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Raising a Glass of Rousseau: On Educating the Diligent Reader

This essay was written on the classic text by Jean Jacques Rousseau – “Emile or On Education”. This seems to be the origin of a lot of the arguments for self-directed learning and also the source of their confusion. Rousseau posits a concept called well regulated freedom, which is actually a highly controlled kind of freedom.  He makes references to the difficulty of the distinction when he refers to a confusion between ‘license and liberty’ (p.80).  In believe that in his view, liberty will lead to happy children, whereas license will lead to spoiling.

How to achieve liberty for children is the thorny issue and what it actually looks like can also be confusing.  In the essay I’ve focused more on how the book educates the reader than on a deeper exploration of his concepts, which I hope to return to.  I’ve introduced my own concept here of ‘willful naïveté’ which I must make clear in the context of my blog is not something I advocate in practice.  As an ALF I tend to a much more genuine/honest relationship with young people.  I find it hard to talk to kids about Santa Klaus, which in terms of ‘willful naïveté’ could be illustrative.

You might lead your kids to believe in Santa Klaus if you think you could use the revealing of its falsehood to be a lesson in false beliefs.  The problem is that if you miss the chance to tell your kids yourself, they may discover for themselves and then they will resent you.  Rousseau goes so far as to say they will never trust you again (he doesn’t mention Santa, fyi).  Though perhaps this is a bad example: Rousseau never actually tells a straight out lie (like Santa, hope no kids are reading this).  Instead he manipulates situations and environments, or educates by things.  There is a similar danger that if the children become aware that you are with holding some thing from them, they will feel cheated if they discover it in spite of you.  Imagine a parent who never introduces a child to the Internet and they discover it at school.  These are likely crude examples that do not fit, you were warned.

Incidentally, one of the arguments I didn’t have room for in the essay (1500 words) was that the conjunction ‘OR’ in the title of the book itself is suggestive of the dualism I write about.  Enough.

Raising a Glass of Rousseau:  On Educating the Diligent Reader

Abram de Bruyn


Emile: or On Education is a masterful work of pedagogy which has inspired progressive educators since its publication more than 250 years ago.  Rousseau’s arguments for a form of natural learning and greater freedom in childhood are compelling in their own right, but it’s not until we contend with the complexity of his concept of well-regulated freedom combined with the impossible omnipresence of his governor and seclusion of his student that we begin to understand our entanglement.  This essay argues that Rousseau uses willful naiveté, a kind of bad faith act, in the work of Emile to convince young pedagogues that radical change is possible and necessary.  The diligent reader is drawn in by his examples and, in the ultimate performance of well-regulated freedom, discovers the Rousseau-Emile relationship to parallel that of writer-reader.  Not only does this sleight of hand resolve our earlier objections to well regulated freedom, it also suggests the necessity of a willful naïveté on the part of change agents to break from the failure of status-quo pedagogy.

Raising a Glass

I contend that this book was written for diligent readers acting dually to outline a radical pedagogy and enact it thru dialogue with the reader qua reader in the tradition of a true classic.  It is not enough for the author to explain his ideas, surreptitiously applying his pedagogy on the reader, he shapes our experience with dual intent: to make the reader share Emile’s experiences and to prove the possibility of his methods.  Rousseau’s vision for education is a radical shift from the traditional methods, conceding that the reader will object to his model saying it is not based in reality; that is their experience of reality.  Having been miseducated, the reader will imagine their (corrupted) childhood experience to be natural and will always imagine children in this light (p.315). This is precisely why he must make the reader experience the type of education he proposes, as the text serves to place the reader in parallel relation to the lessons of Emile.  

Emile Glass

In a sense, the reader is Emile, an industrious, diligent child who grows up through the text, even as that name is also Rousseau’s idealized childhood manifest.  To understand this, consider the ambiguous bi-stable nature of a “Rubin’s Glass” metaphor: though we are looking directly at our subject, Emile as Emile, we are also in dialogue with a classic text as a reader; we enter an environment wholly crafted for our arrival.  Unlike the glass metaphor, Rousseau is also our eyes – we see only what he wants us to see; he reveals hints at his jeux but like Emile we become aware of his manipulations only after they have proved their lessons.

I call this form of manipulation by Rousseau willful naïveté, this naïveté is intentional, disingenuous and temporarily well concealed.  Compare with Socrates in the Apology, where it could be supposed that he truly ‘does not know’.  Rousseau does know what he is doing; he tells the diligent reader in advance that he must trick us, we say impossible, then he reveals his success.  It is an act of bad faith that serves a greater good.  Though we, like Emile, may object to manipulations, our friendship has been secured by the time we learn of them, and only via Rousseau’s playful nods.

If my method by itself answers objections, it is good.  If it does not answer them, it is worthless.  I shall proceed. p.117

The Diligent Reader

Rousseau proposes educating ‘the natural man’ (p.41) and suggests that the reader will have ‘made a few steps’ in this research through his book.  The metaphor is suggestive, but it is not until Book II with the introduction of well-regulated freedom, that the reader is both aroused and ired by his proclamations.  Though it encompasses Rousseau’s ideas of amour-de-soi and amour-propre, for brevity I will focus on how he crafts our responses by raising objections, illustrating well regulated freedom in action.  

