Education-line Home Page

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Father of Government Schools

Mary K. Novello, Ed.D.

Washington Institute Foundation


Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, University of Sussex, at Brighton, 2-5 September, 1999.



The purpose of my paper is to follow the trains of thought put into motion by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the broad areas of progressivism, Romanticism, collectivism, and nationalism, and to determine their relevance to the history of government schools. The paper presents a brief biography of Rousseau and the settings where he worked and introduces the concept of his inadvertent influence on educational methods. It also discusses his far more intentional efforts to persuade his audience regarding the nature of man and society, liberty, and equality that have led to today's government schools.


The purpose of this study is to follow the trains of thought put into motion by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the broad areas of progressivism, Romanticism, collectivism, and nationalism, and to determine their relevance to the history of educational thought. The paper explores links between Rousseau’s ideas and those of some educators in the progressive movement; it examines elements of Romanticism as defined by Rousseau in art, music, literature, and schools, as well as the relationship of Romanticism to nationalism and education for citizenship; and it looks at collectivist concepts in light of Rousseau’s political writings and later developments.

Using Rousseau as a starting point is a somewhat arbitrary choice. He did not spring ready-made into the world, but both reflected and contradicted the eighteenth-century rationalism of the enlightenment period into which he was born. He had read the classical literature and studied ancient as well as contemporary philosophers.

A number of writers in the field of educational history and philosophy have referred to Rousseau as the leading inspirational force behind the establishment of progressive education. It is also assumed by some educationists that Rousseau intended to invent a system of schooling. That is a questionable assumption. He had some strong feelings about freedom and citizenship, hypocrisy in religion, bourgeois attitudes, and sexual libertinism which he exposed through the vehicle of the novel Emile. That book was more a dreamscape of child development than a treatise on education:

As to what will be called the systematic part, which is here nothing but the march of nature, it is the point that will most put the reader off, and doubtless it is here that I will be attacked. And perhaps it will not be wrong to do so. It will be believed that what is being read is less an educational treatise than a visionary’s dreams about education. What is to be done about it? It is on the basis not of others’ ideas that I write but on that of my own. I do not see as do other men. (Rousseau, 1762/1979, p. 34)


Inadvertent as it may have been, and even though Rousseau’s enthusiasm took the form of theory run mad, and the educational plan he proposed was largely impossible, the result of his work was to popularize a new educational perspective, not only in France, but among the reading public of the progressive European states as well. "It would be difficult to find a man in the history of thought who with so much half-truth has made as deep an impression on mankind as Rousseau" (Ulich, 1968, p.211).

Johann Pestalozzi was a fellow Swiss who had read Emile and put into practice what he believed he had read. His first school, on his own estate, was created for the poor children of his employees. It closed after two years. His later success was in the establishment of teacher-training institutes.

Friedrich Froebel, a German, was a student and later an instructor at one of Pestalozzi’s institutes. He is said to have invented the kindergarten based on his idea of self-activated play.

Count Leo Tolstoy, better known as a Romantic Russian novelist, read Rousseau as a youth and incorporated his ideas of self-examination and love as self-abnegation into his novels. He founded a school, also on his own estate, incorporating what he believed were Rousseau’s ideas on education: that knowledge should be applied in a critical way, grades and class distinctions should be abolished, and students should learn from experience without correction.

Bronson Alcott, an American, studied Pestalozzi and Froebel, but claimed not to have read Rousseau. He taught and operated schools in an unorthodox fashion, believing that children should express their ideas and that adults should listen to them, and that all subjects, even religion and sex, were appropriate to discuss with children. He was a close associate of William Torrey Harris, Superintendent of St. Louis, Missouri, schools, and later U.S. Commissioner of Education, who also founded the St. Louis Philosophical Society to translate, discuss, and interpret the works of Hegel.

John Dewey was the founder of the progressive movement in American education which contains echoes of Rousseau in its child-centered pedagogy. He believed that education was life, and school was its laboratory, preparing students to take an active role in the reformation of society.

