Leoarna Mathias continues her series on education’s original thinkers with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Phillipe Aries…
For those in the West it is pretty hard at present to ignore the plight of refugees making perilous journeys from North Africa in an attempt to get to Europe. We are all of us affected by the sight of small drowned children lying on Turkish beaches. Many media commentators have attributed the substantially increased interest in the plight of the refugees to the publication of these photographs in particular.
In the same week as the images emerged, I found myself watching Sue Perkins exploring the vibrant city of Kolkata as part of the BBC’s India season. While there, Sue met a young child whose mother had recently died, living on the streets. While she did attend school during the day, at night she and her father slept in an underpass. Sue was visibly moved as she contemplated the reality of this smiley, articulate and ambitious child’s life (she wanted to be a doctor). As I watched, I wondered if the suffering of young children has always been so central to humanity’s preoccupations – and whether life is any better than it was 200 years ago for the vast majority of the world’s children.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, 252 years after the publication of his major work on the raising and educating of children, Emile, still a dominant figure within many Early Childhood degree programmes. He is considered the father of the romantic ideal of childhood, the thinker who first articulated the notion that childhood is a separate stage of human life, valuable in its own right and not just as a preparation for adulthood. He argued for the preservation of their innocence for as long as possible, and for children to have their intellects and morals carefully nurtured – what we might today call a child-centred approach.
Rousseau is not without contradictions; he felt the relative poverty of his own material circumstances prevented him from being in a position to raise his own children properly, and he gave all five of them away to an orphanage. He also argued that children should not be encouraged towards ambition or what today we might call aspiration, feeling that such a desire to rise up through the (then) highly stratified class-driven layers of society was likely only to lead to personal despair and frustration. Today his ideas are also critiqued for their inherent sexism: Emile, a boy, is raised to be self-governing while Sophie, his companion, is moulded for a life of subservience to her husband.
And yet, Rousseau is oft cited as having had substantial influence over the work of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Dewey and Montessori, and as such, his name appears at the centre of the ‘family tree’ of thinkers and educationalists who have shaped the conceptualisation of childhood, development, play and learning for us today.
Perhaps there is something rather neat yet fanciful in observing that exactly 200 years after the publication of Emile, another Frenchman, Phillipe Aries, published Centuries of Childhood (though we should observe Rousseau was by birth Swiss, but spent most of his life in France). An instant classic, Aries’ central contention is that the very notion of childhood is a modern invention, and that for much of the history of humankind there has been no attempt by adults, including parents, to ‘protect’ children from the daily struggle to survive that has characterised so many lives. He argued that it is only very latterly in the history of civilisation that we have perceived childhood as a distinct phase of human life and have considered it necessary to nurture, educate and protect.
So two writers, two centuries apart, arguing that human society has not always concerned itself with the plight of children to the degree that it now should, or indeed does. For me, their ideas continue to have relevance as it would seem, as our newspapers and televisions attest, that we are still struggling to shield children from the worst of human suffering, still needing to afford them a meaningful education as a passport to a better future. In England we talk of ‘narrowing the gap’ but globally, and through the eyes of Aries and Rousseau, the experiential inequalities between children around the world still need our collective effort.
Leoarna Mathias is a lecturer and former Ofsted inspector. Follow her at @leoarnawrites