Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778)


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland, to a mother who died shortly after his birth. Some scholars (e.g., Dent, 2005) believe that this early loss of his mother had a significant effect on his personality and on his idealized form of human relationship, involving a “directness and immediacy he never experienced” (p. 8). At ten years of age, his father, a watchmaker, fled Geneva to avoid prison for a minor offense, leaving young Jean-Jacques to be raised by an uncle who eventually sent him to live with a Protestant pastor who became responsible for his education. Within a few years Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver (Scholz, 2001). Rousseau left Geneva at sixteen, wandering from place to place, finally moving to Paris in 1742, where he converted to Catholicism. Rousseau earned his living working as a footman, music teacher, tutor, and personal secretary to the French ambassador to Venice.

For much of his adult life Rousseau was considered a brilliant, undisciplined, and unconventional thinker and a poor tutor. He spent much of his adulthood driven by sensuality and paranoia; he also suffered from an enlarged prostate. Rousseau spent his time between Paris and Geneva, writing both essays and music.

Many of the controversies associated with Rousseau’s work were due to his unconventional beliefs about love, relationships, and his attempt to live by the principles he laid out in the First Discourse. He frequently initiated bitter quarrels with even supportive colleagues ( Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, Rousseau’s general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man, which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking. In his early writing, Rousseau contended that man is essentially good, a noble savage when in the state of nature (the state of all the other animals, and the condition man was in before the creation of civilization and society), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their experiences in society. He viewed society as artificial and corrupt and argued that the furthering of society results in the continuing unhappiness of man ( He minimized the importance of book learning, and recommended that a child’s emotions be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

Rousseau eventually became famous as a French political philosopher and educator, even though he had no formal education. Many writers believe that the beginning of the field of child study as a discipline can be directly traced to the publication of Rousseau’s beliefs in Emile in 1762. In Emile, Rousseau postulates that childhood is natural and a time important in itself, that a child will become increasingly fit to live in the world without adult supervision and direction, and that the child actively engages his environment, using it to suit his own interests. Although banned in France and burned in Geneva, this work was quickly translated into German and English and had a significant impact on practical reforms in educational practice. Some believe Emile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic.

It is somewhat ironic that Rousseau attempted to articulate the program of education that best fosters the true nature of man in his love of self (Scholz, 2001, p. 27), given that he refused to support the five illegitimate children he sired with Therese Le Vasseur. All of his children were deposited at the local Foundling Hospital. It is also worth noting that the man who philosophized about social contracts had such a strong personal aversion to social interactions.

In his last years, Rousseau found solace in botany and solitude (Wokler, 1995). He died July 2, 1778, of apoplexy after his usual early morning walk, and an early breakfast, Therese at his side. His remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris in 1794 and placed close to those of Voltaire.

Further Readings: Cranston, M. (1991). The noble savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Dent, N. (2005). Rousseau. New York: Routledge; Riley, P. (2001). The Cambridge companion to Rousseau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Rousseau, J. (1979). Emile: or, on education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books. Originally published in London in 1762; Rousseau, J. (1987). The social contract. Translated by Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin. Originally published in 1762; Scholz, S. (2001). On Rousseau. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Stewart, P. (2000). Selected bibliography. Available online at; Wokler, R. (1996). Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Kalinowski