Lines of Work: Francis Gilbert on Rousseau’s Emile

1 July 2016

This is the transcript of the Radio 3 Essay I wrote and read in May 2016. You can find the podcast here.

Rousseau’s Emile and my life

I’m a young English teacher, it’s my second year in an inner city school in London, and I think I’m doing well with my tutor group, a class of 11-year-olds.

My only problem is Tom. He scribbles all over my work sheet and starts to chew on it, preparing to spit little wads of damp paper across the room. I have to do something. The memory of the rioting classes during my probation is the phantom that informs so much of my teaching now: the missiles flying across the room; the furniture being pushed out of it; the shouting, the swearing, and the fighting. No, no, if I let Tom continue to misbehave, there will be chaos.

I crouch down beside him and hiss in a low whisper: “Get on with your work!”

He is a thin, under-nourished boy; his mouth always set in an angry sneer.

“No,” he says, “I won’t.” He scrunches up the remainder of the soggy worksheet, throwing it in my face.

I clench my fists but remain calm, ordering him to leave the room.

“I’m not going!” he snarls.

“You are,” I say. The class stop writing their story and wait to see who will win.

I stride to the door, fling it open and point at the corridor. Reluctantly, kicking over his chair, Tom slopes out, shouting at me: “Yer mum! Yer mum! Yer mum!” It’s the familiar cuss of the school.

OK, fast forward a few months. Tom has been disciplined but is still a problem. I feel it would be good for him to come on a trip to a rural studies centre with the rest of the class – and my Head of Year agrees — but we are worried. There’s an argument with some of the other teachers about this: they say he should definitely stay in school because he could be a danger to himself and others. Finally, it’s agreed that he can come along.

After a noisy, stressful journey on the train, the class spend the week in the countryside: trekking, making fires, bird-watching, camping, learning about animals, plants and geology, cooking their own meals and tidying up after themselves. All the children love it, but the change in Tom is astonishing. On the second night there, I watch him leap along the mountainside and realise that this is the first time I’ve ever seen him laugh. He takes a keen interest in bird watching, enjoys making food on the camp fire and foraging for berries. Even more amazingly, he begins to get on with his classmates.

Observing his transformation was a revelation.

Since that long-ago excursion, I’ve conducted many trips like that one, but I’ve never forgotten the visceral lesson it taught me: when put in the right environment, even so-called ‘unteachable’ students can be transformed into learners.

But I have to be honest with you, it’s not a lesson I’ve fully absorbed until recently. I continued teaching for the next ten years and became obsessed with keeping discipline in my classes and drilling my pupils to pass exams: I was very contemptuous of “child-centred” approaches to education. Perhaps this explains why I hated Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or On Education when I first read it in the late 1990s. This strange philosophical novel, written in the mid-18th century, describes how the author would educate an imaginary student, Emile. Rousseau sets out his idealistic principles – and I didn’t like the sound of them. I felt insulted to read that, according to Rousseau, no child should be punished and that the only rule for them should be to harm no one. Rousseau’s contempt for traditional methods of schooling felt like a punch in the face to me: where he saw little point in trapping young children in classrooms and forcing them to read and write against their will: this was the whole point for me: his idealistic visions of Emile learning through the games devised for him by his tutor in natural settings felt fake and unconvincing. It just seemed totally impractical for a child to learn to count in the fields, to learn geometry from observing the sun, and that the only book young students should read was Robinson Crusoe because it would teach them how to live on a desert island. Furthermore, Rousseau’s injunction that children should not be reasoned with, but should learn to think through a series of carefully staged experiences devised for them by a teacher, was not only wrong but also downright harmful for a child’s development. And then the blatant sexism of the last section confirmed my disdain: here, Rousseau describes the ideal education of a fictional girl, Sophy. Because girls are naturally weaker than boys and will become mothers, they need a very different education, he says: they need to learn to serve men, tend to their needs and be submissive.

Total rot.

Or so I thought.

My opinions about Rousseau’s educational philosophy gradually changed over time — although I continue to be exasperated by the chronic sexism of Emile.

But I began to see that Rousseau may have making some valid points in other regards when I observed my young son grow up in the mid-Noughties. I was now a Head of Department in a large comprehensive in outer London and moonlighting as a polemical author on educational topics. I published I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here in 2004 and was regularly asked by the media to give my views on all sorts of educational topics. The right-wing press loved me because I tended to espouse views about the importance of discipline and authority.

And yet things were happening in my personal life which were making me change my views. My wife and I initially sent our son to a private “prep” school because we felt that we didn’t want him to experience the indiscipline that I believed occurred in many state schools.

A few things happened to change my views. Because I found managing a department and being a parent too much, I went part-time and began picking up my six-year-old, Theo, from the prep school. Seeing his education close-up made me realise that he was unhappy because he was being very poorly taught: he was being lectured at, told to do tests in silence, do burdensome pointless homework and his natural instincts to be creative, verbal and active were being crushed. So we moved him out of the school and put him in our local inner-city primary school, which did not set homework, let the children play quite a bit, had no uniform, and focused upon educating the whole child. I picked him up from school every day, and watched him run around in the playground for hours with his new-found friends.

He absolutely flourished.

But why?