It has been said that Jean-Jacques Rousseau invented childhood. "He made it clear that the beginning and end of education is not the adult, but the child; the child has his own interests and lives in his own world, and the values of children are completely different from those of adults" (Mayer, 1966, p. 257).

That the child must always do what the child wants to do is the basic premise of progressive education, quite correctly attributed to Rousseau. However, before proceeding in this direction, a caveat is called for:

Rousseau’s full formula is that while the child must always do what he wants to do, he should want to do only what the tutor wants him to do. Since an uncorrupt will does not rebel against necessity, and the tutor can manipulate the appearance of necessity, he can determine the will without sowing the seeds of resentment. He presents natural necessity in palpable form to the child so that the child lives according to nature prior to understanding it. (Bloom, 1990, p. 189)

Or, in the words of Rousseau:

In the first place, you should be well aware that it is rarely up to you to suggest to him what he ought to learn. It is up to him to desire it, to seek it, to find it. It is up to you to put it within his reach, skillfully to give birth to this desire and to furnish him with the means of satisfying it. (1762/1979, p. 179)

And therewith begins the entire argument as to whether Rousseau was really permissive or authoritarian. In this, as in many things, Rousseau believed and wrote in paradox.


On one of the flights from his persecutors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau came to light on the Ile St. Pierre of the Lac de Bienne (Bielsee) in Switzerland. While sitting in a boat drifting on the lake, he suddenly felt as if he were no longer separate from his surroundings, but part of them, at one with nature as it were:

But if there is a state where the soul finds a setting solid enough on which to rest in its entirety, and gathers there all its being, without needing to recall the past, nor to rush towards the future, where time means nothing to it, where the present endures forever, without, nevertheless, noticing its duration and without any trace of anticipation, without any other feeling of deprivation nor of joy, of pleasure nor of pain, of desire nor of fear, than that alone of our existence, and that this feeling alone can fill it completely; as long as this state lasts, the one who finds himself in it can call himself happy, not with an imperfect happiness, poor and relative, such as one finds in the pleasures of life, but with sufficient happiness, perfect and full, which leaves in the soul no void that it feels the need to fill. Such is the state where I find myself often on the Ile St. Pierre, in my solitary musings, whether lying in my boat that I let drift at the water’s whim, seated on the banks of the agitated lake, or elsewhere, at the edge of a beautiful river or a creek murmuring over the gravel. (Rousseau, 1775/1918, p. 724, translated by M. Novello)

With those words from "Reveries of a solitary walker" Rousseau launched the Romantic movement.

As commonly as the term is used, Romanticism fairly defies definition. It is often described by virtue of what it opposed, such as being a rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment or against the hierarchies and institutions of traditional religion.

There are a number of characteristics which a work must possess in order to be considered part of the Romantic mode. The first, as we have already encountered in the words of Rousseau, is a preoccupation with, perhaps even an adoration of, nature, including the "natural law" which governs human behavior intuitively. Leibniz looked upon natural law as the basis of ethics and morality, while Rousseau regarded it as undergirding democratic principles. Nature and natural law would, of course, be placed in opposition to society and customary or legislated law.

Back of [eighteenth century] practical social reform lay an almost religious belief in the natural goodness (not the Biblical depravity) of man, the perfectibility of human nature and the inevitability of progress....The ideas that everything natural is good, that existing society is unnatural and vicious, and that the bond between man and nature must be re-established, found frequent expression in the literature of the period. (Mulhern, 1959, p. 417 and p. 421)

The second characteristic is a concern with freedom. This can take either of two forms: the form of personal freedom from societal mores, leading to sexual libertinism on the one hand, or to the concept of the sublime, reachable only through sublimation of sexual drives, as Rousseau advocated in the Emile:

When the critical age approaches, furnish young people with sights which restrain them and not with sights which arouse them. Put their nascent imaginations off the track with objects which, far from inflaming, repress the activity of their senses. Remove them from big cities where the adornment and the immodesty of women hasten and anticipate nature’s lessons....Choose with care their society, their occupations, their pleasures.

