From Blank Slate to a Full Heart: What Schools Can Learn from Rousseau
“Coming from the hand of the Author of all things, everything is good; in the hands of man, everything degenerates.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau from Emile, or Education
This second article in the series, “Why Schools Are the Way They Are”, focuses on the educational philosophy of the 17thcentury French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His ideas and writings build upon John Locke’s student-centered philosophy of schooling, suggesting an even more asset-based approach to education, one that values the innate character and birthright talents that our children offer. In his world, students are not just a ‘blank slate’ to be written upon with knowledge or content, and certainly do not need to be fixed or saved, but should be valued for their natural abilities and innate desire to be free, and thus, to learn. This is natural, he believed, and I would contest that most of us would agree, at least to some degree. So, why do we ignore our natural instincts, our inclinations to educate, teach and learn in a way that honors who we are, as human beings with instinct and intuition? Why do we keep trying to force learning through tests, accountability measures, and scopes and sequences? Maybe we simply lack faith, and not only in our children, but ourselves, too?
Rousseau had an undying faith in both simplicity and human nature, and believed that we are not born bad, or even ‘blank’ as Locke suggested, but with a goodness unrestricted by any social construct or cultural standard. He believed that we all have within us birthright talents born of a deeply profound desire for freedom, that could, if properly nurtured, create a more natural union between people, and even between people and the world around them. He believed that people are fundamentally good, that is at least when in their ‘natural state’, a prehistoric state of being before the rise of civilization and society. In this state of being, we did, at one point in our existence, enjoy a true love of self, or ‘amour de soi’, and while he did not argue that this self-love would guarantee any sort of moral absolute or authority, it did allow us to seek out love and comfort without concern for looking bad or selfish or anti-social. In fact, it is out of self-love realized that Rousseau believed we would find a true, pure motivation to care for others, for we would no longer be comparing ourselves to them, and would not feel the need to pursue our self-interest at the expense of another.
In essence, he was talking about what we were like when we were young children. No, we didn’t share because we thought we had to or we wouldn’t get what we wanted, but rather because we truly wanted to share; and for those of us who had trouble sharing on the playground, there was nothing wrong with that, according to Rousseau, just as long as love is at the center of it all.
Picture a child playing on the playground by herself with a doll – she is, smiling, giggling, and finding great joy in her play. Then another child wants to play with her doll, and she says no, prompting the teacher to intervene and make her share. She cries because her play was interrupted, and even the other child doesn’t want to play anymore because of the problems she created. The better way, for Rousseau, would have been to let the girl play with her doll, knowing that eventually she would want to play with others, to share he joy with them as she experienced it. Instead, we interfere, as we always tend to do because ‘sharing’ is the ‘right’ thing to do. As a teacher, I can certainly attest to how I have interfered in this way, forcing students to question their own self-love because of some utilitarian ideal. It rarely works out.
If that doesn’t make any sense, think about your last plane trip. Why is it that we should put on the oxygen make first before helping someone else in need? How could that make sense? Wouldn’t it be our better, morally good, instinct to help the children and the elderly first, and then help ourselves. Of course, but of course not. It is easy to see, in this case, that self-care would help us help others, and while not guaranteed that any one of us would even help another person in such a state of distress, it would be a guarantee that no one would if they were all passed out because of oxygen deprivation. In any case, Rousseau’s logic is hard to argue, even if morally ambiguous.
Rousseau was also somewhat of a revolutionary; his ideas have been credited for helping to spark the French and then American revolutions. His concept of the ‘Social Contract’ asserted that people want and need to be free, and that any institution or political construct that gets in the way of that should be ignored, if not rebelled against. Freedom and liberty, especially to love the self without socially constructed norms or boundaries, became his shtick, and while I do not want to argue the merits of going to war for these principles, I, again, have a hard time arguing his logic. So, what about the social, political and cultural construct of our schools and of a formal education? Do our schools provide a place for our children to experience the joyful freedom of self-love and expression? Do children feel safe to love who they are without judgment or criticism or the need to compete? I think we all know that answer to that, and while I don’t think Rousseau would have been so easy to dismiss the value of hard work or a good, healthy struggle, (it seems he liked the argument he created with just about every one of his contemporaries) he would, like many of us, be concerned for the state of our children today who are more anxious, worried, obese, and medicated more than ever.
So, towards the end of his life as a writer and philosopher, he wrote Emile, or Education, arguably his seminal work. A half-story-half-treatise of sorts, it follows a boy’s coming-of-age as he tries to maintain his natural and innate goodness despite the growing influence of a corrupt society. As he grows to be a man, Emile must navigate the rigid demands of society, one that wants him to grow up too quickly to be a productive, reasonable, political, industrious, and most of all, a “trained” man. Emile’s ‘education’, however, highlights a more natural way of growing up, one that teaches him to be free, curious and creative in lieu of these mountainous pressures.
Rousseau provides Emile a “natural education”, one that begins with birthright and continues throughout all of life. Throughout childhood, adolescence, and even into his adult life, Emile learns to balance his self-interests with that of society. He learns to be free in thought, yet thoughtful in action. He finds freedom in movement through the outdoors, and when working with his personal tutor, he learns how to go deep inside himself in search of wisdom. He learns how to read and write, of course, and even studies history, but all in an effort to get to know himself well enough so that he can be confident and secure as a man among many. Rousseau ends Emile’s story just before he achieves, what the reader can only assume, is happiness. It is hard to say why he stops just short of this end, but my guess is because of his reverence for life-long learning. If we were to finally get ‘it’, then what would there be to learn or live for, anyway?
In Emile’s story, one can see evidence of many educational theories and philosophies that we haveseen, past and present. First, he presents a developmental philosophy of education, one that isn’t about reward and punishment but about our desire to be both an individual and part of the wider world. He presents a way of teaching and learning based on relationship with the self and the other, reminding us what we value most in education: connection. He also presents a holistic model of teaching and learning, one where the mind, body and spirit are equally valued, as is the whole-child.
He shows us the importance of mentorship, and how much one can learn from those one-to-one interactions that we so seldom get in our schools anymore. He certainly alludes to the importance of inquiry, play and creativity in the learning process, and how when we give kids choice in their learning based on their interests, motivation can be learned. He shows us that every child can and will learn if given the freedom to do so with a little love, care, and guidance. He shows us how learning can be fun, even, a ‘labor of love’, if not more love than labor. I could go on and on. The point is, Rousseau had faith in our youth, and envisioned a natural way of learning that would be hard to argue against.
Of course, he could not have envisioned the politics of schooling today. In fact, while some credit him for some of the central tenets of public schooling (a free education for all designed to help us find our individual purpose in society), his vision may be far too simple to help us navigate the complexities of schooling in the 21stcentury. However, Rousseau reminds us that there are some things that cannot and should not be compromised in an education, otherwise we risk something short of, if not antithetical to, what most of us would agree is an ‘education’.
As we consider online learning models, technology integration, standardization, accountability, benchmarks, outcomes, and funding models, we need to remember the work of this important educational theorist and philosopher. We need to remember that kids are fundamentally ‘good’, that we all are. We need not fear them, or ‘fill them up’ with bad ideas that might ruin our economy or our world. Rather, we need to honor the innate goodness within our students, our kids, and give them more choice, freedom, and trust in the natural process of learning, one in which we all know works best.