This collection of scattered thoughts and observations has little order or continuity; it was begun to give pleasure to a good mother who thinks for herself. My first idea was to write a tract a few pages long, but I was carried away by my subject, and before I knew what I was doing my tract had become a kind of book, too large indeed for the matter contained in it, but too small for the subject of which it treats. For a long time I hesitated whether to publish it or not, and I have often felt, when at work upon it, that it is one thing to publish a few pamphlets and another to write a book. After vain attempts to improve it, I have decided that it is my duty to publish it as it stands. I consider that public attention requires to be directed to this subject, and even if my own ideas are mistaken, my time will not have been wasted if I stir up others to form right ideas. A solitary who casts his writings before the public without any one to advertise them, without any party ready to defend them, one who does not even know what is thought and said about those writings, is at least free from one anxiety—if he is mistaken, no one will take his errors for gospel.
I shall say very little about the value of a good education, nor shall I stop to prove that the customary method of education is bad; this has been done again and again, and I do not wish to fill my book with things which everyone knows. I will merely state that, go as far back as you will, you will find a continual outcry against the established method, but no attempt to suggest a better. The literature and science of our day tend rather to destroy than to build up. We find fault after the manner of a master; to suggest, we must adopt another style, a style less in accordance with the pride of the philosopher. In spite of all those books, whose only aim, so they say, is public utility, the most useful of all arts, the art of training men, is still neglected. Even after Locke's book was written the subject remained almost untouched, and I fear that my book will leave it pretty much as it found it.
We know nothing of childhood; and with our mistaken notions the further we advance the further we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning. They are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man. It is to this study that I have chiefly devoted myself, so that if my method is fanciful and unsound, my observations may still be of service. I may be greatly mistaken as to what ought to be done, but I think I have clearly perceived the material which is to be worked upon. Begin thus by making a more careful study of your scholars, for it is clear that you know nothing about them; yet if you read this book with that end in view, I think you will find that it is not entirely useless.
With regard to what will be called the systematic portion of the book, which is nothing more than the course of nature, it is here that the reader will probably go wrong, and no doubt I shall be attacked on this side, and perhaps my critics may be right. You will tell me, "This is not so much a treatise on education as the visions of a dreamer with regard to education." What can I do? I have not written about other people's ideas of education, but about my own. My thoughts are not those of others; this reproach has been brought against me again and again. But is it within my power to furnish myself with other eyes, or to adopt other ideas? It is within my power to refuse to be wedded to my own opinions and to refuse to think myself wiser than others. I cannot change my mind; I can distrust myself. This is all I can do, and this I have done. If I sometimes adopt a confident tone, it is not to impress the reader, it is to make my meaning plain to him. Why should I profess to suggest as doubtful that which is not a matter of doubt to myself? I say just what I think.
When I freely express my opinion, I have so little idea of claiming authority that I always give my reasons, so that you may weigh and judge them for yourselves; but though I would not obstinately defend my ideas, I think it my duty to put them forward; for the principles with regard to which I differ from other writers are not matters of indifference; we must know whether they are true or false, for on them depends the happiness or the misery of mankind. People are always telling me to make PRACTICABLE suggestions. You might as well tell me to suggest what people are doing already, or at least to suggest improvements which may be incorporated with the wrong methods at present in use. There are matters with regard to which such a suggestion is far more chimerical than my own, for in such a connection the good is corrupted and the bad is none the better for it. I would rather follow exactly the established method than adopt a better method by halves. There would be fewer contradictions in the man; he cannot aim at one and the same time at two different objects. Fathers and mothers, what you desire that you can do. May I count on your goodwill?
There are two things to be considered with regard to any scheme. In the first place, "Is it good in itself" In the second, "Can it be easily put into practice?"
With regard to the first of these it is enough that the scheme should be intelligible and feasible in itself, that what is good in it should be adapted to the nature of things, in this case, for example, that the proposed method of education should be suitable to man and adapted to the human heart.
The second consideration depends upon certain given conditions in particular cases; these conditions are accidental and therefore variable; they may vary indefinitely. Thus one kind of education would be possible in Switzerland and not in France; another would be adapted to the middle classes but not to the nobility. The scheme can be carried out, with more or less success, according to a multitude of circumstances, and its results can only be determined by its special application to one country or another, to this class or that. Now all these particular applications are not essential to my subject, and they form no part of my scheme. It is enough for me that, wherever men are born into the world, my suggestions with regard to them may be carried out, and when you have made them what I would have them be, you have done what is best for them and best for other people. If I fail to fulfil this promise, no doubt I am to blame; but if I fulfil my promise, it is your own fault if you ask anything more of me, for I have promised you nothing more.
By Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Translated by Barbara Foxley