Finally I see dawning the most charming of Emile’s days and the happiest of mine. I see my attentions consummated, and I begin to taste their fruit. An indissoluble chain unites the worthy couple. Their mouths pronounce and their hearts confirm vows which will not be vain. (Rousseau, 1762/1979, pp. 230-1 and p. 475)

The second form of Romantic freedom relates to the value of the common man and led to a series of political revolutions, the consequences of which will be discussed in later sections of this paper.

Awareness of, interest in, and the willingness to reveal oneself comprise another characteristic, also contained in Rousseau’s reverie.

By rediscovering the primacy of feeling Romanticism established the importance of introspection. The question, What do I feel and think? comes before What should I think and believe? We may invoke Rousseau again as the thinker who posed this requirement and fulfilled it by writing his Confessions. From these confessions to the words uttered on any psychoanalyst’s couch is a direct line of descent. (Barzun, 1985, p. xiii)

Rousseau, always the best example of the movement he started, wrote in 1763:

Two things almost mutually exclusive unite in me I know not how: an ardent temperament, lively, impetuous passions, and ideas slow to be born, humble, and which only present themselves after great effort. One would say that my heart and my spirit do not belong to the same individual. Feelings, strong but not clear, fill my soul; but instead of enlightening me, they burn and astonish me. I feel all and I see nothing. (Rousseau, 1788/1918, p. 712, translated by M. Novello)

In the Romantic view, human consciousness exists at the interface between two enigmatic worlds: on one side, the external realm of nature; on the other, the largely uncharted internal realm of the mind. The view, one may say, is blurred in either direction. Beyond our immediate perceptions, of ourselves and of the world, there stretches an immense backdrop of obscurity. For the adventuresome and enterprising spirit, however, it is an obscurity that beckons with promise and possibility. As in the great misty vistas of Romantic paintings, the landscapes within as well as outside of us are full of half-hidden shapes and patterns, barely recognizable forms that suggest an interconnectedness of meaning beyond the surmise of ordinary consciousness. (Ryder, 1988, p. vii)

It is tempting to look at all these diaphanous and disparate ideas and reject them out of hand as being too flimsy to have affected education or even schooling. The only writer of the age besides Tolstoy to have any genuine involvement in education was the gloomy and pessimistic Matthew Arnold who was also a school inspector. However, a number of not unreasonable connections come to mind between the characteristics of the Romantic movement and the excesses of today’s philosophies. For example, the worship of nature bears some similarities to today’s concern for the non-human elements of the environment.

And the accompanying belief in the worthy nobility of the common man has driven us to attempt to educate everyone, whether or not he wants or is capable of learning. At least one man, a journalist of the period, William Hazlitt, addressed that subject and suggested in his essay "On genius and common sense" that universal education should be of a limited and specific nature:

If a whole court say the same thing, this is no proof that they think it, but that the individual at the head of the court has said it: if a mob agree for a while in shouting the same watch-word, this is not to me an example of the sensus communis; they only repeat what they have heard repeated by others....I believe that the best way to instruct mankind is not by pointing out to them their mutual errors, but by teaching them to think rightly on indifferent matters, where they will listen with patience in order to be amused, and where they do not consider a definition or a syllogism as the greatest injury you can offer them. (Hazlitt, 1821/1967, p. 660)

Even in his day, Hazlitt "saw the self-defeating factors in the sentimentalism and emotionalism of the extreme Romantic writers: self-defeating because ultimately egocentric" (Perkins, 1967, p. 609). The fascination with self and the desire to indulge it and divulge its secrets has led to a whole panoply of narcissistic behaviors, a pseudo-science in the form of psychotherapy, and a cross-cultural victim mentality. Childhood memories have been expanded to include nearly obligatory abuse and dysfunction. Children’s literature has followed suit, begun, perhaps, by Judy Blume’s Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret (1970), a very gradual evolution from the Romantic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers.

