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.)
When Locke discusses the methods of education used by the schools, he is speaking from experience. This entire section of the book is an implicit criticism of the education he received at Westminster and Oxford. Locke hated his time at these schools, and did only the minimum amount of work necessary to get by. He spent the rest of his time on extracurricular academic pursuits, studying medicine, chemistry, philosophy, and politics on his own.
Locke's horrible experience in school was in large part the motivation for writing the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For centuries, the schools had been dominated by a group known as the Scholastics (it is not a coincidence that these two words sound similar). The Scholastics had held control of education and of academia in general since the middle ages (actually, they were not only in charge of the schools, they had founded all the schools in Europe). Their main activity was interpreting the works of Aristotle, and solving minor problems that arose from those works. In Locke's opinion they favored obscurity over clarity, details over the larger picture, and, to top it all off, they hid behind piles of meaningless jargon. Other thinkers held this same opinion, and by the time Locke reached maturity there were new schools of thought emerging that took a very different approach to knowledge. The most successful and famous of these was the Cartesian school of thought, founded by the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes attempted to provide a crystal clear, perfectly reasoned picture of the world, in which the entire physical universe is a machine, operating based only on the principles of matter and motion.
Descartes had a very specific mechanistic picture of the world; others began developing alternate mechanistic theories. One such thinker was the scientist Robert Boyle, who Locke befriended while at Oxford. In Boyle's home Locke met other mechanistic scientists, who were all trying to explain the physical world in clear, rational ways, and basing their ideas on observation and experimentation. Locke was extremely impressed with these men, and quickly made himself an integral part of their world. He wrote the Essay in order to provide a philosophical basis on which to rest the new science of his friends. A major goal of the Essay was to show the folly of the Scholastics, and of much that is taught in the schools. Locke, in other words, had a long history of antagonism with the schools, so we should not be surprised to find him very critical of these institutions in Some Thoughts.
Locke's stance against poetry can be seen as another symptom of his anti-nature prejudice. While he allows that some people are born with a talent for poetry, he does not allow that this is an inclination that should be encouraged. Once again, in other words, he does not allow for the fact that people are born with inherent preferences, in this case strong, life-determining passions. It does not occur to him that some people might not be happy in the life he is proscribing (a life concerned only with business, politics, and good manners), and that some people might have overwhelming artistic desires.
Locke bases his plan for language education on the principle that foreign languages should be learned through the same method by which we learn our native tongue. Locke might be right that conversation is the most effective method by which to teach a foreign language. However, recent discoveries in linguistics make the question a more complicated one. While we cannot blame Locke for thinking that all language acquisition takes place by the same mental process, there is now much evidence to suggest that something very different is happening in our minds when we learn language as a small child, and when we later learn a foreign tongue.