Pupils in a science class at Summerhill School in Suffolk, England. Summerhill will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2021. Photo by In Pictures Ltd/Corbis/Getty


Education, unchained

Rousseau’s child-centred ideals are now commonplace but his truly radical vision of educational freedom still eludes us

by James Brooke-Smith + BIO

Pupils in a science class at Summerhill School in Suffolk, England. Summerhill will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2021. Photo by In Pictures Ltd/Corbis/Getty

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile; or On Education (1762) is perhaps the most influential work on education written in the modern world. Rousseau’s advocacy of learning via direct experience and creative play inspired the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, the German educator Friedrich Fröbel and the kindergarten movement. His stress on the training of the body as well as the mind was the forerunner of the mania for organised sports that swept English boarding schools in the 19th century and inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to found the modern Olympic Games in 1896. His observation that children develop via a series of clearly demarcated stages, each with its own unique cognitive and emotional capacities, underpinned the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theories of child psychology in the 1920s. And his insistence on the value of learning in nature lies in the background of today’s Forest School movement.

And yet Rousseau referred to his text as ‘less an educational treatise than a visionary’s reveries about education’. Émile is a thought experiment, in which the philosopher imagines a system of education designed to protect the natural unity of his pupil’s consciousness from the ills of civilisation. Rousseau was renowned for being optimistic about human nature. In the primeval forests of our species’ infancy, mankind was solitary, happy and good – a zen-like noble savage who lived entirely for himself and in the present moment. It was only over time, Rousseau argued, as social bonds were extended and civilisation grew more complex, that this original unity was disturbed. Natural man was solitary and free, but social man – especially as encountered in the salons of Enlightenment Paris – was self-conscious, calculating, deceitful, egotistical and perverse. His aim in Émile was to devise a system of education capable of producing a complete, free and good human being. Émile was to be an unalienated ‘savage’ who could nevertheless thrive in the modern world.

Rousseau called this process ‘negative education’ and urged teachers to begin by ‘studying your pupils better’. Rather than stuffing children full of moral precepts and academic knowledge, the aim was to work with the grain of the pupil’s innate capacities and desires. Rousseau was one of the first proponents of the Romantic belief in the nobility of childhood, its freedom from adult corruption and closeness to the state of nature. Émile was to learn directly from nature in a retired country setting. He would be shielded from the pernicious influence of books until the age of 12, and then would be restricted for several years to a single book, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), for its message of self-reliance and the importance of perceiving things in themselves. Until the age of 15, Émile would learn practical craft skills, rather than theory-laden subjects such as history and religion. The role of the tutor was to design his environment so that he could ‘discover’ the laws of nature and morality for himself. For Rousseau, Émile could be free and good only insofar that ‘he see with his own eyes, feel with his own heart, [and] that no authority govern him beyond that of his own reason’.

For the most part, however, Rousseau’s legacy has been felt more in terms of our cultural ideals about childhood and education than actual teaching practices. The mass education systems that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries were primarily concerned with imparting academic knowledge and preparing pupils for the workplace, rather than nurturing their inherent freedom and goodness. On the whole, modern mass education has meant learning indoors, sitting at desks, listening to teachers, passing exams, and privileging academic over manual and vocational subjects. Even when ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ methods have been introduced, the ultimate aim has been to prepare pupils for their later roles within the ever-more complex and bureaucratic modern societies that maintain universal state-education systems. The most radical aspects of Rousseau’s programme – and the most profound philosophical questions that it addresses about the nature of human freedom and happiness – have largely been excluded from the practical business of education.

But if we look beyond the remit of state education, to the often-eccentric worlds of experimental schools and utopian communities, we find sporadic attempts to put Rousseau’s ‘visionary’s reveries about education’ into practice. Émile was a critique of the Enlightenment launched from within modern civilisation’s most powerful means of self-replication: education. In its most radical passages, such as when Rousseau declared that his aim was to teach his pupil ‘the art of being ignorant’, Émile laid the foundation for a counter-tradition within modern education that sought not simply to improve prevailing standards of schooling, but to liberate children from the burdens of civilisation itself. Radical anti-educationalists, such as the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier and the Scottish anarchist schoolmaster A S Neill, and proponents of the ‘free school’ movement of the 1960s treated education as, first and foremost, a vehicle for cultivating human happiness, and only secondarily as a means of communicating subject knowledge to pupils. In place of the traditional academic values of self-discipline and intellectual mastery, they valued existential authenticity and emotional or sexual liberation.

