Naturalism- as a Philosophy of Education

From the solemn gloom of the temple children run out to sit in the dust, God watches them play and forgets the priest” -Rabindranath Tagore

Naturalism is a concept that firmly believes that ultimate reality lies in the nature of the matter. Matter is considered to be supreme and mind is the functioning of the brain that is made up of matter. The whole universe is governed by laws of nature and they are changeable. It’s through our sense that we are able to get the real knowledge. The senses works like real gateways of knowledge and exploration is the method that helps in studying nature


Naturalism is a term loosely applied in educational theory to systems of training that are not dependent on schools and books but on manipulation of the actual life of educand .Naturalism is an artistic movement advocating realistic description: in art or literature, a movement or school advocating factual or realistic description of life, including its less pleasant aspects. In literature, The  doctrine rejecting spiritual explanations of world: a system of thought that rejects all spiritual and supernatural explanations of the world and holds that science is the sole basis of what can be known. a belief that all religious truth is derived from nature and natural causes, and not from revelation


“Naturalism is the doctrine which separates nature from God, subordinates spirit to matter and sets up unchangeable laws as supreme”.


Concept of God

Naturalist God is within Nature .He is not all nature nor more than  nature .He is that particular structure in nature which is sufficiently limited to be described as making possible the realization of value and as the foundation of all values

The Concept of Self

The self seems to be an organization of experience in each individual which is constantly developing and changing.. The human self is seen by naturalism as an offshoot of Nature, and not as springing from beyond Nature.

Naturalists  are not much interested in the concept of soul of man. According to them ,man is the  child of nature; in the evolutionary processes that have been at work in the universe so far, he is on the very crest of the wave.


In terms of theory of knowledge, Naturalism  highlight the value of scientific knowledge,  through specific observation, accumulation and generalization . It  also lays emphasis on the empirical and experimental knowledge. Naturalism  also lay stress on sensory training as senses are the gateways to learning


Simple induction is the logic of naturalism. Simple induction involve careful observation of Nature, accurate description of what is observed, and caution in formulating generalizations


Naturalism believes that. Nature is versatile. Instincts. drives and impulses need to be expressed rather than repressed. According to them, there is no absolute good or evil in the world. Values of life are created by the human needs.

Ethical Value-Ethics of naturalism is hedonistic, as long as this characterization is accompanied by the caution that in the conscious though at least of many naturalists the highest good is the most highly refined and abiding pleasure.

Aesthetic Value-The principles enunciated above regarding the ethical values of naturalism hold also for aesthetic values. They, too, are rooted in nature and do not depend on any source outside nature for their validation. Nature itself provides the criterion for beauty.

Religious value-The prime imperative of a naturalistic religion is that its adherents ally themselves with the value-realizing force in Nature and help to bring into existence values which are not actual in the present.

Social Value-Rousseau’s naturalism rooted man in Nature rather than society. So much did he regard man as a child of Nature, as over against society, that he proposed in his Emile to keep Emile away from society until adolescences.. Individual man, he contended, is not a man unless he is free; if he is in bondage, he is less than a man.


We are born weak, we need strength; helpless, we need aid; foolish, we need reason. All that we lack at birth, all that we need when we come to man’s estate, is the gift of education.

~Jean Jacques Rousseau

Naturalism as a philosophy of education was developed in the 18th century. It is based on the assumption that nature represents the wholeness of reality. Nature, itself, is a total system that contains and explains all existence including human beings and human nature

Education must conform to the natural processes of growth and mental development. This root principle, already touched upon, stems from a concern to understand the nature of the child and follows from naturalism’s conception of the pupil. It is the make up of the learner that determines the character of the learning process, not the designs of teachers of the learner or there simply will be no learning.

Education should be pleasurable; for children have a good time when they are doing things which the present development of their physical and mental equipment makes them ready to do. This readiness for specific kinds of activity is evidenced by their interest. Consequently, interest in a subject and interest in ways of doing things are guides to parents and teachers, both as to subjects of study and methods of teaching for which children have a natural readiness at any given stage of development.

