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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

134–147: The Four General Areas of Education

123–133: Sluggishness, Dishonesty, and an Overfondness for Toys

148–177: Reading, Writing, Languages

Locke has finally finished with moral education and now turns to explore the other areas of education. In addition to virtue, he tells us, we must teach a child wisdom, breeding, and learning. Wisdom and breeding have already been treated a bit in earlier parts of the book, and the rest of this section looks at them in more detail. The remainder of the work focuses on academic learning.

Before moving on to wisdom and breeding, Locke tells us one more thing about virtue. The foundation of virtue is a true notion of God and a love and reverence for this supreme being. A child must first obtain these religious sentiments, in addition to the ability to pray, and only then should the parents begin to instill in him a love of truth and a good nature (i.e. a love and respect for everyone).

Wisdom, according to Locke, is the ability to manage one's business ably and with foresight. The components of wisdom are a good natural temperament, an application of the mind, and experience. Children cannot be wise because children have no experience to draw on. However, parents can lay the groundwork for making children wise in the future. To lay the groundwork for wisdom parents should try to promote a love of truth, a respect for reason over passion, and a tendency toward reflection.

The rule of thumb for good breeding is not to think poorly of yourself or of others. Good breeding basically boils down to good manners; a well bred man is a man who always behaves in a way that leaves everyone around him feeling entirely comfortable. Ill breeding, Locke tells us, comes in two forms. The first form of ill breeding is a sheepish bashfulness. A gentleman ought to think well enough of himself to act with composure no matter whose presence he is in. The only way to prevent this sort of ill breeding is by exposing a child to a variety of impressive people. In this way he will learn by habit how to behave around all sorts, and will never lose his calm assurance. The other sort of ill breeding takes the form of negligence and disrespect. To avoid this sort of ill breeding a man needs both a good disposition (what Locke calls "civility", which is basically a desire to make everyone as comfortable as possible) and a good way of expressing this disposition (what Locke calls being "well fashioned", which is basically having graceful and elegant manners). As Locke has repeated numerous times, the latter can be picked up merely by observing good company. The former does not have to be taught either because it is the natural result of being humble and good natured.

Though for the most part Locke thinks that children should be left to learn good manners over time, simply by observation, there are two sorts of bad manners that he thinks cannot be tolerated even in children. The first of these is interruption and the second is contradiction. Interruption is disrespectful and insulting because it conveys the message that you no longer want to hear what the other person is saying. Contradiction is a sign of conceitedness. Dissent is fine, of course, but the manner in which you dissent is crucial: young men should not be allowed to state their opinions until they are either directly asked to do so, or until everyone else has finished saying what they needed to say. When a young man does give his opinion it should be in the form of inquiry and not instruction.

Academic learning, which is, of course, what most people immediately think of when they hear the word "education", is of least importance on Locke's list. While he admits that learning is necessary, he is adamant that it is not the "chief business" of education. Learning can be useful when coupled with virtue and wisdom, but it can also be harmful when coupled with vice and folly. Learning, he says, should always be secondary to the "greater qualities" (that is, virtue, wisdom, and good breeding).

Analysis

In explaining why he puts learning behind virtue and wisdom, Locke appeals to the fact that being learned is not an inherently good or bad thing. A wise and virtuous person can put learning to good advantage; a vicious and foolish person can also use learning to bad advantage. Learning, Locke might say, is what you make of it. Therefore, it is more important to form the man than it is to form the knowledge; the former determines whether the knowledge will be worthwhile or not.

The order of importance, though, becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we consider who Locke was writing for. Locke's book on education was not intended for the general public; he had a very specific audience in mind. He was writing a book on how to train a gentleman. In the noble circles of Europe manners were extraordinarily important. In large part, they determined whether you would be a success or a failure. Someone who people enjoyed being around would be an integral member of society, invited to all the functions and probably even landing powerful positions, while someone who was unpleasant to be around would be less likely to have these advantages (though if he were enormously rich or already enormously powerful, unpleasantness could obviously be overlooked). Since Locke was writing a manual on how to train a gentleman, he had to consider what would aid a gentleman most in life, not only what he himself considered most worthwhile (though for all we know Locke considered good manners inherently more valuable than learning). As far as he could tell, the most important qualities that a gentleman could have were virtue and wisdom. Good breeding was also enormously important. Regardless of its objective worth, academic learning simply was not as crucial an ingredient to success in those circles as the other qualities were.

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