In fact, the sociology of childhood has demonstrated an interesting history, starting with its invention in the mind of Rousseau. Prior to that time, children were dressed as small adults, powdered wigs and all, and expected to act appropriately to their appearance:

The Biedermeier era of the early 1800s" in Germany was quite typical of western Europe in bringing "a new attention to the world of children. Now there were special rooms - nurseries - and a great wealth of toys, especially at Christmas....Spatial separations grew out of and reinforced an understanding of children as vulnerable beings who needed to be protected from physical or psychological intimacy with adults. (Prost and Vincent, 1987/1991, pp. 505-6).

Charles Dickens in England conducted veritable diatribes against what he considered to be bad education, as in "Paul’s education" from Dombey and son:

Cornelia took him first to the schoolroom, which was situated at the back of the hall, and was approached through two baize doors, which deadened and muffled the young gentlemen’s voices. Here, there were eight young gentlemen in various stages of mental prostration, all very hard at work, and very grave indeed....Mr. Feeder, B.A...had his Virgil stop on, and was slowly grinding that tune to four young gentlemen. Of the remaining four, two who grasped their foreheads convulsively, were engaged in solving mathematical problems; one with his face like a dirty window, from much crying, was endeavoring to flounder through a hopeless number of lines before dinner; and one sat looking at his task in stony stupefaction and despair - which it seemed had been his condition ever since breakfast time. (Dickens, 1955, p. 219)

For the ultimate in utopian educational coddling, "Edward Bellamy, in Looking backward (1888), depicted a mythical Boston in which all children were entitled by right as human beings and future citizens to the finest possible care and nurture, in which advanced liberal and technical education as well as elementary and secondary schooling were available to the entire population" (Cremin, 1988, p. 153).

And finally, the obsession with personal freedom has changed social views of sexual activity. The quest for political freedom has resulted in a seemingly endless string of "revolutions", a topic which will be explored later.

As the themes of Romanticism evolved into the forms just described, and which we still recognize today, the main body of the movement met a crueller fate. It more or less crashed against the shoals of twentieth century realities. As Tarnas (1991) expressed it:

A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life - the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche - yet there was also less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance - the quest for independence, self-determination, and individualism, had eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. Just as man had become a meaningless speck in the modern universe, so had individual persons become insignificant ciphers in modern states, to be manipulated or coerced by the millions.

The Romantic’s quest for spiritual ecstasy, union with nature, and fulfillment of self and society had met the dark realities of the twentieth [century], and the existentialist predicament was felt by many throughout the culture. Faced with the relentless impersonality of the modern world, the Romantic’s only remaining response appeared to be despair or self-annihilating defiance. The earlier Romantic passion to merge with the infinite began to be turned against itself, inverted, transformed into a compulsion to negate that passion. Romanticism’s disenchanted spirit increasingly expressed itself in fragmentation, dislocation, and self-parody, its only possibly truths those of irony and dark paradox. The revolt against conventional reality began to take new and more extreme forms. Earlier modern responses of realism and naturalism gave way to the absurd and surreal, the dissolution of all established foundations and solid categories. The quest for freedom became ever more radical, its price the destruction of any standard or stability. (pp. 388-90)

A literary figure who represented this transition was Franz Kafka (1883-1924). During his life, which was cut short by tuberculosis, he practiced a nominally successful career in the claims department of an accident insurance corporation. In his spare time he wrote a grotesquerie of short stories and novellas where the characters battled hopelessly against the insane demands of their societies, armed only with the useless weapon of common sense. For example, in "The metamorphosis", Gregor Samsa is transformed into a giant beetle, or cricket, symbolic of the total unimportance of a man in the grand scheme. Even in that state, he tries to think sensible thoughts and do sensible things, but to no avail. The faceless bureaucracy has unremitting power (Kafka, 1915/1985). As recently as 1985, Kafka’s stories could not be published in his native Prague.


