Rousseau, Romanticism, Education and Play

Toby Young: “The idea that somehow children want to be left to their own devices to run wild and play and discover the world for themselves, and any interference in that romantic process is cruel, is just rubbish…”

Rousseau gets blamed for a lot of things in education being often cited as ‘where it all went wrong’. Romanticism, mainly in the form of Rousseau’s book ‘Emile’, gets mentioned by many commentators in the edu-sphere.

E D Hirsch makes a powerful claim for the importance of knowledge and sequenced, thoughtful curricula, this call was taken up by Nick Gibb and Michael Gove and is now, helped by Ofsted, in the forefront of many schools’ approaches to curriculum design. Hirsch claimed that “Progressivism in education is just another name for romanticism.” (ED Hirsch 2006, p5)

Play-based learning, progressive education, child-centred education all get lumped together as Romantic ideals at odds with, say English Empiricism or the educative ideas of the classical world. Hirsch attaches much blame for the anti-knowledge pro skills and pro play approach onto Rousseau via Dewey. But were those who came before Rousseau all dyed in the wool trad protagonists arguing for direct instruction and a well-sequenced knowledge-centred curriculum?

Who said: “don’t use force in training the children in the subjects, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed toward.” Could it be Rousseau, maybe Dewey, or that ‘progressive’ educator Montessori? Nope – It was attributed to Socrates, by Plato, in the Republic.

Who said: “I always have had a fancy, that learning might be made a play and recreation to children; and that they might be brought to desire to be taught.” Was this Rousseau, Dewey, or maybe Russell? Nope. It was the Great English Empiricist John Locke in his work ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’.

So scapegoating Rousseau might not be the most fruitful way forward. There is a rich vein in the struggle between the ‘trad’ vs the ‘prog’. And as for Romanticism… For Isaiah Berlin, for all its faults, and there are many, Romanticism continues to impress upon us the importance of: “Liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life; some degree of rational self-understanding.” (Berlin: The Roots of Romanticism, p170. 1999) And perhaps in understanding ourselves we should see that Romanticism is not the enemy of education and neither is a well- sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum.

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