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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

43–63: How to Achieve the Necessary Authority

31–42: The Aim and Foundation of Education

83–85: More Thoughts on Authority and Discipline

Summary

After laying out the broad aim of moral education (i.e. to instill the principle of virtue) and the broad means by which to achieve that aim (i.e. by making the child utterly obedient to his parents) Locke now begins to delve into the issue of moral education in more detail. He begins by explaining how parents can achieve the sort of authority that they will need.

It is very important, according to Locke, that the authority that parents hold over their children be grounded in the proper motivation. A child should not be motivated to obey his parents because his is afraid of physical punishment, or because he is hoping for some material reward (such as a toy or sweets). Instead, a child should want to obey his parents in order to win their esteem and avoid disgrace in their eyes. In other words, he should not be motivated by physical pleasure or pain, but by something mental (something, that is, much like the conscience that will hopefully guide him in later life). If we try to motivate a child with the desire to achieve physical pleasure and to avoid physical pain, Locke points out, we are only reinforcing the very quality that we are trying to destroy: we are making present passions and appetites the ultimate good. Our entire purpose is to help the child master these sorts of inclinations so that he can follow the dictates of reason.

Locke also mentions some other reasons why severe punishment (either physical or otherwise) is not a good method of discipline. First of all, severe punishment can break a child's spirit. This would be a terrible thing because vigor and industry are the keys to becoming useful members of society (not to mention the fact that a child with a broken spirit is a very tragic thing). Secondly, if the punishment does not succeed in breaking the child's spirit, then it will give him a slavish temper. Once the rod is out of sight, he will revert to his bad behavior, since the beating will only have increased his desire for it by making him resentful. Finally, beating is counterproductive because it makes the child hate whatever he is being beaten for by association. If he is being beaten because he did not pay attention during his studies, for instance, then he will come to hate his studies. If he is being beaten because he was fresh to his tutor, then he will come to hate his tutor.

Though physical reward and punishment are not good motivations, Locke is convinced that reward and punishment are the only effective motivations of a rational creature. Esteem and disgrace, therefore, replace beatings and presents as the motivation for a child's good behavior. Locke claims that once the desire for esteem and the avoidance of disgrace are instilled, they become much more powerful incentives than physical rewards and punishments could ever be. The question, though, is how to instill these incentives. Locke thinks he has the answer. First of all, whenever the child behaves well he should be caressed and condoned by everyone. When he is bad, on the other hand, everyone must be cold to him. In addition, to deepen his associations of esteem with all things good and disgrace with all things bad, other sorts of advantages and disadvantages should come along with these states, as if they were necessary results. Locke does not go into specifics about just what sorts of advantages and disadvantages should be used here, but it is easy enough to imagine the sort of things that children would like and would not like. By associating all good things with esteem and all bad things with disgrace, the child will come to believe that anyone who is esteemed is necessarily loved and cherished and has all the advantages of life, while the opposite is true of anyone who is disgraced. All of their desires, then, turn away from fulfilling their immediate appetites and inclinations, and toward earning esteem in the eyes of those they care about.

Analysis

In many ways, Locke overlooks the different ways that varying environments can affect children. Locke claims that the best way to instill the principle of virtue is to try to motivate children through esteem and disgrace. He further claims that anyone who is so motivated will "always incline to right". But there is an obvious question to ask here: is it really true that following the opinions of other people will always lead to virtuous behavior? On the surface, at least, this seems obviously false. Surely the effectiveness of this strategy depends a great deal on the company you happen to be surrounded with. If you were surrounded by people engaging in self-destructive behavior, for instance, the behavior that would win you esteem in the eyes of your peers would probably not be very virtuous, and many acts of virtuous behavior would probably land you in disgrace.

There is some truth to what Locke is saying. For the most part, societies agree that a number of basic crimes are wrong. Yet there are many other moral issues about which societies might be inappropriately lax (for instance in caring for the poor, or in issues of fidelity and honesty). Using esteem and disgrace in the eyes of others as your guide, might not be as surefire a method for achieving morality as Locke seems to think.

Nonetheless, Locke was speaking to a specific society at a specific time. Perhaps he was not claiming that this relationship between virtue and esteem holds true universally; perhaps he was only saying that in that in upper class eighteenth century England it would hold true. Whether or not this more modest claim is true is another question, but it is at least not as obviously false as the first, universal, claim we attributed to Locke.

There is also another alternative reading available for Locke's claim, that would put Locke on even stronger ground. We have been reading him to mean that what leads to virtuous behavior is trying to earn the esteem of others. But there are several indications in the text that what Locke is ultimately aiming for is that the child come to care most about earning esteem and avoiding disgrace in his own eyes. In other words, by learning to care about what others think, a boy develops a strong conscience. We might be able to read the statement, therefore, as saying that one will always be inclined to do the right thing, so long as one follows one's own conscience. This would be a completely legitimate claim, on Locke's view at least, because Locke believes that our faculty of reason will never lead us astray on moral questions. If earning esteem in your own eyes is merely a matter of doing what reason tells you is the right thing to do, then following your own conscience cannot fail to lead you to virtue in every case.

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