It can be argued that the numbingly mindless totalitarianism which changed Romanticism into absurdity emanated from ideas originating with the same person who is called Romanticism’s father, namely, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The political philosophy of Rousseau, generated in the 18th century, provided the basic ideas, premises and terminology for the collectivist movements which in the belief of Walsh (1990) "began in Europe in the 19th century and which produced such horrors throughout the whole world in the 20th, all the way down through Cambodia". These collectivist movements, Marxism, fascism, and welfare-statism, could only have come to power and remained in power by first planting their ideas among the educated classes and then spreading them by cultural osmosis to the people at large.

Rousseau set these ideas in motion by his antipathy towards the class of people called bourgeois. He thoroughly disparaged the bourgeoisie and envisioned a collectivist utopia, ideas which appeared again in the works of Hegel and Marx. As C.S. Lewis wrote the words for a devil to say in "Screwtape proposes a toast" (1959),

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, you remember, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. (pp. 160-1)

Marx converted Hegel’s dialectic reasoning into dialectical materialism and used it to predict the overthrow of the the bourgeoisie by the proletariat. William Torrey Harris, and John Dewey were both admirers and serious students of the works of Hegel as well as prominent educators in the United States. Two of Dewey’s disciples, William Heard Kilpatrick and George S. Counts, advocated schooling for the reconstruction of society. In the case of Counts, his writing made it clear that the goal he sought was reconstruction of society in the Marxist mold.

Ivan Illich and the other radical Romantic education critics also looked upon modern education as a tool of the oppressors to produce a steady supply of workers for the capitalist industries.

In Germany, the homeland of both Marx and Hegel, the Frankfurt School of critical theorists was founded, a group who apparently had an effect upon the French intellectuals, the American literature professors, and the radical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and others. This group was as intent on the defeat of the bourgeoisie as Counts and Illich, but chose to work through the deconstruction of language and the promotion of literacy for political ends.

The indirect link, but an evident one, is from Rousseau to the critical theorists, especially in the light of Rousseau’s provision in The social contract for the creation by an intellectual elite of the issues on which the populace would be required to vote.


Public opinion contains all kinds of falsity and truth, but it takes a great man to find the truth in it. The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and the essence of his age, he actualizes his age. The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great. (Hegel, 1821/1952, p.171)

By Hegel’s definition, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not only a "great" man of his own age, but also had the ability to impose his will on ages yet to come. It is the greatness of this facility which is suspect and, in light of the events which followed Rousseau, he might have been considered to be doing mischief, or worse, wreaking havoc.

He set forth his ideas about citizenship in The social contract (1762) and, much later, in "A letter to the government of Poland" (1772), proposed a national system of education charged with the responsibility of producing a competent body of voters. Much of that education would have as its goal the subjugation of personal interests to communal ones:

Education - this is the essential point. It is education which must shape their minds in the national mould and which must direct their tastes and their opinions, till they are patriotic by inclination - by instinct - by necessity. A child should see his fatherland when he first opens his eyes, and till death he should see naught else. The true republican sucks in with his mother’s milk the love of his country, that is of law and liberty. This love makes up his life; he only sees his fatherland, and only lives for his fatherland; his country lost, he lives no more; if not dead, he is worse. (Rousseau, 1772/1964, pp. 64-5)

David Hamilton (1990), enamored of the method of upbringing described in Emile, could not bring himself to criticize Rousseau for his ideas about training for citizenship, so he left them as a series of unanswered questions:

The status of citizenship was pursued by Rousseau in The social contract. Central to his book was a discussion of the conflict between the rights of the individual and the social responsibilities of citizenship. What, then, is the freedom and autonomy of the individual? Are citizens merely subordinates of the state? Is citizenship restricted to males, leaving females in a natural state of subordination and subjection? Or is it possible to resolve the interests of the state with those of the autonomous citizen? (pp. 50-1)