This radical counter-tradition sought to resolve the tension that lay at the heart of Rousseau’s system: that between the authority of the master and the freedom of the pupil. Rousseau’s belief in the freedom of children was accompanied by a subtle authoritarianism. Émile’s freedom is based on a strategic repression of false desires that is guided from afar by the self-effacing art of the tutor-designer. This is most uncomfortably apparent when Émile becomes a teenager and his burgeoning sexual desires are channelled into an ideal, even courtly, love for Sophie, his predestined bride. Fourier, Neill and the free-schoolers experimented with ways of doing away with teacherly authority altogether.

All education is moral philosophy in action. Even the most purely vocational training college relies on an implicit theory about how to live a valuable human life. But this is especially true for experimental schools, where theories of human nature and moral value intersect with the practical business of forming the characters of future generations. The counter-tradition that emerged from Rousseau’s vision of negative education was an investigation of two fundamental ethical questions: what does it mean for children to be free? And under what conditions might this freedom be most fully achieved?

One of the most radical – and eccentric – attempts at negative education came in the form of Fourier’s early 19th-century utopian socialism. He envisaged a society of universal learning, without schools or teachers, in which education would emerge spontaneously from the free play of human desire. Like Rousseau, Fourier distrusted the false refinement of civilisation, urging instead the twin methods of ‘absolute doubt’ of civilised values and ‘absolute deviation’ from civilised norms. But unlike Rousseau, who argued that Émile must practise Stoic self-restraint in order to endure life in a fallen society, Fourier argued that freedom could be achieved only via the liberation of the human passions, a process that would require the complete re-engineering of society, as well as the self.

In his voluminous writings, Fourier laid out the blueprints for this ideal social system, paying meticulous attention to everything from work routines and architectural designs to kindergarten furniture and drill uniforms. The central organisational unit of utopian society was the ‘phalanstère’ (or phalanstery), a self-sufficient community of exactly 1,620 members, which was designed to satisfy all of their material needs and desires. Underpinning this vision was Fourier’s ‘passional analysis’ of human nature, an exhaustive taxonomy of the 12 basic human passions and their 810 possible combinations. With this complete map of the human passions in hand, Fourier predicted that a network of phalansteries would spread across the face of the Earth with the inexorable logic of a well-balanced equation. In his wilder flights of speculation, he envisaged a future society of perfectly harmonious association – the free play of all mankind’s social, sexual, artistic, gastronomic and intellectual desires, which would in turn release hitherto untapped powers of human ingenuity. Life would be one long orgiastic dinner party, orange groves would be planted in Warsaw, and the seas would be turned to lemonade.

Education was central to the practical task of building utopia, first because children were less warped by prolonged exposure to the disease of civilisation, and second because they would become vectors for the spread of utopian values when they grew into free, unalienated adults. But while Rousseau granted Émile freedom only under the guise of the master’s subtle autocracy, Fourier relied on the total architecture of the phalanstery to guide children in the exercise of freedom. And while Rousseau excluded women from the freedoms of negative education, Fourier rejected the patriarchal family as part of the repressive machinery of civilisation. In a striking anticipation of today’s radical gender politics, he specified that children should be free to choose which gendered ‘choir’, or work group, to join.

At each stage of the curriculum, the aim was to enable children to discover their authentic desires via activities that also served the broader needs of the community. Children between the ages of nine and 15, for instance, could opt to become members of a ‘little horde’ or a ‘little band’, depending on their emerging character. Little hordes, their dress modelled on Mongol raiders, would patrol the community collecting garbage and emptying toilets, all the while banging drums and indulging their innate taste for noise and simple rhythms. Little bands, clad in pristine uniforms modelled on ancient troubadours, would be responsible for maintaining the community gardens, caring for bees and silkworms, and ensuring correct language use, thereby indulging their innate passion for order and grace. In seeing repressed desire as a source social disharmony, Fourier was a forerunner of 20th-century psychoanalysis. But unlike Sigmund Freud, who focused on curing individual patients in private therapy sessions, Fourier sought to untangle the knotty parts of the human soul via the design of the phalanstery, where even antisocial impulses, such as a love of shit and a rage for order, could find healthy outlets in community life.

Fourier’s vision of unbounded learning was tempered by the reality of life in small farming communities

The most important educational zones of the phalanstery, however, were the kitchens and the opera. Cooking and opera were the master disciplines of Fourier’s utopian curriculum, through which all subsidiary forms of knowledge were channelled. Cooking appealed to children’s natural appetites and gustatory pleasures, while also ensuring the health of the community. Opera appealed to their visual and auditory senses, while also encouraging their natural propensity for physicality and movement. Crucially, cooking and opera were collaborative and public artforms, unlike the solitary, page-bound abstractions of intellectuals. For Fourier, opera in particular was ‘the assemblage of all measured material harmonies’, a practical exercise that subsumed the individual within the collective via the harmonious patterns of music, dance and ritual.

