Jean Jacques Rousseau published his novel Emile, or On Education in 1762, just after publishing On The Social Contract, his treatise of enlightened government and societal education and empowerment. One purpose of the novel was to give aspiring and ambitious parents some idea of how to go about raising an enlightened child, the goal being that eventually an entire society of curious, compassionate, rigorous, and energetic citizens would arise, and that such people would bring about a brave new world of universal human freedoms and rights. Two hundred plus years later and we have devolved to debating how to raise kids who are at the top of their game across all fields of competition. We may argue about how to get there but from what I can tell from everything I've read in the past weeks in the blogosphere and on TV and in the Press, the goal itself isn't in question: we wants kids who can kick butt across the fields of math and science, possess a bit of language skills and musical achievement to soften the corners, and read enough books to ensure a strong vocabulary to ace the SATs.
Have we forgotten the teaching of kindness? Curiosity? Compassion? Have we really veered so horribly off the path of societal evolution that now we want to raise robots of achievement and give nary a thought to raising spirited, curious, and highly individual citizens?
A whole generation of parents attempted to follow the precepts set forth by Rousseau in Emile. Even when theses parents got the methods wrong (as Francine du Plessix Gray argues was the case of Madame de Stael and her upbringing by her ambitious maman, in her book Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman), the generation that resulted was in large part, right on target. Madame de Stael was a model of the modern woman, smart and ambitious but also curious, civic-minded, enthusiastic, and willing to go a far way for the rights of others. Our own American Revolution can find its roots in Rousseau, perhaps not in how John, George, or Benjamin were raised by parents who had been influenced by reading Emile (although they themselves might have been parents raising such children), but certainly by his ideas of classical republicanism, whereby an educated citizenry exercises its virtues of thinking and acting responsibly, using moral reasoning to suborn their selfish needs to achieve the common good and thereby determine the course of their government. What role did education play? In Rousseau's own words, "The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason! ... If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated."
So what do we want for our kids? To be competitive in the world arena and ensure U.S. (substitute any country you personally root for) domination? Or to raise kids who will carry forward ideals of open mindedness, human dignity, and civic responsibility? I don't care how you raise your kids -- or at least, I don't want to read about it everywhere I turn. But for the sake of your kids' friends, teachers, and anyone with whom they come in contact now, or in their future, can you just try to raise kids who are kind, compassionate, curious, and willing to help others? If I could be sure of that, then I would have no worries for the future of the United States, or of the world.