Education should engage the spontaneous self-activity of the child. As already noted, the child educates himself in great measure, most of his knowledge is base on what he discovers in his own active relations with things and people. Especially is this the case with our perceptions, developed almost completely by our own unconscious efforts in early childhood but constituting the machinery for a high percentage of our adult experiences. Adults are foolish, therefore, if they do not use this native self-activity as an ally in their teaching. The way to do this, Spencer advised, is to tell the learner as little as possible and induce him to discover as much as possible.


The naturalistic hierarchy of educational objectives represents a complete reversal of traditional purposes of the school, chiefly, perfecting of man’s highest powers via study of literature, philosophy, and classics

Education is for the body as well as the mind; and this should not be forgotten. Even if it were possible, there is no point in making a man mentally fit for life and neglecting his physical fitness The naturalist, as Herbert Spencer represents them, first regards the pupil from the physical side. For the child is at bottom a little animal, whatever else he may be. He has a body, or, to be more accurate, he is a body one of his first requirements therefore is that he be healthy, a vigorous animal, able to stand the wear and tear of living

Mind and body must both be cared for and the whole being of the student unfolded as a unit. . A child is bad because he is weak, make him strong and he will be good.”

Rousseau’s aim  is to show how a natural education, enables Émile to become social, moral, and rational while remaining true to his original nature. For it  he is educated to be a man, not a priest, a soldier, or an attorney, he will be able to do what is needed in any situation.

Since the naturalist denies the validity of any aims outside the natural sphere, their concern must be with immediate or proximate aims. Perhaps these aims might be summed in the dictum that schools should develop the “whole child,” that is, the entire natural organism. Whereas traditional education had placed major emphasis upon intellectual function, the naturalist proposes that the child be given opportunity to grow physically, mentally , socially, emotionally, aesthetically, vocationally, under the auspices of the school.

According to Spencer this can be achieved by “that education which prepares for direct and indirect self-preservation; that which prepares for parenthood; that which prepares for citizenship; that which prepares for the miscellaneous refinements of life.” Thus the school’s most important job as an educational agency is to see to it that the child learns how to preserve his own physical health and well-being. Preparation for citizenship and leisure time activities appear at  the end of the list and are of lesser importance.

Complete living” is the general aim As this is not very explicit term, it may be made more understandable by a parallel attempt at generalization. This impression is borne out by the specific objectives which are now to be discussed.

1. Self-preservation is the first of the five objectives. In order to live completely, as man has first of all to live, he has to continue his own existence. While instinct is the chief guarantee of this objective, education may also help by acquainting the learner with the laws of health and enabling him to earn a living.

2. Securing the necessities of life. It is especially in the realm of developing economic efficiency that education helps in preserving life. Money is not life, but it is a necessity in maintaining life. Education should train directly for success in this important function.

3. Raising children. Though a bachelor, Spencer held that the most important function that most men and women have to perform is that of being parents. Therefore education should deal unashamedly both with the care of children in the nursery and the discipline of them as growing boys and girls.

4. Maintenance of social and political relations. Beyond the home in the far-reaching social structure, man must have some understanding and mastery of social and political processes if living is to be complete. He must be a wise citizen who is equipped for effective social and political action.

5. Enjoyment of leisure. Life is not all serious struggles, keeping physically strong, earning a living, being a responsible parent and an earnest citizen. Complete living also includes freedom from struggle some of the time for “gratification of the tastes and feelings.”


The teacher’s role is to remain in background. The natural development of child should be stimulated. Since, Nature is considered to be best educator,

According to naturalists the teacher is the observer and facilitator of the child’s development rather than a giver of information, ideas, ideals and will power or a molder of character.In the words of Ross “teacher in a naturalistic set up is only a setter of the stage, a supplier of materials and opportunities, a provider of an ideal environment, a creator of conditions under which natural development takes place. Teacher is only a non-interfering observer”.