The concept of equality was pursued by Rousseau in his "Discourse on the origin of inequality" which was written as an entry in a contest in 1754. His reflections led him to conclude that man in the primitive state had no sense of inequality because he possessed the virtue of compassion and was not burdened with the vice of egotism: "I believe I need fear no contradiction in attributing to man the only natural virtue that the most violent detractor of human virtues was forced to recognize. I am referring to compassion" (Rousseau, 1755/1975, p. 164). And then:

public esteem came to be valued, and it went to those who were the best singers or dancers, the most beautiful or handsome, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent. This was the first step toward inequality, and also toward vice. From these first preferences arose vanity and contempt, on the one hand, and shame and envy, on the other. (p. 178)

However, in Rousseau’s opinion, man in the modern, eighteenth century state, was ravaged by the inequalities of his society:

If we follow the progression of inequality through these various changes, we find that the establishment of law and the right of property was its first phase, the institution of magistracy its second, and the transformation of legitimate power into arbitrary power its third and last. The first gave rise to the distinction of rich and poor, the second to that of weak and powerful, and the third to that of master and slave, which is the ultimate degree of inequality and the one to which the others all lead, until new changes dissolve the government completely, or bring it back to legitimacy. (Rousseau, 1755/1975, p. 195)

His exhortations on behalf of freedom were interpreted by the revolutionary agitators in France to mean freedom from the monarchy and the ancien régime. His writings about equality were taken more literally than he ever intended and led, at least temporarily, to mob rule. It took Napoleon, a powerful leader, but one steeped in the Romanticism that Rousseau had also inspired, to lead the country out of its morass. However, in so doing, he very nearly destroyed a few other cultures, notably that of Prussia. After a demoralizing defeat, the Prussians, energized by the rector at the University of Jena, Johann Fichte, determined to rebuild their national pride by creating a state system of schools:

The new idea as to the purpose and functions of the State promulgated by English and French eighteenth-century thinkers, and given concrete expression in the American and French revolutions near the close of the century, imparted, as we have seen, a new meaning to the school and a new purpose to the education of a people. In the theoretical discussion of education by Rousseau and the empirical work of Pestalozzi a new individualistic theory for a secular school was created, and this Prussia, for long moving in that direction, first adopted as a basis for the state school system it early organized to serve national ends. The new American States, also long moving toward state organization and control, early created state schools to replace the earlier religious schools; while the French Revolution enthusiasts abolished the religious school and ordered the substitution of a general system of state schools to serve their national ends...The original purpose in the establishment of schools by the State was everywhere to promote literacy and citizenship. (Cubberley, 1920, p. 787)

To create and sustain the public education stool, three legs are essential:

the assumption that public education is the best, if not the only way, to preserve a country’s culture. The term "citizenship training" is most often used. Since the schools created under this system are tax-supported, they are tools of the government and reflect the wishes of that government. They shall henceforth be referred to as "government schools" in this paper.

the laws that require children to attend the government schools.

the belief that education must be in the hands of government-trained teachers because parents either cannot or will not take responsibility for it.


Briefly re-examining the main concepts of this paper, we see that Jean-Jacques Rousseau spun his web of ideas with threads that had far-reaching effects, leading ultimately to the educational systems that are extant today, certainly in the United States, Europe, and Russia. His influence on Pestalozzi, Tolstoy, and John Dewey was direct and profound, as each of them attempted to put into practice what they had interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, from reading Rousseau’s Emile, forming the basis of progressive, or child-centered, education. Pestalozzi in turn instructed Froebel, who created the kindergarten and taught the concept to many, including Elizabeth Peabody who founded one of the early ones in America. She was also a close associate of Bronson Alcott who claimed not to have read Rousseau, although he was familiar with the works of both Pestalozzi and Froebel. Alcott was a teacher and an administrator in the progressive, child-centered mode. He also had an intimate relationship with Henry Brockmeyer and Willam Torrey Harris who, along with Dewey, were disciples of Hegel and instrumental in bringing his ideas to the United States.

