Jean Jacques Rousseau, Modern Developmental Psychology, and Education

Willem Koops. European Journal of Developmental Psychology. Volume 9, Issue 1. 2012.

The citizen of the West is a Child of the Enlightenment. Consequently, anyone wishing to think, speak and write about children, such as this writer, must get to grips with the Enlightenment. With the focus on children, one cannot avoid having to get to grips with Rousseau. In this paper, a broad outline is first presented of Rousseau the person and his work. This reveals that ultimately only one subject is of primary importance in Rousseau’s work, namely the upbringing of the child (and the citizen).

Subsequently, the paper addresses the appreciation of Rousseau’s child-raising ideas at the time of the Enlightenment. This appreciation, in particular in German-speaking regions, led to the development of public education based on the principles of child-raising as described in Rousseau’s Émile: or, On Education (1762/1763). By way of the progressive thinking of the Enlightenment and of German Romanticism, child development became the focus of attention. In our own time the child of the Enlightenment has ceased to be in evidence; this is chiefly attributable to the effects of modern electronic media. The chapter concludes by identifying the contemporary new opportunities for child-raising and development and by stating how these might be encouraged by taking Rousseau’s work as an example.

The Pedagogical Intentions of Rousseau’s Work

Jean Jacques Rousseau was a negative thinker full of paradoxes, if not downright contradictions. A negative: contrary to the Belief in Progress subscribed to by his contemporaries, he believed that arts and sciences had given civilization little of value. Quite the opposite, they were more likely to have morally corrupted the common man. In contrast to Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau regarded the foundation of the State as the source of corruption, hate, envy and war; not the State but the natural state is the desired form of civilization, without cities, those sewers of civilization. Rousseau’s pedagogy is negative: child-raising, he writes in his famous 1762/1763 work Émile: or, On Education, is the difficult art of ruling without a mandate and of doing everything by doing nothing.

His work is riddled with contradictions. These are usually described as paradoxes by most Rousseau experts in an endless series of publications on Rousseau himself and his work. As a result of this, Rousseau’s work has something of the quality of a chameleon: it assumes as it were the colour and meaning bestowed by the reader. A marvellous utterance by Rousseau himself on paradoxes is to be found in Émile. It reads as follows, “Forgive me my paradoxes; one must make them when one reflects; and whatever you may say, I prefer being a man with paradoxes than a man with prejudices”. Now take, for example, The Social Contract, in which Rousseau argues for the equality of all citizens: all the contracting partners are equal. This insight is itself an outstanding political virtue. The contract relies on the Volonté Génerale [general will]. Citizens must respect the laws, which are derived from the Volonté Génerale that is the general will of all citizens. Citizens are obliged to submit of their own free will to the laws of the State, which after all are based on their own wishes, as bundled together in the Volonté Génerale. This Volonté is a rather abstract concept. It is a sort of guiding idea but one that is difficult to put into practice. For example, Rousseau believes that the Volonté Génerale cannot be represented in, say, parliament and constituent parliaments. He states quite simply that the monarch is the expression of the Volonté Génerale. Against this background, we need not be surprised that Rousseau’s The Social Contract is used as justification of both democratic forms of state and totalitarian states. For the sake of amusement, I checked in Das Kapital by Marx, where I found a lovely reference to Rousseau, who writes the following in his Discourse on Political Economy, 1755, “I will allow you, says the capitalist, the honour of serving me, on the condition that you give to me the little that remains to you for the trouble I take to command you”. Just as Marx could be used to set up totalitarian systems, in which after all the will of the people, of the proletarians, is carried out by the state power, so Rousseau’s Volonté Génerale can also be used to justify totalitarian forms of state. The Social Contract is actually the paradox of a totalitarian democracy.