During his lifetime, Fourier struggled to raise the funds to put his plans into practice, but after his death in 1837 several phalansteries were founded in Europe and North America. Education was a prominent part of these communities, although Fourier’s original vision of unbounded passional learning was much tempered by the reality of life in what amounted to a series of small, self-sufficient farming communities. But at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts – the longest-running and most well-known Fourierist community in the United States, a cause célèbre that attracted the interest of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne – a more expansive system of utopian education was put in place.

Brook Farm incorporated many elements of Fourier’s original designs, including communal nurseries, workshops, the little bands or ‘choirs’, theatre and public ritual, all in the service of the ideal of cultivating free and unalienated children. So far, so Fourierist. But at the upper end of the system, the curriculum focused on traditional academic subjects and prepared pupils for college entrance exams. Aided by its literary celebrity and location close to Boston, Brook Farm became a fashionable destination for the children of the New England intellectual elite, and an inspiration to more moderate social reformers. John Dewey, the great American educational progressive who founded the first ‘Laboratory’ school at the University of Chicago in 1896, cited Brook Farm as one of his early inspirations.

This has been the fate of many of the most radical educational experiments over the years: to become, in diluted form, vehicles for fine-tuning the gifts of the liberal elite and tempering the rigours of mainstream education. But in its purest form – a form that could perhaps only ever exist in the abstract space of the printed page – Fourier’s utopian curriculum proposed an alternative solution to Rousseau’s original vision of negative education: desire and duty united in the architecture of a utopian society.

The later-19th and early 20th centuries saw a wave of educational experiments that rejected the narrowly academic focus of mainstream public education in favour of various kinds of student democracy, manual crafts, creativity and the arts, outdoor pursuits and non-denominational religion. These schools were inspired by a range of modern creeds including socialism, liberalism, post-Freudian psychology, and even, at the more eccentric end of the spectrum, theosophy and anthroposophy, both of which saw education as a means of cultivating a spiritual unity with the all-pervading life force of the Universe. Most were short-lived enterprises that struggled to attract pupils and funds, but some, such as Abbotsholme and Bedales in the UK, survive to this day as expensive private boarding schools. The British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was sent to a series of small progressive schools after being expelled from the august King’s School in Canterbury, referred to them as ‘oases of strangeness and comedy’ in the great desert of educational conformity.

While many espoused vaguely Rousseauian beliefs in the innate goodness of children, the value of learning in nature, and a distrust of modern civilisation, few of these schools practised negative education in the pure sense. They were too stuffed full of their own positive principles – agrarian socialism, liberal internationalism, psychoanalytic good health, etc – to grant children genuine freedom. But it was from within this tradition that one of history’s most radical experiments in negative education emerged. In 1921, dissatisfied with life as a teacher at a small progressive boarding school, Neill founded Summerhill, first near Dresden in Germany and then in 1927 at its permanent home in Leiston, Suffolk, which is to this day the world’s longest running children’s democracy. Famously – infamously – Summerhill is a school without rules, or at least a school in which the rules are voted on by the pupils themselves, and all lessons are optional. The point, however, was not simply the absence of rules, but what Neill called ‘practical civics’, or the exercise of personal freedom within the context of community life. This was another attempt to resolve the Rousseauian tension between authority and freedom, this time in the form of what amounted to a small-scale anarchist community.

A singular figure in the history of alternative education, Neill was the son of Scottish Calvinists, and a disciple of the renegade psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich – who diagnosed Nazism as the product of repressed sexual energy – and what you might call a hard-bitten idealist, who pursued a simple belief in the innate goodness of children with absolute commitment and in the most minute practical detail. He claimed never to have lied to a child, and his writings contain numerous examples of this uncomfortable honesty, such as when he makes good on his promise to his daughter Zoe that he will allow her to smash up his prized piano, or when he remarks to a concerned father that masturbation never did him any harm. The aim of Summerhill was to foster a similar honesty in all members of the community. For Neill, the lies we tell our children are not merely trivial compromises with social norms, but sources of fear and repression. They are the worms in the bud of childhood, which grow over time into the monstrous forms of bigotry, war and fascism. Neill refused to call himself a social reformer, but implicit within his experiment at Summerhill was a vision of a world transformed by radical honesty.

