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Rousseau: discoverer of childhood

For centuries children should only do one thing: grow up quickly. In the middle of the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to declare childhood something precious and worth protecting

At the end of 1759, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finally completed his magnum opus. 20 years of reflection and three years of work have gone into the 1000 manuscript pages of the novel "Émile". Rousseau wrote most of it on the estate of the Duke of Luxembourgh, a few kilometers north of Paris.

The Duchess loves it when the 47-year-old philosopher recites from his works. But this time she is disappointed: She was expecting a rousing love story, as passionate as Rousseau's last great novel "Julie or Die Neue Héloïse". His new work, on the other hand, appears wooden, instructive, and even lengthy at times.

The fictional story of Émile

It is the fictional story of the boy Émile who, after his father's untimely death, grows up with a teacher in the country. Émile spent his childhood far away from urban life and social constraints. Above all else, he is given one thing: the freedom to develop himself. The boy does not learn through instruction or punishment - but through playing, romping, lazing around.

“Émile” is much more than just an educational treatise, the Duchess seems to miss it. Not only does the poet develop a completely new educational concept: he also has an understanding for the child that was never thought possible before. And so “Émile” goes down as a feat in the history of pedagogy. For the first time, someone sees a phase of life worthy of protection in childhood.

And thus contradicts the prevailing view that has been shaped over thousands of years.

For a long time children are not considered individuals

In ancient times, for example, the Romans and Greeks thought that it was not the time as a child that was decisive for personal development, but the adolescence from puberty to the age of 21. Although children ensured the continuation of the family line and helped the parents with simple activities, they were not regarded as individuals with their own talents, interests and thoughts. Childhood itself, noted the Roman philosopher Cicero, cannot be extolled - only its potential.

Even in the Middle Ages, people hardly attached any importance to the first phase of life. As soon as children were strong enough, they helped their parents raise cattle, tilled the fields or worked in workshops. There was no demarcation between the world of children and adults. When they were seven, they were treated as "little adults" and engaged to one another. The value of a child is defined by its benefits for the parents.

This attitude changed in the 15th century. Now adolescents were considered stupid, weak, and imperfect. But also as beings who, with the help of strict upbringing, were able to grow into respectable and sensible people. Schools were also supposed to take care of this in the Renaissance: according to fixed curricula and with grim discipline, the young people were prepared for adult life there.

With the Enlightenment, this attitude changed again. Parents now treated children more amicably, more trustingly - and yet their educational goal remained the same: their offspring were to be shaped according to certain ideas and thus raised to become useful citizens of society.

In 1693 the French Abbé Goussault wrote: “One should often treat children confidentially, let them talk about everything, treat them like sensible people and try to win them over by being lenient - an infallible means of being able to do whatever one wants with them. "

Two decades later, on June 28, 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva. His mother dies a few days after giving birth. The boy grows up with his father, a master watchmaker. The gifted boy learned to read at the age of five and soon studied works of world literature, from Plutarch to Molière. When Jean-Jacques was ten years old, his father had to flee Geneva because he injured a former officer in an argument. From then on, a priest takes on the boy's upbringing.

Six years later, Rousseau left his hometown. At first he traveled as a vagabond through Italy, France and Switzerland. He attended a seminary, became a music teacher and found work as the secretary of the French ambassador in Venice. In Lyon he accepted the position of tutor of the two sons of a high official for a good year. Since then he has probably been thinking about an ideal upbringing.

Rousseau in Paris

He repeatedly travels to Paris, where he comes into contact with France's intellectual elite. With a “treatise on modern music” in which Rousseau drafts a new notation system, artists and writers take notice of him - among them the two enlighteners Diderot and d’Alembert, for whose “Encyclopédie” Rousseau is now writing articles.

In 1759 the Duke of Luxembourgh invited him to his castle. In a creative frenzy, Rousseau worked on several manuscripts and, in addition to the great state-philosophical oeuvre “The Social Contract”, ended what he believed was his most important work: the “Émile”.

“All is good as it appears from the hands of the Creator of things; everything spoils among people. ”With this accusation against society, the author opens his great educational novel. The adults would always look for the adult in the child - and never think of what the person was before: a child.

Rousseau becomes the forefather of the anti-authoritarian movement

So a person who has his own way of seeing, thinking and feeling. A person who is naturally good and whose world cannot simply be translated into the adult world. “None of us is such a great philosopher that we could put ourselves in the shoes of a child.” But only in childhood could the foundations for a happy life be laid. It is probably the best time in life. Rousseau's ideal of upbringing is based on this certainty. In “Émile” he presents it as a thought experiment: a boy is allowed to pursue his interests under the supervision of a benevolent educator - protected and encouraged, but free to develop.

This pedagogical approach requires a radical change of perspective: for the first time, education is viewed from the child's perspective - and for the child's well-being.

Rousseau thus becomes the forefather of the anti-authoritarian movement. Shortly after the publication of “Émile”, parents tried to raise their children according to its principles. In the following decades about 200 treatises on education were published in England alone, all of them influenced by Rousseau. In the USA, the fashion is emerging to let small children grow up as “naturally” as possible, instead of bringing them to an upright posture as quickly as possible, as was the case until then, in order to allegedly accelerate their development into adults.

Émile as the most widely read educational book in world literature

Later, the important educators Maria Montessori, Célestin Freinet and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi fall back on Rousseau. Pestalozzi even founded a school in 1775 in which the children were brought up according to the ideas of the great theorist.

Rousseau's own five children, however, did not enjoy a sheltered, happy childhood. Shortly after she was born, her father gave her to a foundling house. He cites his poverty as the reason, because he cannot write poetry if he knows that his offspring will not be looked after. The attempt of the Duchess of Luxembourgh to find the children later is unsuccessful.

"Émile", the most widely read educational book in world literature: It comes from the pen of a man who has never raised a child himself.