It can be said, and many Rousseau authorities do say, that in almost all modern—and present day—discussions about democracy, about justice, about human rights, about international relations, about education, child-raising and schooling, about what we now refer to as environmental issues, about legislation, about good governance, about the sociological approach to human relations, about individualism and egocentrism, about the tension between the individual and the group, and so on, we always encounter the aftermath of Rousseau.

For me, ultimately, Rousseau is of the greatest importance for his pedagogy and developmental psychology. And I am not referring by any means solely to Émile: or, On Education. From Rousseau’s first Discourse up to and including The Social Contract, he describes a transition of the individual from how he is in contemporary society (i.e., society in Rousseau’s time) to how he could be were he to live in a society with the right laws and institutions. And to achieve this, it is necessary to create the ideal person by means of child-raising (see Wain, 2011). Accordingly, in Julie, or the New Heloise, Rousseau describes the ideal family upbringing, yet finally conceives such a deep mistrust of the French family in his own era that he writes Émile, his concluding masterpiece, in which a fictional young boy is taken from his family and raised to maturity (and further) by a tutor very similar to Rousseau himself to become that ideal type of person whom, as it were, makes possible the ideal society as described in, for example, The Social Contract and the ideal family as in Julie.

What is special about Émile is that Rousseau himself was explicitly of the opinion that this book should not be used as a practical guide to raising children. This was a revolutionary book, one in which he left no doubt that he found the French culture of his time abhorrent and that he wrote, primarily, to demonstrate that this culture should not be replicated. Oddly enough, this book was indeed taken as the starting point for child-raising and, thanks to the enthusiasm of, among others, Immanuel Kant, Goethe and Lessing, it achieved the status of a sort of pedagogical cult book and, by way of German pedagogues (the Philantropines led by Basedow) and the Swiss Pestalozzi, it resulted ultimately in the organization of public education in accordance with the developmental path it describes. And so it is not so strange that 250 years later the development psychologist Jean Piaget encountered children with whom it could be established empirically that, broadly speaking, they were following the development pathways of Émile. It is true to say that the view of child development held by Jean Jacques Rousseau became reality and has culturally been constructed within Europe.

Should we wish to regard Rousseau as a great and important thinker rather than a chaotic schizophrenic and a paranoid eccentric obsessed with contradictions and paradoxes, this should be chiefly by virtue of the enduring effect of his books on the realization of our Western culture, in particular on the raising and development of children. I believe that Rousseau, who knew nothing of children but who had a rich literary fantasy, very clearly validates the famous quote by Einstein: “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Enlightenment and Child Development

A scholar who wants to think, speak and write about children has no choice but to come to terms with the Enlightenment. This call takes us to the greatest Enlightenment philosopher of all, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who said: “… autonomous thinking is finding the ultimate test of truth in oneself (i.e., in one’s own reason); and the fundamental principle of continuously autonomous thinking is Enlightenment”. Kant admired Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose Émile, ou de l’éducation from 1762 he called “the birth certificate of pedagogy” (see Prins, 1963, p. 139), and which work was later received with at least equal enthusiasm by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) as “the natural gospel of education”, and by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) as a “divine work” (see Soëtard, 1989, p. 144). It is good to note that hardly any philosopher has been written about as much as Rousseau, including voluminous literature on the reception of Rousseau’s thinking as such (e.g., L’Aminot, 1992). Classical works on Rousseau include: Cassirer (1932, 1955), Burgelin (1952), and Rang (1959). An accessible and abundantly illustrated biography is Soëtard (1989). Many Works of Rousseau were originally printed and published in Amsterdam; in The Netherlands there has always been a profound and scholarly interest in Rousseau’s (pedagogical) ideas as for example: Roland Holst (1918), Brugmans (1951), Van der Velde (1967). Furthermore, there is a continuing series entitled Annales de la Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau from Geneva (since 1905).

I have a strong conviction that no educationalist or developmental psychologist can bear this professional title with honour without having determined his or her own standpoint in relation to Rousseau’s Émile. Until some 50 years ago, many colleagues would have endorsed this without a doubt. I am afraid that now they may ironically shrug their shoulders, for what importance has history to modern empirical researchers?