For Rousseau, the teacher, first of all, is a person who is completely in tune with nature .He has a profound faith in the original goodness of human nature. He believes that human beings have their own time-table for learning. “Emile organized education according to Emile’s (a boy) stages of development. For each stage of  development, the child, shows certain signs that he is ready to learn what is appropriate to that stage. Appreciating the educative role of the natural environment as an educative force the teacher does not interfere with nature, but rather cooperates with the ebb and flow of natural. forces. Significantly, the teacher who is aware of human nature and its stages of growth and development, does not force Emile to learn but rather encourages learning, by insulating him to explore and to grow by his interactions with the environment.

Rousseau opines that teacher should not be in a hurry to make the child learn. Instead he should be patient, permissive and non-intrusive. Demonstrating great patience the teacher can not allow himself to tell the student what the truth is but rather must stand back and encourage the learner’s own self discovery. According to him the teacher is an invisible guide to learning. While ever-present, he is never a taskmaster. Naturalists are of the view that teacher should not be one who stresses books, recitations and massing information in literary form, “rather he should give emphasis on activity, exploration ,learning by doing”.

Great emphasis was placed upon the study which teachers should make of the environmental background of each student, since unacceptable behavior was rooted there rather than in the pupil’s ill will. Teachers were advised to learn of the racial, national, and religious backgrounds of their students if a pupil caused trouble or lacked initiative in school, the home conditions should be studied to see whether a home broken by divorce, death, or marital conflict is responsible for the child’s difficulties. If a teacher were unable to manage a class , he was held responsible because he lacked insight into child nature


Rousseau once commented that “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the author of nature. Man meddles with them and they become evil.

True, all God’s creation was good, but man’s own free acts had ushered in sin and evil. No small wonder, then, the following statement by Rousseau fell upon Christendom like a bombshell. Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man…. He will leave nothing as nature made it, not even man. Like a saddle-horse that must be trained for man’s service he must be made over according to his fancy, like tree in his garden.

One of the clichés which has been current in education for some time is to the effect that “teachers do not teach subjects, they teach pupils.” Whatever this slogan may convey in meaning, it does direct attention to the importance of the pupil, the person being taught, the educed. Though philosophies do not teach subjects, they teach pupils.”

The pupil is to the teacher what man is to the philosopher. For man who is interpreted by the philosopher also has various practical engagements, one of which is being a pupil at school in his formative years, may be a student in institutions of  advanced learning during his more mature years, and we hope a learner throughout life. If a philosopher is also a teacher and at the some time is consistent in both though and practice, he will view man as a pupil in the classroom in the same way he thinks of him when philosophizing. So the doctrine of the pupil is virtually the doctrine of man in the classroom.

“I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.”

~Jean Jacques Rousseau

Its curriculum is usually based on the needs, interests and abilities of the child in relation to its levels of development. So, a child-centered curriculum forms an amicable answer of the Naturalist. It helps in recognizes individual differences and experiences of the child should form the core element of the curriculum In like manner the curriculum of the naturalists might be classified as experience-centered.

Professional courses in child and educational psychology became the center of the educational program for teachers. “Know the child and you will know what to teaches” became the slogan of the naturalists

As a doctrine, naturalism does not favor in imposing any boundary on the children. So advocates of this theory have not framed any curriculum of education. They think that each and every child has the power to and demand of his own to frame curriculum. A child will gather experience from nature according to his own demand. He is not to be forced to practice any fixed curriculum. This concept about curriculum existed till the time of Rousseau but it changed after wards. Later on naturalism was influenced by scientific development. So the thinkers think that to give natural pleasure to man, science should be utilized in life. Hence, their concept of curriculum also changed.. They have advised to include the following in the curriculum -

1.       Science dealing with nature will include Physics, Chemistry, Botany etc. These branches of science will help children to be acquainted with nature.

2.       Mathematics and language will be included because these will help to acquire the subjects of science.

3.       History and Social Science – in order to acquire modern knowledge, one should practice the process of evolution. It will also help to realize the importance of those in their present life.

4.       Agriculture and Carpentry will offer opportunity to the children to act them in freedom and will increase their power of observation.