Well, I think Rousseau has some answers here. In Book II of Emile, Rousseau writes of the young learner:

Instead of being allowed to stagnate in the stale air of a room, let him be taken to the middle of a field. There let him run and frisk about. (78)


I had the very same instinct when it came to my son. He needed to be running about playing and not wasting his time doing lots of mock tests in silence; he needed to learn to be happy. And this is what his brilliant inner-city school did. What is more, because he was happy, he did much better in the formal tests he had; he wrote stories he wanted to write, he read what he wanted to read, he articulated his thoughts and feelings freely both in and out of school. The school took a “Rousseau” approach to education in the sense that at the heart of its philosophy was the belief that children’s natural instincts for learning should be carefully nurtured: teachers were expected to stimulate children’s curiosity and help them pursue their interests by carefully staging their learning.

With a dawning sense of self-recrimination and guilt, I began to realise that many of my firmly held beliefs about education were built on very flimsy foundations. I returned to Rousseau’s ideas and to those of his followers: Maria Montessori, John Dewey and Paulo Freire. These were thinkers who I used to scorn because of their insistence that we had to listen to children and help them actively learn concepts rather than insist upon adults telling them what to do.

This revaluation changed me as a person and a teacher. I stopped being so disciplinarian in my lessons, and attempted to foster more creative learning in my students. I wanted my child to play and enjoy his life, and I wanted my students to learn through playful activities. I valued putting joy at the heart of my pedagogy.

Up until then, I’d generally been praised by the powers-that-be in education – Ofsted, senior teachers and advisors – for my “firm but fair” approach in the classroom. But I began to encounter resistance when my teaching became more creative. For example, a few years ago, I used some of Rousseau’s precepts to teach my Year 10 students, fourteen year olds, poetry. It was a tricky class. I had a girl, Sally, who was noisy, rude and disruptive – rather like Tom had been — and a significant rump of disaffected boys who hated poetry. I decided to use clapping to get them into the idea that language is basically about rhythm. My class sat in a circle and said a few simple phrases to each other like “How are you?” and then clapped their rhythm. Using this natural method, they quickly began to see that there are stressed and unstressed beats in all the words we say. I asked them to compose their own conversation poems with clapping accompaniment, and then progressed to getting them clap to some easy poems which I knew they would like. Finally, I asked them to perform some more complex poems – the work of Wilfred Owen —  to their own natural accompaniments: they clapped, they stamped their feet, popped and clicked using their mouths, and they sang.

It was a very beautiful September and, feeling courageous, I asked my pupils to find places around school where they could drum and practice their poems, ready for performance. I videoed them in their various nooks: they all sought out natural places in the school, sitting by bushes, by trees and by the grassy bank of the school pond. Sally loved it; she laughed, joked around and drummed the poems enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, a senior manager learnt what I was doing, and I got reprimanded, hauled in front of the headteacher who expressed his stern disapproval: I wasn’t teaching the relevant facts about poetry – never mind that I clearly had no respect for issues of  health and safety.

“They don’t seem to know their sonnets from their elbows,” the headteacher said.

“But look – they can feel the poetry! They get the sense, they get the rhythm!” I said.

“Tell that to the examiner!” was the retort.

Rousseau’s ideas informed what I was doing: my aim was to make learning playful using the resources of the human body. Above all, my purpose in educating my students was not primarily “cognitive”; I was not interested in the “facts” that they would learn about poetry, I simply wanted them to learn to love poetry – and to learn to work together. My purposes were aesthetic and moral.

The last two sections of Emile focus on how the teenager can be appropriately socialised, and how he can learn to love his fellow human beings in a reasoned fashion. Rousseau felt that it wasn’t until children reached puberty that they were truly ready to work with others. The collaborative exercises which I devised aimed to develop my students’ powers of reason and collaboration in careful stages: moving from individual activities to collaborative ones. Sally, in particular, benefitted from this approach.

If Rousseau were alive today, he would despair of the senior managers who stopped my students drumming. He would have called the headteacher an agent of “slavery” in that he represented a corrupt institution  which stifled children’s natural instincts. Rousseau wouldn’t blame the headteacher – he would blame the social structures which had corrupted his thinking: the central government edicts, Ofsted, the obsession with exam results, the aim of using education to increase economic wealth. For Rousseau, we have been made “servile”, cogs in a gigantic machine which grinds remorselessly on with no regard for our natural lives. Rousseau condemns the structures of society: “All our wisdom consists in servile prejudices. All our practices are only subjection, impediment and constraint. Civil man is born, lives and dies in slavery.”(42)

While I disagree with Rousseau on many things – his views on women, his belief that children can’t be reasoned with until they are in their teens, his dismissal of every book except Robinson Crusoe —  I think his central message is still important. Our life-styles have taken us further and further away from “natural ways of living”. Rousseau would pour scorn on our modern world; we’ve destroyed the Earth’s resources to create artificial ways of living which make us miserable, cause environmental collapse, massive inequality, turmoil and war.

Yes, many of his ideas are totally impractical – but all the same I believe that we could easily adopt Rousseau’s precepts tomorrow if we wished. Let’s put a renewed emphasis upon appreciating the natural things of life: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the movement of our bodies and the way we communicate with ourselves and others; the way we live in the natural world. Let’s set aside our obsession with screens, computers, property, work, money and material consumption. Let’s look at each other and smile, listen to the birds singing, and take pleasure in the food we eat. Let’s live our lives again – and teach our children to do the same. Even if we did this for just a few moments every day, I believe it would make a difference to our lives, and our children’s lives.

As Rousseau says, man “turns everything upside down; he disfigures everything… he wants nothing as nature made it, not even man; for him, man must be trained like a school horse.” Perhaps it is time to stop treating our children like horses, take off their blinkers and open the stable doors?

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762: 1979. Emile or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. London: Penguin.


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