Thoughts from the Past

Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have been 300 years old, just a week before today, the 4th of July. Terry Eagleton, writing in the Guardian, ponders how Rousseau might feel about Europe today. Eagleton is a British intellectual best know for his theories of literary criticism. His short remarks about Rousseau are equally germane to the US, especially coming so close to our Independence Day. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the column.

What would this giant of Geneva have thought of Europe 300 years on from his birth? He would no doubt have been appalled by the drastic shrinking of the public sphere. His greatest work, The Social Contract, speaks up for the rights of the citizenry in the teeth of private interests. He would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.

The same, he thought, should be true of education. Rousseau ranks among the great educational theorists of the modern era, even if he was the last man to put in charge of a classroom. Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today’s world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.

The last sentence in the first paragraph was the one that caught my eye because it is so close to the way I talk about the central target of sustainability. “Common bonds” is a way of talking about connectedness, another key feature. The rest of Eagleton’s column is well worth reading. I find it hard not to share his feelings about the state of the present world.

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