What message did Rousseau wish to convey? He claimed that pedagogy should be child-oriented; and that there are age-related stages, to which the approach towards the child, including the pedagogical and educational approach, must be tailored; and that children must only be offered knowledge when they display a need for it. Moreover, knowledge must spring from a child’s own explorations, from hands-on experience, preferably not from books. A child should certainly not be exposed to wisdom from books before the age of 12! Despite much enthusiasm, from Kant among others, Rousseau’s book should in the first place be regarded as a revolutionary Enlightenment text, not as a pedagogical handbook. His book stemmed from the tradition that Jonathan Israel named “radical Enlightenment” (Israel, 2001, 2005).

According to Israel, the key figure of this radical Enlightenment is Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), the great Dutch philosopher. The Epilogue of Israel’s book is entitled: Rousseau, radicalism, revolution. Spinoza by way of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) led to Rousseau and the French revolution. The Émile was indeed radical. In the Émile the author pointed out that he did not only rebel against French society, but also and foremost against its reproduction (Soëtard, 1989, p. 97). Rousseau thought that children should be taken “back to nature” (however, this expression did not appear in his writings, but in those of his commentators). With “back to nature” Rousseau meant: as far away as possible from Parisian decadence. Children should learn to think autonomously, without being led astray by French culture, without following other people’s wisdom from books. This Enlightenment idea is the radical expression of the primacy of the autonomously thinking individual, which had great appeal to Kant. And this is the reason that Rousseau’s Émile is a book for philosophers, not for educationalists, fathers and mothers, as Rousseau emphasized (Bloom, 1979, p. 28). However, to no avail!

The first four books (parts) of the Émile describe the stages of a child’s cognitive and moral development, and also how the up-bringer must respect and be in keeping with these stages. The correspondence with the theory of the future founder of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), in his lifetime director of “l’Institut J.-J. Rousseau” in Geneva, is striking. Thanks to Piaget’s research on cognitive development, the Institute became the most prestigious centre for pedagogical and developmental psychological research worldwide for the largest part of the twentieth century. Piaget’s and Rousseau’s stage theories are like two peas in a pod. It should be realized that Piaget’s stage theory is deemed to be the result of unprecedented large-scale and worldwide, be it mainly Western, empirical research. Particularly, observing his own three children was a rich source of scientific ideas to Piaget. Contrastingly, Rousseau abandoned his five children immediately after birth; he did not like children of flesh and blood at all. The boy Émile is a mere literary concoction. So, how can it be that Piaget discovered in empirical research what Rousseau had made up in the process of writing? I think there is a simple answer: European education, particularly in public schools, was shaped according to Rousseau’s ideas, despite Rousseau’s warnings. Below this process is described in a nutshell.

Rousseau and Elementary Schools

The most important source of Rousseauian education was located in Dessau, Germany, home to the Philanthropinum, a model school, also teacher-training school, founded by educationalist Johann Bernard Basedow (1724-1790). The fact that these educationalists called themselves “philanthropists” displayed a pedagogical enthusiasm, very much in accordance with the Rousseauian belief in a benign human nature. They were dedicated to “natural education” and aimed at “… developing a child’s possibilities as freely as possible, creating a cheerful development and learning atmosphere, stimulating autonomous thinking, and facilitating a world orientation and practical attitude to life. Johann Friedrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), an educationalist who was inspired by these Philanthropines, implemented Rousseau’s educational ideas in Switzerland. He and his wife Anna read and commented on the Émile and preferred to call their son Jacob by the name of Jean-Jacques.

