Descartes lamented that he left as a child before being a man; Rousseau takes note of this and pays all his attention to those who have not yet made use of his reason. To do this, he first advocates a negative education. This consists of the governor stepping aside instead of imparting positive knowledge. He should intervene as little as possible, if not to place the child in a ‘natural’ environment tailored to him, so that it is things that instruct him, not society.
Space is the framework of the education that the ruler must carry out, remaining vigilant so that this framework is always adequate – so that desires do not exceed needs – as happens with any capricious child whose demands are immediately satisfied. This is the key to the development of autonomy. However, this autonomy develops according to two conditions that are opposite to the world in which children and adolescents live today.
“I want all our machines to be made by ourselves, and I don’t want to start making the instrument before the experiment; but I want that after having glimpsed the experiment as by chance we invent little by little the instrument that must verify it”.
The distance between current instruments and the individual capacity to manufacture them is abysmal
Of course, it would be illusory to want to return to the tool as it existed outside the framework of the division of labor and the progress of nanotechnologies. However, it is undeniable that the distance between current instruments and the individual capacity to manufacture them is abysmal, and this only poses a problem to the extent that the instrument progressively supplies precisely our individual capacities.
That is, our relationship with space, with our physical power, which Rousseau –according to the empiricists– believes is at the origin of the formation of reason, and more generally with our relationship with the world.
GPS, calculators, social networks, weather applications, etc., are available in a single instrument that identifies us as we use it. The instrument thus becomes a necessary mediation for the most elementary tasks of life, substituting the body itself, the same one that Emilio’s governor has the mission of developing in his student.
As we know, nowadays mediations tend to fade away, to be forgotten. This is the paradox of the tool, and even more so of the connected tool: it gives the world by taking it away. It fades away in favor of the content, but in doing so it produces the illusion of an experience. The metaverse will be the generalization of this paradox, consecrating the disappearance of one’s own body.
The danger of mediation is that it offers no guarantee that it is not a screen that stands between the child and the world and produces an illusion of knowledge.
This learning of autonomy, of which Emilio is the manual, is a challenge, since it is assumed that autonomy is not taught, unless it goes through a phase of heteronomy and obedience. A phase that Rousseau intends to overcome by reintegrating the child in his age (time) and in the natural order (space), without rushing things, attentive to the genesis of his faculties in proportion to the growth of his will, and separating him from the harmful effects of the society.
And that is precisely what autonomy is: depending on things, not on the gaze of others. This is the second Rousseauian lesson that must be pondered at a time when social networks are structurally built on approval or criticism, permanent judgment; that is, the look of the other, which on the other hand is reduced to his ‘look’.
Even the governor moves away in favor of the negative pedagogy that he puts in place, to let the child discover for himself his limits and capacities.
Thus, “the autonomy of the child depends on a space staged by the governor”, as Johanna Lenne-Cornuez says. Through this stratagem, the child learns from things and not from others. The challenge is for him to become a man, aware of his place, not in society, but in the world.
The third consequence of Rousseau’s pedagogy, which Johanna Lenne-Cornuez develops in the book cited above, is that it aims to show what it means to be in one’s place at a time when the castes of the Old Regime no longer order the world. social, and in which the ‘place’ should no longer determine the identity of the individual.
Now, today, a return to the natural order, insofar as it reminds us of our limits, would do well to counteract the allocation of places by a society whose network structure seems to have become the model. And we know that a network distributes interchangeable places over and over again, that one and the other occupy seeking at all costs to stay in them, renouncing the very idea of autonomy. That Enlightenment revolution.
If Rousseau’s education seems impossible to carry out, his reminder can, however, serve as a ‘regulatory idea’ to warn and develop critical thinking about the conditions in which children evolve.
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Institute of Political Studies of Bordeaux, France (Sciences Po Bordeaux).
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