequently called ‘progressive’: Emile is, for Martin & Martin, the most influential text in the history of education, after Plato’s Republic. They perhaps put it most succinctly in concluding that

‘it would be foolish to make strong claims in support of a solely Rousseauian genesis for the general lines of continuing influence… However, there can be little doubt that Rousseau’s highly innovative and idiosyncratic life, work and writings constitute important sources of many of these [‘child-centred’] educational ideas and practices (p.96).’

This is however a conclusion that Nick Dennis has argued against. Dennis goes beyond the usual stomping ground of Emile, and brings in other work written by Rousseau. The key text in this argument is Considerations on the Government of Poland, a work written eight years after Emile, and indeed after the significant backlash against Emile (and The Social Contract) which saw Rousseau’s books burnt in Paris and Geneva, and his move to England to escape arrest. Considerations on the Government of Poland offers a radically different view of education to Emile, arguing for a form of political indoctrination that ensures that the body politic can come together as citizens in the political life of the state. There is in this account an emphasis on a common curriculum, government regulation of schools and assessment of students to ensure they are adhering to what is being taught. The contrast between this work and Emile is stark.

Why did this contradiction exist? Did Rousseau change his mind about education over time, particularly in the light of the rather traumatic experiences he suffered in the late 1760s? Geraint Parry suggests otherwise:

‘In Emile [Rousseau] produces an account of an education that is designed to allow persons to live an honest life even when surrounded by the pressures of a corrupt society. It is intended to portray an ideal of education that is as close to nature as it is possible to attain in the world as we now find it. In total and intended contrast is the education for citizenship that he describes in On Political Economy, Considerations on the Government of Poland and the Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theatre. Here the reader is offered an alternative vision of an education that deliberately “denatures” human beings but allows them to live a satisfying communal life (p.249).’

The difference between the two texts is one of purpose: one work concerns an almost idealistic notion of how to educate a child in a manner that is ‘as close to nature’ as possible; the other is a pragmatic account of how education can be used as a tool for citizenship. These contradictions remind us that Rousseau was not a philosopher of education: he was a political and social philosopher, a commentator on the world as he saw it in the late eighteenth century, and his ideas about education are derivative of this wider analysis.

In terms of establishing Rousseau’s contribution to educational thought, much therefore rests on his legacy and how those who followed him – both supporters and critics – selected from and used his ideas. Although the text often attracts the interest of historians of political thought, Considerations on the Government of Poland is rarely referenced in the history or philosophy of education. Why is this? In part, it might simply be that Considerations on the Government of Poland was not offering anything particularly radical or new. The idea of education being a tool of building citizenship (or indoctrination, whichever way you want to cast it) was part of a tradition of seeing education as a political tool that stretches back to the ancient world, not least in Plato’s Republic. Emile, in contrast, offered something radical and different, if not without precedent, and it is perhaps not surprisingly that it was this text that attracted the vast majority of the subsequent attention. The argument I suppose would run that, whereas the ideas about education set out in Considerations on the Government of Poland were highly context-bound and relevant only to the rather complex political situation in Poland at Rousseau’s time, the more abstract and idealistic view of education offered in Emile is more transcendent, offering insights into contemporary education as well as the eighteenth century. Indeed, it was Emile that Rousseau later, in Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques, referred to as his “greatest and best book”. This posthumously published text sees Rousseau write about himself in the third person in an attempt to justify his life’s work. He wrote

He has been scorned by them and by his whole era for having always maintained that man is good although men are wicked, that his virtues came from within and his vices from outside. He devoted his greatest and best book to showing how the harmful passions enter our souls, how good education must be purely negative, that it must consist not in curing the vices of the human heart – for there are no such vices naturally – but in preventing them from being born and in keeping tightly shut the passages through which they enter.

Where does all of this leave us in the light of the critique offered by Dennis? There can be no doubt that Rousseau’s views about education were intricately interwoven with his political and social philosophy. It certainly is true that, in educational circles, Emile is the text which has attracted the greatest interest and had the most influence over subsequent developments in educational thought. To cast Rousseau as the great arch-progressive would simply be wrong. Equally, a number of the key features of what later became known as ‘progressive’ education are stated with great clarity in Emile, and to understate these and the influence they subsequently had would be as misleading as an attempt to suggest that Emile represents the totality of Rousseau’s thought about education.

