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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

1–30: Introduction and the Health of the Body

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

31–42: The Aim and Foundation of Education

Summary

Locke begins Some Thoughts with a few words about the importance of education. Nine tenths of the men we meet, he tells us, are as they are (good, bad, somewhere in between) because of their education. Education is what truly determines a man's character. Though every mind is born with particular inclinations (some are lazy, some industrious, some timid, some brave, and so on) the mind of a child is malleable, and education can form it significantly.

Given the power of education, he tells us, the aim of education should be nothing so modest as the formation of the intellect; rather the aim of education should be the formation of a whole human being. Education must focus on producing a healthy body and a sound mind. As we will see later in the book, the components of a sound mind include virtue, breeding, wisdom, and learning (in roughly that order of importance). Before turning to mind, though, Locke spends a few pages advising parents on how to strengthen their child's physical health.

Strength of the body, according to Locke, primarily involves the ability to endure hardship. In order to achieve a high level of durability, Locke believes the best thing for a parent to do is to expose the child to all the conditions that might potentially harm him in the future. Once the body becomes accustomed to these conditions, Locke reasons, they will no longer pose a threat to the child. The worst thing that a parent could do, on this view, is to coddle the child. The child's body will then be unused to any harsh conditions, and the moment they are exposed to such conditions (which, inevitably, they will be at some point) they will fall ill.

The first specific suggestion Locke makes is not to dress children too warmly. If they are exposed to the cold, he reasons, they will grow used to it, and it will not harm them. Consider the face, he tells us. We never cover our face in the cold, and, therefore, our face is the only part of our bodies that can completely withstand harsh conditions. If we exposed all of our bodily parts to the elements, they would all be as durable as the face.

In a similar vein, Locke suggests washing the child's feet with cold water every night. If the child becomes accustomed to cold, wet feet, then, when he gets caught in a rainstorm, or walks through a puddle, or any number of other likely, wet mishaps befall him, he will not come down with an illness. A child should also be kept outside through all weather — rain, snow, sleet, etc. Finally, a child should sleep in a hard bed so that he will grow accustomed to all sleeping conditions and not find it difficult to sleep outside of his own home. A hard bed, Locke thinks, also produces a heartier body.

Locke also has some other warnings, which do not quite fall into the above pattern. He strongly advises against dressing children in confining clothing, for instance, because he thinks that it constricts and manipulates their bone growth. He is also extremely concerned about a child's diet. The food that children eat, he thinks, should be as plain as possible. They should have little to no meat, and much bread. Fruits should also be kept to a minimum, and drinks should be weak and not too cold. Actually, he thinks that this is the ideal diet for all human beings, but he stresses that it is most important in children since they are in the process of developing. Finally, he advises that all children learn to swim so that they cannot drown, and that medicine only be given when a child is truly sick, and not for any preventative measures.

Analysis

Although some of Locke's concerns may seem trivial, he believes that nothing could be more important than education. As human beings, it is human beings that we are concerned with — both on the individual and societal levels — and the single most important ingredient in the formation of a human being is his education.

This is a very strong claim on Locke's part because many people might believe that education is not the single most important ingredient in the formation of a human being. Others might even find this to be a frightening prospect; does this mean that children of poorer parents who are not sent to good schools have no chance of becoming good people? However, when Locke talks about education he is not talking about what school a child attends. In fact, Locke does not think children should go to school at all. He thinks that a private tutor should teach them at home. Although this solution may seem elitist, Locke believes that parents are capable of performing the role of private tutor. Locke does not believe that an academic education has much to do with forming a sound mind. When Locke talks about the importance of education he is talking about the importance of moral education; that is, about training a child to be virtuous. When viewed in this light his claim seems a little less radical, but it is still far from an obvious truth.

Locke addresses the comparative importance of environment and genetics. Locke puts a great deal of weight on the nurture side: he says that nine tenths of all men are the way they are because of the way in which they were nurtured. Others, though, might put more weight on the nature side; they might argue, for instance, that men are simply born with certain personalities and no matter how you try to educate them you will make very little headway in trying to change these personalities.

Locke is not completely dismissive of the nature side of the debate. While he thinks that children's minds are malleable, he admits, as we will see later, that each child is born with a certain temperament, or character. He even admits that this temperament can never be radically altered, but only encouraged in the best direction. The question, then, really does just come down to relative weights: given that children are each born with their own personalities, how much can education really be expected to form them? Locke is confident that education can go a long way, but anyone is free to object to this appraisal, especially since he never provides any arguments or hard evidence for his claims. This is something to look out for as you read Some Thoughts: is Locke justified in making his strong claims for the power of education? Does he fairly assess the nature side of the debate with his discussion of temperaments, or is his understanding of nature somewhat shallow and question begging? These are questions we will return to later.

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