Another thread emanating from Rousseau, and the one which encompasses all the others, was Romanticism. The three elements of the Romantic movement as expressed by its writers and artists and musicians were: adoration of nature, interest in oneself and self-revelation, and a yearning for freedom. The first two of these have been reflected in educational thought even to the extremes of environmentalism and narcissism:

The invasion of the schools by environmentalism is intended to influence children from an early age with a pagan-style worship of Mother Earth. The environmental movement has succeeded in shaping the curriculum for most children. Teachers are bombarded with materials arguing that capitalism will destroy the planet unless government is given substantial new powers. (Richman, 1994, p.24)

The yearning for freedom has ultimately resulted in the behavior which brought about the school and college rebellions in the sixties and early seventies, and the personal license first exhibited in the life and poetry of Byron which manifested in the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies as well, and might have led to the tragic shootings of the past two years.

The third Rousseauian conceptual thread evolved from his antipathy towards a group of people who had recently risen out of the lower classes. They were merchants and business men, aware of and motivated by profit, and called disparagingly the bourgeoisie. Rousseau despised them because he felt that they were driven by their egos rather than the compassion of simpler folk. To his thinking that was the origin of inequality, and he visualized a utopian society wherein there would be no private ownership of property. This is one of the ideas adopted by Marx and refined by Lenin into the Soviet system. Another basic tenet of Marxist thought was the form of dialectic invented by Hegel out of the paradoxes presented by Rousseau. This concept of collectivism has reached our schools via the neo-Marxist critical theorists spawned in Germany, developed in France, and thriving in U.S. universities.

The Romantic yearning for freedom led to a series of revolutions all over the western world. Monarchies and regimes were overthrown and schools were often wrested out of the control of churches. From these revolutions came a sense of nationalism that had not existed before. In France, where the revolution of 1789 was credited to the words of Rousseau, the leaders of the subsequent Terror also established the first state system of education. In Prussia, state schools were seen as the means to regain national pride after a crushing defeat. In the United States, the inexorable descent into government schooling began in Massachusetts and received its shape from the Hegelian disciple, William Torrey Harris, and others who went to Prussia and brought back their system.

This entire evolutionary process is summed up in the following paragraph written 40 years ago:

The origin of government among men was ascribed to an agreement between people living in a state of nature, without law. In theory this agreement, called the social compact, was made between equals and entailed the principle that the civil institutions must preserve this equality. This excluded a nobility and all recognition of social classes in the law. Before the law all citizens were equal. They had exchanged the dangers and isolation of the state of nature and also its unlimited freedom for civil protection and civil freedom. Equal educational opportunity is necessary if all citizens in a republic are to be able to preserve their rights and to serve their country. (Good, 1956, p. 8)

Equal educational opportunity does not, of course, necessarily mean government schools. Ellis and Fouts (1994) presented some statistics on the availability of real educational choice:

For as long a time as any of us can remember, the public schools have had a near monopoly on the education of American children....By dictating what schools they will attend, and, therefore, what they will learn and how they will learn it, the state has prohibited parents and their children from exercising freedom of educational choice. The exception to this rule are the 12% of students who attend private schools and the estimated 1% who are home schooled. (p.132)

In the view of Isabel Paterson (1943/1968), those private schools might be at risk:

A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.

The extent of the power exercised, and its final implications are not yet recognized in the United States, because parents are allowed to send their children to private schools, or to educate them at home - although they must still pay the school tax. But when that permission is granted, and the educational standard is prescribed, it is revocable; it is no longer a right, but a permission. (p. 272)

In the same vein, Chris Cardiff (1996) argued that the government school system is founded on the opposite of liberty:

Children failing to learn the state-required material (mandatory curriculum) can be required to sit through it year after year until they demonstrate that the material has been sufficiently implanted. This method of "compulsory education" meets my dictionary’s definition of brainwashing. Whether the material "taught" is based on liberal, conservative, religious, communistic, democratic, or fascist ideologies, the government school system method of delivery is founded on compulsion, coercion, force. (p. 1)