5.       Naturalists felt the importance of Physical Education and Health Training for self protection. But they did not form any particular curriculum for this. They say that the children should be given opportunity for their free movement of bodies in natural environments. They will thus acquire techniques of self-protection from nature and expose themselves in nature.

6.       Drawing naturalists have considered drawing as the main technique of self-expression. They have included drawing as compulsory in the curriculum. Naturalists have also commented about ethical and spiritual training in the curriculum. They were against spiritual training as according to them children should pick their own religion from experiences they acquire. They also said that ethical training should not be imposed on children. They will build their own ethical sense in natural order by receiving rewards and punishments.

Naturalism rejected the rationalistic curriculum of the Renaissance humanists because it lacked any connection with the natural world. In fact, naturalists In its place approves studies designed to meet the personal and vocational needs and interests of the students. Modern languages replace classical ones because they are useful. Health and physical education become an integral part of the curriculum because they contribute to “self-preservation.” Household and industrial “arts” take their place in the curriculum because they meet the legitimate demands of the students.

The role of humanistic studies become minor, for these studies find their reason for existing in the curriculum only insofar as they contribute to “preparation for the worthy use of leisure time.” In other words they are recreational rather than essential


Methods of instruction should be inductive. This follows from Nature’s advice that teaching make fullest use of the self-activity of the pupil, telling him as little as possible and encouraging him to discover as much as possible for himself. To tell a child this and to show him that only make him a recipient of another’s observations. If the learning intellect is to be guided to its appropriate food, children must master the art of independent observation and direct acquaintance.

The educational  implications of the naturalistic theory holds that good education is pleasurable, thus, methods of teaching should be based upon the belief that the child is not averse to learning, but enjoys it. Teaching methods and materials will appeals to student’s natural inclination to learn. Difficult tasks are not to be excluded, however, for even they can be made pleasant

It is the area of methodology, perhaps, that naturalism has had the greatest effect on education. Since this philosophy constitutes both a reaction against traditional educational methods and a proposal for substituting “natural” methods in their place .The natural mode of self expression is Play and learning should be done through cheerful spontaneous and creativity of play. The process of discovery is given importance. The activities like excursions, fieldtrips and practical experiments are recommended to enhance learning

Education’s methodology perhaps exemplifies this shift from traditionalism most clearly. All of Rousseau’s recommendations on “how to teach” is based on the belief that experience is the only teacher. Spencer, the scientific naturalist, enthroned experimentation, the usual method of empirical sciences, as the only valid method of teaching.

In the first place, the naturalist is opposed to the formalized teacher-centered methods of the medieval and Renaissance scholars, many of which persist to this day. In such methods the teacher was viewed as the teaching-learning process, whereas the student was presumed to be the recipient of the Knowledge presented to him. In their worst form such approaches made of the pupil’s role a very passive one indeed. His only activity was “giving back” to the teacher that which he had learned from the teacher or from books.

This pupil activity usually took the form of recitation or written and oral examinations. It might be argued that such passivity on the pupil’s part a characteristic of all traditional teaching methods. Another characteristic was the repression of the pupil’s natural instincts and desires. In some instances educators such as Cotton Mather believed that education’s most important task was to “drive the devil out” of the pupil. Therefore, the naturalist objected to all harsh methods of discipline; he opposed the view that Children should be seen and not heard Originally applied specifically to (young) women. Hyt ys an old Englysch sawe [saying]: ‘A mayde schuld be seen,

Naturalism maintains that all teaching methods should be based on experience. Since they relies on the inductive method, they  insists that the first criterion for judging the value of a teaching method should be based on self-activity of the pupil finding the answers for himself. The pupil himself must observe nature in order to find facts and discover answer to his problems. To tell the pupil all the facts, to show him the procedures, to give this the answers, merely makes him a recipient of reports of others’ experiences. The child has not learned but merely memorized or “absorbed” what he has been told. Thus all teaching methods should be characterized by pupil activity involving direct or at least vicarious experience; the pupil must educate himself.

