Hyacinth Gerdil's Anti-Emile: A Prophetic Moment in the Philosophy of Education

Article excerpt

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

--William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951)

TO SAY THAT THE PUBLICATION IN 1762 of Rousseau's Emile or On Education was controversial would be an understatement. Published in Paris, it was immediately denounced at the Sorbonne. The French Parliament condemned the book, had it confiscated, and ordered its author arrested. In Rousseau's native city of Geneva the Emile was burned. It is in the context of such controversy that one of the most accomplished philosophers in Northern Italy, Hyacinth Sigismond Gerdil (1718-1802), was asked to review Rousseau's book to determine whether there was to be found in it anything "contrary to the principles of religion and sound morality." (1) In the process of devising what was originally intended as a modest evaluation of Rousseau's work, Gerdil found himself articulating the elements of his own philosophy of education. The result is a work, first published in Turin in 1763, which he entitled Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Education against the Principles of Rousseau. The little book, much reprinted and translated, soon picked up the popular title, Anti-Emile, by which it largely has been known ever since. It is reported that Rousseau himself considered Gerdil's critique of his book to be principled and thorough, traits that he found rare among the wide-spread criticism of his works. (2) Gerdil's rhetorical style is marked by a tone of elevated civility; despite its polemical intent, his tone never strays far from the detachment of philosophical inquiry. Apart from historical considerations of its contribution to the hot polemics over Rousseau's book, Gerdil's Anti-Emile has contemporary relevance. Emile's principles of education are still with us. They have, however, become conventional instead of controversial. Gerdil's Anti-Emile is a book for anyone who would like to cast back the mind's eye to a moment in history when the profound potential of Rousseau's book for transforming Western culture and casting the minds and hearts of men in a revolutionary spirit was seen for precisely what it proved to be.

Despite the efforts of Allan Bloom to elevate Rousseau's treatise to the status of "a book comparable to Plato's Republic," (3) the Emile is not well known outside of limited academic circles. This neglect, however, should not be taken as a sign of its minimal importance or weak influence. One hundred years ago the French educationalist, Gabriel Compayre wrote about Rousseau's influence in America:

   Without our suspecting it, Rousseau's pedagogical spirit has
   insinuated itself into and penetrated the methods of teaching and
   the educational practices.... Wherever discipline has become more
   liberal, where active methods are supreme, and where the child is
   kept constantly in a state of interest, lively curiosity, and
   sustained attention, his dignity being at the same time respected,
   there we may say Rousseau has passed by. (4)

John Dewey's progressive, child-centered theory of education was a major conduit of these ideas in American schools. (5) Their influence continues today in pedagogical practices such as discovery methods, group projects, interactive and manipulative methodologies, and the appeal to different learning styles, which are staples in contemporary teacher training programs and the practice of their graduates. Rousseau's Emile is the prototype student.

If, as a matter of principle, the rationale behind pedagogical practice follows from an understanding of the nature of the human person, we might wonder about the philosophical presuppositions at the Rousseauan origins of today's liberal, progressive movements in education. Allan Bloom identifies the fundamental issue:

   Rousseau is at the source of the tradition which replaces virtue
   and vice as the cause of man's being good or bad, happy or
   miserable, with such pairs of opposites as sincere/insincere,
   authentic/inauthentic, inner-directed/other-directed, real
   self/alienated self . …