Jean-Jacques Rousseau





This is the important question. It is education that must give souls a national formation, and direct their opinions and tastes in such a way that they will be patriotic by inclination, by passion, by necessity. When first he opens his eyes, an infant ought to see the fatherland, and up to the day of his death he ought never to see anything else. Every true republican has drunk in love of country, that is to say love of law and liberty, along with his mother’s milk. This love is his whole existence; he sees nothing but the fatherland, he lives for it alone; when he is solitary, he is nothing; when he has ceased to have a fatherland, he no longer exists; and if he is not dead, he is worse than dead.

National education is proper only to free men; it is they only who enjoy a collective existence and are truly bound by law. A Frenchman, an Englishman, a Spaniard, an Italian, a Russian are all practically the same man; each leaves school already fully prepared for license, that is to say, for slavery. At twenty, a Pole ought not to be a man of any other sort; he ought to be a Pole. I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. They ought to have only Poles for teachers: Poles who are all, if possible, married; who are all distinguished by moral character, probity, good sense and attainments; and who are all destined, after the successful performance of this task for a certain number of years, for employments which, although they are not more important or honourable, for that is impossible, are less arduous and more brilliant. Beware above all of turning teaching into a profession. No public man in Poland should have any other permanent rank than that of citizen. All the positions he fills, and above all those which are as important as this, should be regarded only as testing-places, and as steps in the ladder of advancement by merit. I exhort the Polish people to pay attention to this maxim, on which I shall often insist: I consider it one of the key-points in the organisation of the state. We shall see below how, in my opinion, it is possible to give it universal application.

I do not like those distinctions between schools and academies which result in giving different and separate education to the richer and to the poorer nobility. All, being equal under the constitution of the state, ought to be educated together and in the same fashion; and if it is impossible to set up an absolutely free system of public education, the cost must at least be set at a level the poor can afford to pay. Would it not be possible to provide in each school a certain number of free scholarships, that is to say, supported at state expense, of the sort known in France as bursaries? These scholarships, given to the children of poor gentlemen who have deserved well of the country, given not as an act of charity but as a reward for the merit of the father, would thus become honourable, and might produce a double advantage well worth considering. To accomplish this, nominations should not be arbitrary, but made by a form of selection of which I shall speak hereafter. Those who have been chosen would be called children of the state, and distinguished by some honorific insignia which would give them precedence over other children of their own age, including even the children of magnates.

In every school a gymnasium, or place for physical exercise, should be established for the children. This much-neglected provision is, in my opinion, the most important part of education, not only for the purpose of forming robust and healthy physiques, but even more for moral purposes, which are either neglected or else sought only through a mass of vain and pedantic precepts which are simply a waste of breath. I can never sufficiently repeat that good education ought to be negative. Prevent vices from arising, and you will have done enough for virtue. In a good system of public education, the way to accomplish this is simplicity itself: it is to keep children always on the alert, not by boring studies of which they understand nothing and which they hate simply because they are forced to sit still; but by exercises which give them pleasure by satisfying the need of their growing bodies for movement, and which in other ways will be enjoyable.

They should not be allowed to play alone as their fancy dictates, but all together and in public, so that there will always be a common goal toward which they all aspire, and which will excite competition and emulation. Parents who prefer domestic education, and have their children brought up under their own eyes, ought nevertheless to send them to these exercises. Their instruction may be domestic and private, but their games ought always to be public and common to all; for here it is not only a question of keeping them busy, of giving them a robust constitution, of making them agile and muscular, but also of accustoming them at an early age to rules, to equality, to fraternity, to competition, to living under the eyes of their fellow-citizens and to desiring public approbation. Therefore the prizes and rewards of the victors should not be distributed arbitrarily by the gamescoaches or by the school-officials, but by the acclamation and judgment of the spectators; and you can be sure that these judgments will always be just, above all if care is taken to make the games attractive to the public, by presenting them with some ceremony and with an eye to spectacular effect. Then we may assume that all worthy people and all good patriots will consider it a duty and a pleasure to attend.

At Berne there is a most unusual exercise for the young patricians who are graduating from school. It is called the Mock State. It is a copy in miniature of everything that goes to make up the political life of the Republic: a senate, chief magistrates, officers, bailiffs, orators, lawsuits, judgments, solemnities. The Mock State has even a small government and a certain income; and this institution, authorised and sponsored by the sovereign, is the nursery of the statesmen who will one day direct public affairs in the same employments which at first they exercised only in play.

No matter what form is given to public education, into the details of which I will not enter here, it is proper to set up a college of magistrates of the first rank who will have supreme authority to administer it, and who will name, dismiss and change at their discretion not only the principals and heads of schools, who themselves, as I have already said, will be candidates for the upper magistracies, but also the games-coaches, whose zeal and vigilance will be carefully stimulated by the promise of higher positions which will be opened or closed to them according to the manner in which they performed these earlier functions. Since it is on these institutions that the hope of the Republic, the glory and fate of the nation depend, I find in them, I must confess, an importance which, I am much surprised to discover, no one has ever thought of attributing to them. For the sake of humanity I am grieved that so many ideas which impress me as being good and useful are always, in spite of their eminent practicality, so far removed from anything that is actually done.

However, my purpose here is only to give a few general suggestions; but that is enough for those I am addressing. These poorly developed ideas give a distant view of the paths, unknown to the moderns, by which the ancients led men to that vigour of soul, to that patriotic zeal, to that esteem for truly personal and properly human qualities, which are without precedent among us; but the leaven exists in the hearts of all men and is ready to ferment if only it is stimulated by suitable institutions. Direct in this sense the usages, the customs, the manners of the Poles; in them you will develop that leaven the very existence of which has not yet been so much as suspected by our corrupt maxims, our outworn institutions, our egoistical philosophy which preaches and kills. The nation will date her second birth from the terrible crisis from which she is emerging; and seeing what her still undisciplined members have accomplished, she will expect and obtain still more from a well-balanced set of institutions, she will respect and cherish laws which flatter her noble pride, which will make and keep her happy and free; plucking from her heart the passions which lead to the evasion of those laws, she will nourish those which cause them to be loved; finally, by renewing herself, so to speak, she will recover in this new age all the vigour of a nation in process of birth. But, without these precautions, expect nothing from your laws. However wise, however far-seeing they may be, they will be evaded and made useless; and you will only have corrected some few abuses that are wounding you, in order to introduce others which you will not have foreseen. So much for the preliminaries which I have thought indispensable. Let us now cast our eyes upon the constitution itself.

Posted: February 2019
Category: Essays