Works cited

  • Bantock, G.H., Studies in the History of Educational Theory, Volume 1, Artifice and Nature, 1350-1765, (George Allen & Unwin, 1980)
  • Darling, J., ‘Rousseau as Progressive Instrumentalist’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 27.1, (1993)
  • Martin, J. & Martin, N., ‘Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ and Educational Legacy’ in The SAGE Handbook of Philosophy of Education. eds. Bailey, R., Barrow, R., Carr, D. & McCarthy, C., (Sage, 2010)
  • Oelkers, J., Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (Bloomsbury, 2014)
  • Parry, G. ‘Emile: Learning to be Men, Women, and Citizens’ in The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, ed. Riley, P., (Cambridge, 2001)
  • Pring, R., John Dewey, (Bloomsbury, 2007)





5 Comments on On Rousseau and ‘progressive education’

  1. As an exercise in navel gazing this article fits the bill. To a traditional educator I can imagine this stuff is quite profound.

    For me however, it is all completely irrelevant. I engage my learners in activities that will help them develop 21st century skills. These 21st century skills are in the main simply 20th century skills reengineered for new technology and the 20th century skills reengineered for new technology also.

    Although I do not suggest that 21st century skills are all completely different to 20th century skills in all respects, the issues raised by technological change (mainly) cannot be ignored.

    It really doesn’t concern me whether the roots of what you like to call progressivism can be seen in the work and thoughts of Rousseau or Dewey or whether they are not.

    For me the world is about the present and the future. In 2018 people really are able to envision a future that is not weighed down by the tedium of the past. The future will not be manufactured by thinking and tweaking the past. I can understand that as a History teacher, you may have an interest in looking at the world in this way and you are on a mission to make things how you think they can be based upon what has been.

    Others have a vision of how things might be, based upon reengineering things into something different.

    I am an old person compared to many teachers currently in education, and I see your ideas as old fashioned and outdated. Reliance upon evidence of what used to work well is outdated and largely ineffective.

    Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan hit the nail on the head when he wrote……

    “Come mothers and fathers
    Throughout the land
    And don’t criticize
    What you can’t understand
    Your sons and your daughters
    Are beyond your command
    Your old road is
    Rapidly agin’.
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand
    For the times they are a-changin’.”

    You are in danger of being left behind. What you have written makes interesting reading and the sentiments expressd are fairly sound, but it is all irrelevant.

    Progressive is about progress, and progress appears to be overtaking you at close to the speed of light.

    Live long and prosper, and keep safe. Try not to sink like a stone, it would be such a waste of talent

    • Michael Fordham // 11 March 2018 at 19:54 // Reply

      It’s very rare indeed that I disallow a comment, but I came very close with this one. If you have something constructive and substantive to say, go for it. If you think something I (and others) find interesting is irrelevant, then that’s fine, but please don’t waste your time or mine telling me it is irrelevant. I will not approve comments of this kind in future.

  2. Tom Burkard // 11 March 2018 at 20:24 // Reply

    I suspect that the contrast between ‘Emile’ and ‘Considerations on the Government of Poland’ can best be understood in light of the Enlightenment view that the masses were not capable of reasoning. Emile concerned the education of a gentleman’s son, who as a matter of course would have had a governess or a private tutor. The latter book was about the education of the masses, so it is hardly surprising that social control was a major consideration.

    It is always wise to bear in mind that education–even in Steiner schools–is always about imposing authority. People do not become educators without the aim of directing children’s growth. Whether the preferred model is revolutionary—as was Rousseau’s—or whether it is conservative, the aim is always to change or shape the child in some manner. These aims may be limited to imparting certain skills, such as literacy or woodworking, but more frequently they are part of a moral vision of what a man or a woman ought to be.

    Rousseau was no different. RS Peters comments that “…the methods of learning from Nature and things are so contrived and controlled that even Skinner might be envious… the tutor, who is the only model available to the child, exercises his authority by structuring Emile’s learning environment, not by directly imposing his will on him.”

  3. I think there is a misrepresentation here about the argument I was making. Let me be very clear. Rousseau’s Emile influenced a lot of people. I don’t deny that at all. What I do have trouble with is reading it in isolation from his other work, ignoring key issues about authority, power, who can be educated and not reading it at all but plundering quotes to add supposed intellectual weight to political arguments about education.

    Regarding Considerations, my view is that it talks about not just the concrete but also the curriculum. If, as you have been making the case, people have been interested in pedagogy, not curriculum design, that provides a key drive to read Emile and not Considerations. Emile is also very specific but it is taken to be universal when it was not. It takes as its central referent a healthy, white male. To see this as universal reveals a whole host of issues that a blog post comment cannot really address.

You can offer your thoughts here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: