Academic learning begins with reading, writing, and foreign languages. As soon as a child can talk, he should be taught to read. In order to make a child eager for this task, Locke suggests speaking about it in his presence as if it were a great privilege. Locke also suggests certain games that one can play with a child to make learning to read into a fun activity. For early reading material, Locke recommends Aesop's fables, because these are both easy enough for a child to understand, and also contain wisdom that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Once a child can read he should be taught to write. A child should also be taught to draw at this time because it will help to improve the use of his hand. Drawing has the added benefit of being useful in travel; it allows you to easily express certain sights that would be difficult to capture in words.
As soon as the child can read and write in English, Locke believes that he should begin to learn another language. However, he should not learn this language through the method advocated by the schools. Instead of memorizing the grammatical rules of the language, he should be exposed to constant conversation in that language. This goes for both the living languages and the dead languages. After all, to a newborn child, English is just as unfamiliar as French which is just as unfamiliar as Latin. Why, Locke asks, should we use different methods for teaching these three languages?
Locke suggests starting foreign studies with French because it is a useful living language. During the period when the child is studying French all of his coursework should be conducted in French. Within two years he should be fluent in French, and then he can move on to Latin, learning it through the same method. The child should not be made to study any of the other dead languages that are taught in the schools, such as Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic. (If the child has an interest in learning these languages, Locke points out, he can learn them on his own, later, through books.)
While Locke is on the topic of mistakes made in the schools, he takes the opportunity to point out three more school follies. First, the schools ask children to write Latin speeches; second they ask them to write Latin poetry; and third they ask them to memorize long Latin passages. None of these things is at all useful. Writing Latin speeches does not help a child learn the language, and it certainly does not make him a better public speaker. To make your child a good public speaker, Locke says, you should have him speak on the spot, about a subject he is familiar with, and in his own language. Writing Latin poetry is similarly useless in terms of teaching the language. Plus, writing poetry is worthless unless the child has talent, and if the child does have talent you should not want to encourage him in this pursuit. No one should want his child to be a poet, Locke declares, because then he will ignore his real business, he will keep bad company, and he will make no money.
Memorization also does nothing to teach the language, not does it even help to strengthen the memory. The strength of the memory, Locke opines, has to do with the mind's natural constitution. No matter how many times you try to press objects into a piece of steel, he points out, you will never make as much of an impression as you would make by pressing that object into a piece of wax. The same goes for peoples' memories. Some minds are naturally able to retain a lot of information and some are not. If excessive memorization led to better memory, Locke points out, then actors would have the best memories of all; but this is not the case.
Before moving on to discuss the other academic subjects, Locke says a few words on the matter of attention. Children, of course, have short attention spans, and it is difficult for them to keep their mind on any one thing for too long. A tutor should not try to retain the child's attention by rebukes, though, because this is counterproductive. Once they have been rebuked, their attention wanders over completely to that fact, and to how frightened and bad they feel about it. Also because of their short attention spans, whenever a child becomes stuck on some problem, the tutor should not force him to puzzle it out, but should give him the solution right away. (The other reason to do this is to make learning as pleasant as possible for the child.)
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