In my recent article for Quillette, I noted a paradox. Jean-Jacques, the tutor of the eponymous hero of Rousseau’s Emile, avoids any form of expository teaching on the assumption that education must follow the contours a child’s natural, and therefore good, inclinations. Rousseau explains that children are taught by three masters; nature, men and things. However, the education provided by men and things must follow that of nature because the goal of education is the goal of nature.
However, Rousseau reasoned, if you simply plant a child directly into the busy ‘highway’ of life, he or she will be exposed to the wrong influences and be corrupted. Jean-Jacques therefore carefully controls Emile’s environment. But how is Jean-Jacques to make decisions as to what this environment should be? Is Jean-Jacques not himself part of the corrupt world? How can we be sure that his influence will nurture Emile’s true nature rather than corrupt it? Indeed, Jean-Jacques does far more than simply build a protective wall around Emile’s environment, he actively manipulates it.
For instance, Jean-Jacques sets out to teach Emile the notion of property. There is no value in simply telling Emile about property because such words ‘have no intelligible meaning’. Instead, ‘lessons should always be in deeds rather than words.’ So Jean-Jacques hatches a plan. He lets Emile observe the gardener and encourages him to wish to garden for himself. He helps Emile plant beans and explains, ‘I shall approve of his plan, share his hobby, and work with him, not for his pleasure but my own; at least, so he thinks’. He tells Emile that the beans belong to Emile. However, when they return they find the beans have been pulled up by the gardener. Emile has planted his beans on the gardener’s land and the gardener is pretty cross about it because he had already planted some Maltese melons there.
Clearly, Jean-Jacques and the gardener have conspired to play this trick on Emile in order to teach him a lesson. Is this really about following Emile’s nature or is it about imposing adult ideas on to Emile?
This tension is present in every enactment of the progressive approach.
Consider, for instance, the constructivist science investigation that I used to lead as a young teacher. Students would react different sized marble chips with acid and observe the amount of fizzing or, in a more sophisticated version, the rate at which gas was produced. There was a clear intent – the students were supposed to figure out that smaller marble chips react at a faster rate than larger ones because there is more surface in contact with the acid. I was not meant explain this (although I often did find myself explaining it in a later lesson because students didn’t figure it out). Instead, I pretended to be finding out alongside them. Nonetheless, I was clear what I wanted them to learn.
Being the subject of someone else’s manipulations – being played tricks on – is not always a pleasant experience. If anything, it seems mildly disrespectful because this is not the way we tend to treat people who we see as equals. However, at least in this case, we are discussing a technical, scientific concept.
I am far less comfortable with sneaky teaching being used to form students’ ideas about politics, religion or other areas where morals and values are involved. If a teacher stands at the front of the room and explains what capitalism is, why some people are in favour of it and why some people are against it, then at least a student knows the source of the argument and can decide how much weight to give it. Yes, in this case it would still be wrong for the teacher to be willfully biased because students tend to listen to their teachers. However, imagine trying to teach the same idea through a series of emotive videos where the teacher smiles enigmatically and noncommittedly as he or she draws thoughts out of the students. I think this is far more dangerous because there is a deliberate ambiguity. The teacher clearly knows what ideas he or she intends the students to develop and has selected the materials accordingly – just as in the example of the marble chips – yet these ideas are presented as if they are the students’ own.
This is one of the reasons why I am so sceptical of critical pedagogy. The claims is that it develops critical thinking and yet its premises are rarely questioned. You can’t question the premises of sneaky teaching because they are, by definition, obscure. And that serves a purpose.
The publication of Emile was received with enthusiasm among the thinkers of the day. Thomas Day, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, a group of influential intellectuals who met on the night of the full Moon, was so taken with Rousseau’s model of education that he concocted a quite extraordinary plan. Day, who was not much to look at and had poor personal hygiene, was surprised and dismayed to have a number marriage proposals rejected and so he enlisted the help of his friend John Bicknell. First, they visited a foundling hospital in Shrewsbury where Bicknell selected a twelve-year-old girl, Ann Kingston, who they procured on the false pretext that she would be indentured as a servant to an unknowing Richard Edgeworth. They then proceeded to a foundling hospital in London where, using the same story, they procured an eleven-year-old, Dorcas Car.
Renamed as Sabrina and Lucretia Sidney, Day took the girls to France to train them according to Rousseau’s methods. Day’s intention was that one of them would eventually become his suitably educated wife.
France was chosen because the girls could not speak French and so would not be exposed to corrupting influences. France, however, did not work out well, and Day returned home and quickly apprenticed Lucretia to a London hat maker.
Day persisted with Sabrina, whose training involved, among other things, having to wade fully clothed into cold lakes, having hot wax dripped on her arms and a gun, loaded with a charge but no bullet, fired at her feet. This was intended to foster stoicism – or what we might today call ‘grit’. It did not work very well and Day was disappointed when Sabrina yelled out and failed to maintain her composure when shot at. It was many years later that she learnt of Day’s plan.
Day never married Sabrina. She ended up marrying John Bicknell.