49 pages 1 hour read

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Emile: On Education

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1763

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1762, Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, launched a revolution in thinking about how society should educate and rear children. Its main tenets—that children must learn in accordance with their developing minds, and that society impedes and corrupts their growth—became rallying cries for educators in France and elsewhere. The book’s assertion that children should not be taught religious doctrine caused an uproar.

Along with Rousseau’s political treatise, The Social Contract (also published in 1762), Emile was banned and copies of the book were publicly burned. The author was exiled. This severe response helped make Rousseau—already famous in Europe as a novelist—world-renowned as a philosopher, an honor that endures today. His theories about democracy and the general will, as well as his radical views on the purpose of education, continue to inspire revolutionaries and influence educators and political theorists.

Rousseau organized Emile into five “Books,” each focusing on a different aspect of children’s education. As the text unfolds, a fictional student, Emile, appears frequently; his experiences make vivid Rousseau’s approach to education.

Book 1 argues that infants and toddlers are already learning and shouldn’t be swaddled, cooped up indoors, or overly protected but instead allowed to explore the world. Nature, says Rousseau, is the best teacher, and it’s never too soon for a child to begin learning from it.

Book 2 condemns the practice of training children as if they are tiny grown-ups merely in need of scholarly information. Childhood is not the time for teaching the art of reasoned arguments and ethical discussions. Instead, children should study the lessons of nature, so that they may learn fully the rules of the physical universe and grow into self-reliant adults who possess good judgment and intuition. Rousseau’s ideal classroom is the great outdoors, where young people, making vigorous use of arms, legs, hands, and senses, learn much more useful wisdom than they can get from poring dutifully over dusty tomes.

In Book 3, the growing child begins to explore various interests, which lead to the rudiments of a profession or trade that will provide independence and sustain him or her throughout life. For instance, at this stage, children can grasp basic scientific principles that connect to and amplify the lessons of nature. A child who is busy with interesting and useful activities won’t become a nuisance; there is no need to restrict or punish such a student.

Book 4 addresses adolescence, at time when new emotions and distractions tempt young people to stray from their studies. A good tutor keeps the pupil focused on developing his practical skills while the social world is kept at bay, at least until the student fully develops compassion for others. Otherwise, drawn into the whirl of society and the powerful emotions it encourages, the student will become, not a good and kind person, but a greedy and corrupt one.


In Book 4, Rousseau also introduces himself as a teenager. A Savoyard priest took him in when he was lost and discouraged and trained Rousseau to be self-reliant and compassionate. The priest believed that: natural religion does not require blind obedience to authority, children have no business learning a catechism they cannot understand, and people can be good Christians while thinking for themselves.

Book 5 describes the moment Rousseau’s example student, Emile, now in his late teens, meets the young woman who will become his wife, Sophy. Their meeting, arranged slyly by tutor and parents, leads quickly to romance, and it is an excellent match. Nevertheless, the tutor must use every bit of his wits to manage Emile’s strong passions and keep his student on track. Knowing that he has still more to learn about himself and society, Emile agrees to leave Sophy for two years of traveling and self-reflection.

Book 5 contains a brief introduction to Rousseau’s theory of the social contract. The section concludes with Emile’s reunion and marriage to Sophy and Emile’s vow to educate his future children with as much care as his own tutor took with him.

Emile outlines principles of child development that resonate with today’s research. Rousseau’s subversive views on the role of women—whom he believed must appear to submit to men so that they can be, despite appearances, in control of their households—have generated strong reactions from readers in Rousseau’ time and since. But his argument that young men ought to grow up to be self-reliant and compassionate, instead of manipulative and greedy, offered a ready-made template for the type of good citizens sought by the burgeoning liberty movement of his era.

A note on translation: The original text of Emile is in French. Barbara Foxley’s popular English translation is clear and straightforward, retaining Rousseau’s lively and often epigrammatic style.