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J. J. ROUSSEAU ON WOMEN'S EDUCATION.
In France, three notable writers had preceded Rousseau in the field of women's education, Jacqueline Pascal, Mme de Maintenon and the Abbé de Fénelon.
Of the system of the first, all critics nowadays would say that it was inadequate both as a system of instruction and as a method of developing character: it has already been pointed out how far inferior it was to the curriculum and training established in the Port Royal schools for boys.
Mme de Maintenon again, even her great admirers must admit, narrowed her intellectual curriculum unduly. Yet being a woman of unusual ability, placed in circumstances singularly fitted to give insight into human character and motives, she learned at Saint-Cyr, quickly and correctly, much about women and not a little about girls: consequently, though she cut down the plan of instruction to the minimum, she left much sound counsel concerning the upbringing, other than intellectual, of girls of the aristocratic class; an upbringing which, like that devised by Locke for gentlemen, could be adapted in its main important points to the upbringing of girls of every class.
With the Abbé de Fénelon the horizon widens, though not perhaps much in theory, yet conspicuously in practice. Careful as he was to avoid, nay more to condemn, preciosity, his view of a woman's functions, as the real "head of her house,” obliged him logically to permit a fairly wide curriculum, which beginning with so pedestrian a subject as domestic economy, mounted, by necessary steps, to a study of history, law and ethics.
The question now is—What of Rousseau ? What has he to add to or take away from this slowly developing ideal? Before that question is answered, we must remember that the 17th century had asked more for women than they had obtained, and this had been done by writers, who unlike the three mentioned already, were working mainly in the sphere of political science, thinkers whose views should have interested Rousseau, whose work proceeded on similar lines.
There was, for instance, Mademoiselle de Gournay, Montaigne's adopted daughter, who had written the two treatises entitled:
(i) L’Égalité des hommes et des femmes,
(ii) Le Grief des Dames.
In both of these, she lamented the common habit of maintaining the proposition that women lack “the dignity, the ability, the temperament which are essential if they are to be educated wholly like men”: and she declared with sarcastic energy that “the only happiness, the sole and sovereign virtues," left for women are “to be ignorant, to be foolish and to serve.” It was, as the title of her first book suggests, equality of opportunity for which she pleaded; she had no desire to claim any special or exclusive privilege for her own sex, but she would allow none to men, as men.
About the same time, the same position was defended with singular force by an able champion, the learned Dutch lady, Anne Marie Schurman, who corresponded with Mademoiselle de Gournay. The claim of this lady to learning could hardly be gainsaid, since she could write in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French.
She maintained, what indeed few competent persons dispute now, that intellect is not dependent on sex. She further maintained that a woman can make the same intellectual efforts that a man can. So far as purely academic effort is concerned, it is improbable that anyone now will seriously dispute this; though, the point of contention having shifted somewhat in the last quarter of a century, all are by no means agreed that it is desirable that any and every woman should make the same intellectual efforts as any and every man. The very expression of the problem in words indicates the foolishness of attempting a generalisation on the point. Mademoiselle Schurman further maintained that no divine law prohibits a woman from using and cultivating her intellect. However alien to the practice of the age her views may have been, Mademoiselle Schurman was no headlong reformer trying to inaugurate "wild-cat schemes”: she had evidently looked at the world as it was, and had perceived the truth of the old adage—non omnia possumus omnes, for she postulates three essential conditions for every woman desiring learning, she must be a woman of ability, of some means, of plenty of leisure.
Later on in the same century, about 1763, a theologian, Poullain de la Barre, took up and supported the thesis of the equality of the sexes. The inequality usually observed in their education he attributed to two causes ; first, the prejudice of the vulgar who are incessantly making mistakes, and secondly, the desire of the learned to keep their secrets to themselves, in fact to remain a close society.
He then argues that of all human joys, knowledge is the highest and purest. Who need be surprised then if women covet it?
He attributes the common faults of women, the old weary list which has been published so often till surely everyone should be sated, their chatter, their unreliableness, their meanness, their cunning and all the rest, to the current faulty conventual methods of training them.
But he is somewhat original in challenging the popular notion that one cannot be educated without a knowledge of the classics,—"notre langue nous fournissant, en prose et en vers, tout ce que l'on peut souhaiter de plus beau pour la perfection de l'esprit?."
After suggesting the establishment of a training-college for women teachers, after planning a curriculum, and drawing up a list of volumes for a library, after urging that no science is beyond a woman's grasp, and after proceeding to the extreme step of throwing open all professions to them, not excepting the Church, the Army and the Law, he turned round, six years later, and with an amazing levity produced another treatise, in which, to his own entire satisfaction apparently, he refuted his former treatise. In this, he appeals to Scripture, to commonsense, to custom; he does not disdain to use the familiar weapon of ridicule wherewith to defeat his own thesis. What he really believed it is perhaps now as impossible as it is unimportant to discover.
Rousseau does not appear to have made use of the efforts of his predecessor: in the brief preface to Book v. of Émile Locke is the only educational writer he mentions. When he turns to his subject, Sophie ou la femme, as he calls it, the only difference he can discern between man and woman is that of sex, but it does not carry him far—"la difficulté de les comparer vient de celle de déterminer dans la constitution de l'un et de l'autre ce qui est du sexe, et ce qui n'en est pas." His conclusion is not illuminating : “En ce qu'ils ont de commun ils sont égaux: en ce qu'ils ont de différent ils ne sont pas comparables." In spite of this feeble position, he contrives, after an immense amount of verbiage, to reach this general proposition, that man must do the general work of the world (whatever that loose phrase may signify), and that woman must be the mother and supply the domestic element.
1 De l'Égalité des deux Sexes appeared in 1673; De l'Excellence des hommes contre l'Égalité des Sexes appeared in 1679.
But the conclusion which immediately concerns the historian of education is this : “Dès qu'une fois il est demontré que l'homme et la femme ne sont ni ne doivent être constitués de même de caractère ni de temperament, il s'ensuit qu'ils ne doivent pas avoir la même éducation”; and if Rousseau had been content with that, many sober theorists could have agreed with him. But he stumbled on that luckless notion, which led him completely astray so far as women's education is concerned, that “la femme est faite spécialement pour plaire à l'homme.” It all rests on that unfortunate choice of a verb; why to please, and to please only? Why not to help, why not to supply all that man does not, and cannot ? Rousseau could not grasp the idea that the relation between man and woman is that of necessary complements, not of pleaser and pleased. He could not realise that in every department of life, not only in the home, but out of it, men and women supplement each other, if they only will: speaking generally, man regards a thing in one light, woman in another; the truth lies somewhere between them as a rule, and they pick it up together.
But Rousseau has no doubt as to the truth of his position, woman is born to please man, so his aim is to create Sophie so that she shall fulfil that single function in its varying aspects : “après avoir tâché de former l'homme naturel, pour ne pas laisser imparfait notre ouvrage, voyons comment doit se former aussi la femme qui convient à cet homme."
Probably no one will challenge his aim, to make a woman really a woman, to make a man really a man: it is his interpretation of the terms, and the means he selects which arouse the strongest opposition. Having admitted that Nature has given woman “so agreeable, so acute a mind,” that it "has wished them to think, judge, love and know, to cultivate their minds as well as their bodies," he surely might have elaborated some less indefinite formula than “women should learn many things, but only those which it is suitable for them to know."