A second characteristic of naturalistic teaching learning methods is found in their conformity to the natural development of the pupils. It means readiness of the organism for any given learning. Negatively stated, this principle means that it is not the teacher or society that determines what the child should learn, but his own developmental level. Positively stated, it means that when the organism is ready for a certain type of learning activity it will seek in naturally, that is, without being forced by the teacher or by adult society. Thus the pupil will learn about his physical environment when his interests and instincts lead him to such learning; boy-girl relationships will be developed when children reach the age for such relationships; pupils will learn to read when they are ready.

A third characteristic of naturalistic methodology is that all educational activities should be enjoyable to the child. The tasks assigned by traditionalist teachers were designed to discipline the student and therefore were considered unpleasant by the student, but the naturalist felt that any task that went “against the grain” for the pupil should be avoided. Note how quickly and easily children (or adults) learn what they enjoy. Number games, word games (Scrabble), reading interesting stories, studying plants or animals in their natural habitats, the skills of wood wording, household arts, dramatics, and the like, constitute real enjoyment for the learner.. Thus any teaching-learning methods which make the material distasteful to the pupils should be avoided.

Rousseau advocates negative education – which is typical of naturalistic philosophy – the subordination of the child to natural order and his freedom from the social order. He defines negative education as one that tends to perfect the organs that are the instruments of knowledge before giving them this knowledge directly. The child should be left free to develop his body and senses. He attaches great importance to sense training as he believes senses are the gate ways of knowledge.


Punishment should be constituted by natural consequences of wrong deeds; should be certain, but tempered with sympathy. As we should teaches in accordance with the rhythms of Nature, so we should also punish as Nature punishes.

Naturalism emerged at a time when education was confined within the rigid rules of discipline by the influence of Idealism. Naturalism aims at making education free from the bondage of rigid discipline under which children were tortured.” A child born lives and dies in a state of slavery.  At the time of his birth he is stitched in swaddling clothes and at the time his death he is nailed in a coffin. And as long as he preserve the human form he is fettered by our institutions. Man was born free and everywhere he is in shackles.”- Jean-Jacques Rousseau Naturalism, as a philosophy of education advocates maximum freedom for the child and further stresses in freeing the child from the tyranny of rigidity, interference and strict discipline.. The freedom of child disciplines him and he is naturally controlled by his own learning and experiences. There is stress given to discipline by natural consequences.

Since classroom discipline usually is associated with methodology the naturalist asserts a fourth characteristic of sound teaching, namely that all discipline should derive from the natural elements of the situation. The situation will provide a form of innate discipline that should replace that of the teacher. To illustrate, a child learns to avoid hot objects because he has experienced the discomfort and pain which follow his touching them the pupil learn to cooperate with other pupil when he finds himself ostracized by his class mates. .for example- Every time a child puts his finger into the candle flames he gets a burn. Always it happens; always it is a burn. Their are no harsh words, no snapping and snarling, just a burn proportionate to the size of the flame and the extent and duration of the contact. But always there is that much. By this means Nature quickly teachers the normal child the dangers of fire, and exemplifies for parents and teachers what is desirable in corrective relations with children.

If a child is slow in dressing, for a walk, leave him at home. If he breaks a window, let him sit in the cold. If he over -eats, let him be sick. In fact, let him suffer the consequences for which he is responsible himself for going against nature.  When a child begins to expect such consequences as certain to follow if he does not measure up to what is expected of him, he will act so as to enjoy the benefits which follow from appropriate conduct. Furthermore, when punishment of this sort is used, ruffled feelings do not get mixed up with discipline. It is easier for parent or teacher to hold a firm position with the child and yet not lose rapport with him completely. Even the disobedient child should feel that he has not lost all the sympathy of his guardians. But in the common snapping and snarling of parents, the emotional break between parent and child is too sharp and may do more damage than the punishment does good


Rousseau describes the education of Sophie, the girl who marries Émile. In Rousseau’s view, the education of girls was to be similar with regard to naturalness, but it differed because of sexual differences. A girl cannot be educated to be a man. According to Rousseau, a woman should be the centre of the family, a housewife, and a mother. She should strive to please her husband, concern herself more than he with having a good reputation, and be satisfied with a simple religion of the emotions. Because her intellectual education is not of the essence, “her studies must all be on the practical side.”