Summerhill was a combination of anarchist mutual aid society and psychoanalytic cure

Neill estimated that new pupils spent on average three months ‘loafing’ before they attended lessons of their own volition, but in some cases it could be longer, years even. When they did go to lessons, there was no prescribed curriculum and no orderly sequence of classes. Pupils picked up whatever knowledge they desired and were free to spend as much time as they wished on arts and crafts, drama, gardening or simply staring out of the window. ‘I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar,’ Neill stated, although he also claimed that many Summerhill pupils were capable of passing academic exams with little preparation time, driven as they were by an authentic desire to learn, rather than parental or social pressure.

Alongside the School Council, where the community met and voted each Saturday evening, the other great institution at Summerhill was ‘private lessons’, voluntary one-on-one therapy sessions in which Neill would try to disentangle any neuroses he saw developing in his young charges. In this respect, Summerhill was a combination of anarchist mutual aid society and psychoanalytic cure. It is perhaps the closest any school has come to the pure ideal of negative education. Unlike Rousseau, who trusted in the covert authority of the tutor, and unlike Fourier, who trusted in the total system of the phalanstery, Neill was one of history’s most hands-off schoolmasters. In the numerous documentary films that have been made about Summerhill, he comes across as an avuncular anarchist, a gruff, self-effacing, stubborn idealist, who hovers at the edges of his chaotic experiment in children’s freedom.

Summerhill has never had many more than 60 children in residence at any time, but it has exercised an outsized influence on radical education in the 20th century. In the 1960s, fuelled by the success of his books, Neill became the figurehead of the free-school movement. Free schools were small-scale experiments in DIY and community learning that grew out of the 1960s counterculture in North America, Britain, Scandinavia, Japan and elsewhere. According to one estimate, there were between 400 and 800 free schools established in the US in the late-1960s. Like the hippy dropouts who headed for the wide-open spaces of the American West, free-schoolers sought an alternative to the alienation of modern life. In doing so, they updated Rousseau’s critique of the Enlightenment for the post-Second World War era of state bureaucracy, consumer capitalism and Cold War politics. Many experimented with various forms of direct democracy, skills exchanges, arts and crafts, and political consciousness-raising, but the underlying goal was one that stretched all the way back to Rousseau’s claim in Émile that ‘freedom is the greatest good’.

Todd Gitlin, a leading voice of the US New Left, claimed that the aim of the counterculture was to create new institutions that would liberate ‘the natural, the primitive, the unrefined, the holy unspoiled child’ within each of us. But while Rousseau relied on the concealed authority of the teacher-designer to guide Émile’s education, free-schoolers were much more likely to let it all hang out, rejecting even the subtlest forms of teacherly control as a curb on children’s freedom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this commitment to absolute freedom came with its own practical challenges. While a small number of 1960s free schools, such as the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, have grown, like Summerhill, into enduring institutions, the great majority struggled to muster enough organisational structure to last more than a few years.

The radical pedagogies of the past often become the accepted practices of the present. Rousseau’s injunction to ‘[study] your pupils better’ or Neill’s claim to be ‘on the side of the child’ would be deemed unremarkable if uttered today. Their experiments were radical relative to their times. Rousseau’s focus on nature and discovery stood out against the mannered style of the hyper-educated ‘mannequins’ turned out by the private tutors that catered to France’s Ancien Régime aristocracy. Neill’s ‘free children’, unencumbered by sexual hang-ups and unburdened by academic learning, stood out against the repressed eggheads of the British private school tradition.

We inherit some of Rousseau, Fourier and Neill’s commitment to the freedom and happiness of children in the form of our ‘child-centred’ pedagogy and concern for pupils’ ‘wellness’ and mental health. But what is less easily assimilated today is their claim that, in order to be genuinely free and happy, children require less rather than more schooling – the principle of negative education. This is a deeply counterintuitive claim, especially for those of us who have succeeded in life as a result of our ability to pass exams and amass qualifications. Caught up in the thicket of bureaucratic formalities that is modern education – the seemingly endless sequence of grades, report cards, diplomas, degrees, league tables and PISA scores – it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate ends of education, rather than the merely relative values expressed in such forms. We rarely stop to consider that it might be the culture of schooling itself that is making our children anxious and unhappy.

Of course, there is much that is crankish and impractical in the history of experimental education, and it is hard to muster anything but a historical interest in the Romantic ideal of the organic unity of the self and the halcyon vision of the noble savage. And yet Rousseau himself was under no illusions about the possibility of returning to a state of nature. What he insisted on, though, was the value of this ideal state as a yardstick against which to appraise current social institutions. Surveying the state of mass education today, can we really say that this is the best way to cultivate children’s freedom and happiness?