The ideas of the Philanthropines and Pestalozzi not only influenced each other, but also reached the homes of modern upper-middle-class citizens. A fine example is the upbringing of Otto van Eck, which Baggerman and Dekker (2005, 2006, 2009) have reported on. The enlightened environment, in which Otto was raised in The Hague (The Netherlands) around 1780, had been introduced to modern educational methods. This boy’s everyday life, which has remained accessible through his diaries, is much like Émile’s life. He has his own garden, in which he seeds and plants and harvests. He walks around carrying his weeder, hammer and chisel, accompanied by a goat. Clearly, his father, a patriot and Batavian revolutionary, had learnt a lot from Rousseau. His son Otto had to be raised on the land, in close contact with nature, far away from what Rousseau had called “the sewers of the human race” (see Baggerman & Dekker, 2006, p. 39). The Philanthropines adopted these principles from Rousseau and passed them on to the upper middle class.

The second half of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of the establishment of Primary Schools (De Swaan, 2004) in Prussia. They were inspired by both the Philanthropines in Dessau and Pestalozzi in Switzerland. In The Netherlands, the initiative was mainly taken by the Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen [Society for the Benefit of the Public]. This organization was founded in Edam in 1784 (see Mijnhardt & Wichers, 1984) by Jan Nieuwenhuyzen (1724-1806), a Mennonite preacher in Monnikendam. Het Nut founded many primary schools and a number of teacher training schools, published numerous educational books and took to translating and editing foreign pedagogical works (mainly from Dessau and Pestalozzi’s Switzerland). Also, it established public libraries and savings banks, and held courses for adults, providing systematic information on vital questions and general knowledge. In 1796, Het Nut submitted a proposal to the National Assembly to centrally organize education and to found a general national school. It is in this spirit that the first Dutch School Acts for primary education of 1801, 1803 and 1806 were adopted. The Seminary for Pedagogy in Amsterdam, founded in 1918 at the instigation of Philipp Abraham Kohnstamm (1875-1951), must be mentioned separately. Physicist Kohnstamm became extraordinary professor of pedagogy on account of Het Nut, and is generally considered as the father of Dutch pedagogy.

This nutshell description of the history of education and upbringing so far can be summarized as follows. German, Swiss and Dutch modern pedagogy of the nineteenth century can be traced back to Rousseau and, by way of a Rousseauian organization of the Primary School (originally a Prussian initiative), institutionalized and in a culturally historical way realized the ideas on child development Rousseau devised at his writing table. So much so that in the twentieth century Piaget’s empirical research reveals a developmental course that is very similar to the prototypical development of Rousseau’s Émile.

End of the Rousseau-Piaget Tradition?

Our contemporary picture of the child and the child-friendly development is based on the Rousseau-Piaget tradition touched upon above. Our thoughts on child-raising are entirely consistent with this tradition. These days, however, fundamental doubts exist as to the longevity of the frame offered by this tradition (see Koops, 2011, for a detailed exposition).

According to culture critic and media specialist Neil Postman (1931-2003), the Western child started to disappear in the early 1960s (Postman, 1982/1992). Following the beliefs of Ariès (Ariès, 1960, 1962; Koops, 1996, 2004, 2011), Postman observed that without education, or better without schools, there are no children in the modern sense of the word. After all: “In an illiterate society (like that of the Middle Ages) there was no need to sharply distinguish between children and adults, such a society harbours few secrets, and civilization does not need to supply education in order to understand itself” (Postman, 1982/1992, p. 22). The notion of the “child” is redundant if everyone shares the same information environment and lives in the same social and intellectual world. In the wake of many media experts and historians, Postman believed that the art of printing created a new world of symbols, which in its turn required a new interpretation of the notion of “adulthood” (Postman, 1982/1992, p. 28).

The child originated from an environment in which the information in books was controlled by adults and was gradually supplied to children. However, anonymization as a result of telegraphy caused a development which would ultimately take away information from the authority of parents and the family. After the invention of telegraphy, this development was boosted by a continuous stream of inventions: the rotation press, camera, telephone, gramophone, film, radio, television (Postman, 1982/1992, p. 76), culminating in what was not described by Postman, the launch of the internet. Mainly because these modern means of communication primarily use image language, the typical characteristic of childlikeness, illiteracy, loses its meaning.