Rousseau has an ideal reader in mind, one he can shape and mold to both illustrate and prove his points.  To succeed, the reader needs to willingly subject themselves to his postulations, to suspend disbelief and to play along.  At times he puts words in our mouths and speaks for us, but here it is precisely not the reader-who-plays-along but the reader-who-objects. Often ridiculing such objections for misunderstanding him, they primarily serve other discursive ends.  Firstly, as good students, we do not want to be called out before the class (of other imagined readers).  Secondly, by consistently raising potential objections he prevents us from dwelling too long on them, by seemingly giving these ideas their due we forget how it is the writer who shapes the total environment.  Thirdly, by making the point, which we concede early, that children seek to discover the weaknesses of their governors (p.121), Rousseau places his objectors in the role of disobedient children.  Finally, there are also some times when the objections do come from the reader-who-plays-along: when the objection is actually a valid synthesis of Rousseau’s own arguments.  We see a parallel of this calculated heuristic in the example of Emile learning geometry being “shocked by [Rousseau’s] stupidity” (p.146)

As this final example shows, there is a game being played.  Rousseau must keep us reading-playing, for this is the only way to teach us his concepts, by experiencing them and then reflecting on those experiences.  We must be paying close attention to appreciate our role, as for example it is no accident that he chooses the names Emile and Sophie for the characters in his book.  Reflect on the meaning of these names.  Emile which means industrious, hard-working or diligent, has implications for his character (and ours).  More tellingly – why choose the name Sophie for Emile’s beloved? Rousseau suggests it is taken at random, covering his ruse with a laugh (p.329) suggesting that the name still augurs well for Emile’s object.  The name means wisdom, but why not a name meaning noble (Alice) or pure (Catherine)? The joke’s on us: Rousseau has placed the reader’s own fantasy object, wisdom, in front of them without realizing it.  His laugh is playful, he expects or hopes that by now we may have understood his game.  This is after all the second time he has performed this trick before us, this time as both witness and target.  Through our diligent reading of his work he hopes to bring us to wisdom.  

One objection to this, that he does not explain things clearly enough, furthers my point: he tells those readers ‘if you have to be told everything, do not read me’ (p.137).  Later he proves that he can teach in maxims (p.223), showing that it is their/our style of learning he objects to.  Though he addresses others, it is to the “young teacher” that he confides the difficulty of this education ‘by doing nothing’, whom he chides for seeking obedience in his pupils and that he finally proposes to ‘take the opposite route’.  It is to this Reader that he spells out the boundaries of the freedom he has in mind.  Well-regulated-freedom – a freedom limited by the pupils awareness: “Let him always believe he is the master, and let it always be you who are.” (p.119)

At this point the reader may object to the seemingly impossible task of shaping the entire environment and thus experience of the child.  A further worry is the deeply manipulative nature of his willful naïveté, which also depends on not ‘a single proved lie’ being discovered (p.216), putting everything at stake.  Rousseau allows his text to teach us exactly how it is both possible to shape the environment and to manipulate in this way without being caught lying.  

Let’s consider his choice and use of fable.  First, he chooses one which deals with childish naïveté explicitly, the Fox and the Crow, to illustrate that children will need to be introduced to ideas which they can’t yet grasp (p.113).  Secondly, during his exposition we read the confusion of the child: via their internal dialogue.  Nonetheless we think we understand the fable and its irrelevance.  

Learn that every flatterer …

Lives at the expense of the one who listens to him (p.115)

Yet, in the following pages the reader is flatteringly addressed directly as Learned Preceptor, Young Teacher and as Messieurs in order to air their ongoing objections.  As I argued earlier, these objections themselves, when aired, have discursive ends which the writer alone controls.  The difficult part of the game is concealing why: to subject the reader to the experience of childhood, reason’s sleep (p.107), in order to learn from it.  Talk so much that he is forced to keep quiet, “and soon he will sleep” (p.130).  So too the reader.  

The Prestige

In Book IV, Rousseau reveals his mastery.  We have reached the stage, like Emile, when he must show us his “accounts” and to reveal the game, since it is important that we learn these directly from Rousseau (p.318).  The “language of the mind” needed to “pass through the heart” and there be engraved in memory (p.323).  Thus revealed, the diligent reader will know that even his objections were pre-scribed and that it is the reader who is Rousseau’s child.  

Not wanting to frustrate the old man’s hopes, we must remember that Rousseau has a vision of action intended for us.  Against the seeming impossibility, Rousseau wants us to know that this radical pedagogy, of well-regulated freedom, is both idealistic and possible.  It is only our own mis-educations which convince people otherwise.  By using willful naïveté with discernment  and revealing our moral debt to one-another, at the appropriate stages, it is possible to achieve the goal of a natural education.  Diligent readers are obliged by their hearts to “be [their] own master and to obey not [their] senses but reason” (p.325).  By extension, educators are further called to act in the interest of implementing ‘the only instrument which can succeed’: well-regulated freedom.

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