If naturalism is true, then it may follow that mothers and /or fathers are the natural teachers, and there is no firm basis for adding to institutions,  Rousseau.  , proposes  that formal schooling is both unnecessary and harmful to education “according to nature.” Even the tutor’s role must be subordinated to that of the home and nature. His function is a negative one: to keep the child and youth from the evil influence of corrupt institutions and society. Of these three educational agencies (home, church, and school) Rousseau would recognize only the home. The foundations of good physical and mental health are laid during infancy It the child is spoiled by faulty home training during these formative years, this tutor will have great difficulty in correcting the errors. .

Other naturalists believed that although the parents role is very important in the child’s education, one should have formalized institutions whose very existence is rooted in nature. they acknowledge the important function that secondary educational agencies serve. Mass communication media such as radio, television, movies, newspapers, all play important parts in the modern child’s education.


Perhaps the most controversial from the point of view of many philosophers is the absence of any permanent goals for education. Without some permanence of aims education can easily become a haphazard, day to day activity without any central focus.

By designating experience as the sole source of knowledge naturalism limits itself to one methodology and to a narrow curriculum divested of much of the knowledge acquired by past generations as well as of the many artistic production of the human race.

The somewhat naïve view that human nature is essentially good resulted in the elevation of pupil freedom to the detriment of even the mini al order and discipline essential from optimal learning.

On the other hand the most significant educational reform proposed by the naturalists flows from their belief that the natural growth pattern of children should determine the content and method of education. The modern concept of “readiness,” accepted by educators of all persuasions, is a result of this principle.

A corollary of this generalization reminds the educator that content and method should be adjusted to the individual differences of the pupils. Naturalists recognized the failure of traditional education in regard to this rather obvious fact and offered both theoretical and practical means for adapting content and method to individual differences.

Another principal advocated by the naturalists and generally accepted by all modern educators stresses the pedagogical value of “learning by doing.” Much of traditional teaching was highly verbal and abstract, even when the occasion did not call for such an approach. The naturalist reminds all educators to utilize direct experience whenever possible to insure meaningful and lasting learning.

one final contribution suggested by naturalistic theory which has been a value to all educators can be traced to the dictum that “learning is naturally pleasurable.” Too often, the traditionalists preached that learning was pleasant, but their practices belied their principles. In many traditional schools, especially at the lower levels, it was assumed that “good education” must be unpleasant because children were unwilling to learn. But the naturalist argued that if education utilized the natural interests of student as the starting point for learning even the most difficult tasks could become pleasant. If nature itself contains those ingredients necessary for the improvement of the species, it behooves the educator to formulate his aims, devise educational methods and procedures, create a curriculum, and strengthen educational agencies according to the natural tendencies found within man. Then and only then can one be assured of the continued progress of the human race. Any appeal to sources outsider nature for improvement of the educative process is miseducative since it violates the very foundations upon which education should be built. Nature must be accorded free play if there is to be improvement in the child. Nature itself seems to guarantee progress .


Broundy, Harry S., Building a Philosophy of Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961..

Butler, J. Donald, Four Philosophies and Their……… Education and Religion. New York : Harper & Row.

Herbart, J.F., The Science of Education. Boston : D.C.Heath & Company, 1902.

Locke, John Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1902. The basic statement of Locke’s epistemological position.

Weber, Christian O., Basic Philosophies of Education. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1960. This book, especially in chapters 11-14,.

Broudy, Harry S., Building a Philosophy of Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961..

.Frank Thilly, “A History of philosophy”, Central Publishing House, Allahabad.

John Dewey, “Reconstruction in Philosophy,” p-38. London, University of London Press Ltd. 1921.

John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1960, Introduction.

Rusk, R.R., “Philosophical Basis of Education” p-68, footnote, London, University of London Press, 1956..


















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