Self-Sufficiency and the Alienation of the Other in Modern Education: The Case of Emile.

Author:Almutairi, Abdullah
Position:Critical essay


Historically, the self and its relationships with others have been seen from different perspectives. In general, these perspectives fall into one of two categories: the self as an isolated entity and the self as relational (Willett, Anderson, & Meyers, 2015). The first approach focuses on the individualistic aspect of the self, namely on the self as a free, rational, and autonomous agent (Kant, 2012), and on the self as a calculating homo economicus (Bentham, 1879). The relational view, on the other hand, sees the self within its social relations and emphasizes that the self does not exist outside these relations (Dewey, 1916; Buber, 1996; Noddings, 1984). One major critique of the first approach is its neglect of the role of the Other in creating the self. In this approach, the critique goes, the Other disappears and the self appears alienated. On the other hand, the relational understanding of the self has been critiqued for losing the primary role of the self. In this approach, it has been argued, the self disappears. A Hegelian expression of this dilemma between the self and the other states,

the sense of the self needs to be affirmed by the other, and yet a response from the other that is non-confirming or unempathic can lead at best to a sense of depletion or at worst to shattering of the self. This results in a defensive quest for an illusory self-sufficiency which is in conflict with the opposite wish to surrender the self to the other, to merge, to become enslaved. (Modell, 1984, p. 131)

For educators, this discussion leads to the following practical questions: How can education prepare students to be free individuals without alienating them, and how can education prepare students for their social life without sacrificing their own identities?

In this article, I discuss one major modern answer to these questions: Rousseau's naturalistic approach to education. Though Rousseau's educational philosophy has been debated among scholars for a long time, still more discussion is needed about the role of the Other in his philosophy. Feminists have discussed women's education in Emile, focusing on Sophie's education and how sexist that education is or is not. However, there has been relatively little focus on the idea of otherness and the kind of self/other relationships that we might find in a philosophy that puts self-sufficiency as its central principle. Blits (1991) discusses how Rousseau's paradoxical educational project rests on the idea of depersonalizing the self in order to return the self to its natural status. While the mechanism of creating the self will be one main focus for this paper, more focus will be devoted to the Other and its role in arguing against the primacy of the self in the self/other relationship debate.

Rousseau's Proposal

Rousseau's educational approach is considered to be a major foundation for modern progressive education (Bloom, 1979; Davis, 2004; Frank, 2011, Parry, 2011; Katz, 2013). The main link between Rousseau's educational philosophy and modern education is the primacy/centrality of the child. My main aim here is to question the effect of this centrality on the child/other relationship focusing on the case of Emile. To do that I use Martin Buber's distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationships as a framework that focuses on the role of the other in relationships. I analyze the main relationships in Emile's life focusing on how he relates to others. I argue that the centrality of the self minimizes the chances to meet others as others or to be more precise, it makes education less welcoming to the otherness of others. Hopefully this analysis helps us rethink modern education, especially its primacy of the child/self in education. Here is one example taken from modern education: Maria Montessori (1995) writes:

Education is not something which a teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in the virtue of experiences in which the child acts on the environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange series of motives of cultural activity in a special environment made for the child. (p.8) I ask what kind of student/teacher relationships we get in such a framework where the teacher does not educate and does not talk to her student. Emile is a good case for contemplating such an issue.

At the very beginning of his book Emile (1762), Jean- Jacques Rousseau states "Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man" (1762/2003, p. 1). The basic thesis of the book is that Emile should be educated 'negatively' by his direct experience with the natural world around him in order to be self-sufficient. The role of his tutor, Rousseau himself, is to facilitate that experience with minimum intervention. Since Emile's tutor is highly involved in his education, it might be more accurate to call Rousseau's education 'protective' or 'defensive' rather than 'negative' (Parry, 2011). Emile can be divided into two major parts. The first part, I-III, is dedicated to raising a natural child who cares only about himself. Books IV-V, on the other hand, are devoted to raising a social and moral person in relations with others (Bloom, 1979).

It is important to notice that Rousseau has a specific conception of nature that does not include men. He distinguishes natural elements as follows: "The internal development of our faculties and organs is the education of nature; the use which we learn to make of this development is the education of men; while the acquisition of personal experience from the objects that affect us is the education of things" (p. 2). Thus, man has three teachers--Nature, things, and men--and the student must encounter these teachers in precisely this order. By nature and things, he seems to mean "the world of matter and of physical forces, personified as an intelligent and infallible guide from which is carefully excluded all the modifications of matter and force which have been made by human art" (Psyne, 2003, p.1). The main distinction here between nature and men is the distinction between necessity and whims. Nature acts in accordance to its deterministic laws whereas men's actions are governed by their arbitrary wills. Since nature is not within our power, it must regulate the teaching of things and men. Thus, for Rousseau, "when education becomes an art, it is almost impossible for it to succeed" (p. 38). Naturalistic education is a strong education because the laws of nature govern it. When these laws and the nature of the child are known, we can then predict, to a high degree, the results of our education.

Since the natural liberty and growth of the child are the aim of education, unnatural liberty has to be repressed. Here is where the principle behind Rousseau's, supposedly unnoticed, manipulation of Emile appears. He writes, "employ force with children and reason with men. Such is the natural order" (p. 91). Also, "never assume to have any authority over him. Let him know only that he is weak and that you are strong, that by his condition and yours he is necessarily at your mercy" (p. 91). Teaching, then, is the art of "governing without precepts and doing everything by doing nothing" (p. 119). Actually, the only condition that Rousseau demands to be Emile's teacher is that "he [Emile] ought to honor his parents, but he ought to obey only me" (p. 53). To facilitate such authority, Rousseau takes Emile to the countryside for "in a village, a governor will be much more the master of the objects he wants to present to the child" (p. 95).

Emile's communication with other people is very limited. Reading books, which is another way to communicate with and relate to the Other, is discouraged. At the age of twelve, Rousseau plans, "Emile will hardly know what a...

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