As Cardiff suggested, it is the system of delivery which must change, and the politics are irrelevant. At this moment, the political right is demanding more basics, phonics, discipline and drill, while the left embraces constructivism, whole language, performance-based assessment, and self-esteem. Radical reform only leads to the same endless cycle of educational crisis, utopian demand, and disillusionment:

Education, in all its branches and stages, is always inextricably enmeshed and tangled with the entire social, economical, political, and theological scheme of things, so that one cannot propose the slightest improvement without seeming to threaten the whole structure. (Shepard, 1938, p. 13)




Barzun, J. (Ed.). (1985). European writers: The Romantic century (Vols. 5-7). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bloom, A. (1990). Giants and dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Cardiff, C. (1996). The Critical Distinction between Homeschooling & Government Schooling. The Education Liberator, 1(5), 1, 3.

Cremin, L.A. (1988). American education: Vol. 3. The metropolitan experience (1876-1980). New York: Harper & Row.

Cubberley, E.P. (1920). The history of education: Educational practice and progress considered as a phase of the development and spread of western civilization. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Dickens, C. (1955). Paul’s education. In K. Munroe & M.H. Catherwood (Eds.), Stories of school and college days. Chicago: Auxiliary Educational League.

Ellis, A.K. & Fouts, J.T. (1994). Research on school restructuring. Princeton Junction, NJ: Eye on Education.

Good, H.G. (1956). A history of American education. New York: Macmillan.

Hamilton, D. (1990). Learning about education: An unfinished curriculum. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Hazlitt, W. (1967). On genius and common sense. In D. Perkins (Ed.), English romantic writers (pp. 656-665). New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. (Original work published 1821)

Hegel, G.W.F. (1952). The philosophy of right. (T.M. Knox, Trans.). Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.. (Original work published 1821)

Kafka, F. (1985). The metamorphosis. In M. Mack (Ed.), Norton anthology of world masterpieces (pp. 1605-1644). New York: W.W. Norton & Company. (Original work published 1915)

Lewis, C.S. (1959). Screwtape proposes a toast. In The Srewtape letters (1982, Rev. Ed., pp. 151-72). New York: Macmillan.

Mayer, F. (1966). A history of educational thought. (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Mulhern, J. (1959). A history of education: A social interpretation. (2nd ed.). New York: Ronald Press.

Paterson, I. (1968). The God of the Machine. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Inc. (Original work published 1943)

Prost, A. & Vincent, G. (Eds.). (1991). A history of private life: Riddles of identity in modern times (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1987)

Richman, S. (1994). Separating school & state. Fairfax, VA: The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1918). L’île de Saint-Pierre. In Ch.-M. Des Granges (Ed.), Morceaux choisis des auteurs français (pp. 721-724). Paris: Librairie A. Hatier. (Original work published 1775)

Rousseau, J.-J. (1918). Son esprit et sa conversation [Spirit and conversation]. In Ch.-M. Des Granges (Ed.), Morceaux choisis des auteurs français (pp. 712-715]. Paris: Librairie A. Hatier. (Original work published 1788)

Rousseau, J.-J. (1964). Extract from the treatise on the government of Poland. In R.L. Archer (Ed.), Jean-Jacques Rousseau: His educational theories selected from Emile, Julie and other writings (pp. 64-69). New York: Barron’s Educational Series. (Original work published 1772)

Rousseau, J.-J. (1975). Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among men. In L. Bair (Trans.), The essential Rousseau (pp. 125-201). New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1755)

Rousseau, J.-J. (1979). Emile or on education (A. Bloom,Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1762)

Ryder, F.G. (Ed.). (1988). German romantic stories. New York: Continuum.

Shepard, O. (1938). Pedlar’s progress: The life of Bronson Alcott. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ulich, R. (1968). History of educational thought (Rev. ed.). New York: American Book Company.

This document was added to the Education-line database 07 September 1999