Interestingly, the period discussed by Postman in relation to the disappearance of childhood, the 1970s, also witnessed an unprecedented large global research effort, centring on undermining Piaget’s structural cognitive theory. In other words, the non-interconvertible developmental stages, referred to as cognitive structures, were gradually replaced by continuous domain-specific developmental processes. Neo-Piagetian research from that time undermined the presumptions of the Rousseau-Piaget tradition, which emphasized the inaccessibility of childlike thinking, like never before. The fanaticism with which the origins of all kinds of childlike rationality were explored, caused many a researcher to end up as an “infancy expert” (Koops, 1990, 2004). This post neo-Piagetian research, among other things, resulted in research on the child’s Theory of Mind experimentally demonstrating how 2- to 3-year-old children already have a command of current lay psychology, based on a simple theory of desires and beliefs. Meanwhile, the search for the increasingly younger origins of generally human means of communication has not come to an end. Onishi and Baillargeon (2005), for example, demonstrated in a fine article in Science that 13-month-old babies basically have a command of generally human, ordinary communication principles (“beliefs” and “desires”). Remarkably, cultural historical developments—the disappearance of traditional childhood—go hand in hand with the experimental empirical scientific search for (and finding of!) generally human and age-independent means of communication. To put it briefly, developmental psychology moves with the tides of culture (Kessen, 1979).

New Possibilities?

It will be clear that the modern Western child, construed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the Enlightened child—disappeared in the second half of the twentieth century. Traditional upbringing was referred to as “Bringing up by keeping small” in a much quoted publication of Dasberg (1975). In essence, it boiled down to setting the child apart from the adult world—this [process] is called infantilization (see Koops, 2011; Koops & Zuckerman, 2003)—and leading it step by step into that adult world by what was called upbringing. This style of upbringing has become outmoded: such that borders and border guards have become inoperative. Mainly through electronic media, today’s children have access to the adult world from the beginning, including the world of violence and sex, areas in which children on the basis of the then current pedagogy were not allowed access for two and a half centuries. Given the child’s access to the internet, it is an improbable atavism that American parents as late as in 2006 pressed charges against teachers persisting in marking school work with red ink (Stearns, 2009). The parents feared that the feeble self-esteem of their vulnerable children would be damaged.

Raising children will have to be reinvented. We are assisted by a tremendous amount of sophisticated and splendid studies on child behaviour and on that of their up-bringers: the production of empirical research data by developmental psychologists and educationalists is incredible extensive. And all this research is potentially helpful. However, I would like to point out that all this research will only prove advantageous if we know what our objective is with regard to children, and that is what we are in the dark about. Worse still, modern academic pedagogy is hardly occupied with it. People who, like me, are followers of Kant’s much maligned successor, educationalist Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), are convinced that pedagogy as a science cannot do without ethics on the one hand and (developmental) psychology on the other (Herbart, 1841).

Let us return for a final time to the example set by Rousseau. His incredibly effective book on education was a book on a new ethical person in a Utopian society. This very context turned his book into such a success. Like Rousseau, we could and should develop a vision of an ideal society in the spirit of which we would like to raise our children. In doing so, I recommend restoring the Enlightenment principles of rationality and autonomous and critical thinking; high-grade ethical principles forming the basis of a modern “Contrat Social” (Rousseau, 1762); and commitment to a democratic society in which freedom of speech and inter-human respect are balanced.

Alas, we are not yet at the point at which we can actually offer a “new pedagogy”, and perhaps we never will be. But what we can do is encourage a multidisciplinary debate concerning child-raising and, in so doing, continually place the discussion with researchers and thinkers in the cultural-historical context, so that child-raising is discussed and studied as a mirror of civilization, entirely in the spirit of Jean Jacques Rousseau.