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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

64–67: Education as Pleasant

83–85: More Thoughts on Authority and Discipline

66–71: Temper, Manners, and why School Should be Avoided

Summary

Locke's method of education might sound a little dismal for children. Though punishment is held at a minimum of severity, every wrongdoing brings on disgrace and coldness, and no good deed brings along any treats. Plus, at any sign of rebellion you get beaten into submission. Actually, though, Locke's method of education aims at being as pleasant as possible for children. In part this is because, like any kind person, Locke wants children to be happy. But he also has a more practical motivation: if children enjoy their education, he wisely surmises, they will get more out of it.

First off, then, academic learning should be made fun. If children find learning pleasant, then they will apply themselves to it industriously. The key to making learning fun, Locke believes, is to make it a matter of free choice. Locke claims that children only prefer play to learning because they are at liberty to play as they please, but are forced to learn. Like it is to adults, liberty is very important to children; they want to show that their actions come from their own choices. If you forced a child to spin a top for a set number of hours each day, Locke theorizes, he would come to hate it as much as most children hate to study mathematics or spelling or whatever else they are forced to learn.

Learning, therefore, should never be presented as a duty or a task. Instead it should be presented as a privilege. Learning and play should be viewed as complimentary activities; when the child tires of one, he moves on to the other and vice versa. In this way, learning becomes recreation from play just like play is usually seen as recreation from learning. Part of never imposing learning on a child as a task is never forcing a child to learn when he is in the wrong mood. A parent or tutor should closely observe the child to determine his tempers at various times, and set up a learning schedule accordingly. Ideally, a lesson should only occur when a child expressly asks for one, but Locke is realistic enough to realize that in the case of some children, at least, this will not happen often enough to be a feasible option.

Another pleasant aspect of Locke's method is that rules are held at a minimum. Children tend not to understand rules, Locke points out, nor can they remember very many of them at a time. Imposing a lot of rules, therefore, can only have negative effects. Either the child will be punished constantly for breaking the rules, in which case he will ultimately despair of ever being good and give up the attempt. Or else, the parent will decide not to consistently punish infractions, in which case the child will lose his respect for authority. To avoid these bad consequences Locke suggests that a child should begin with a maximum of one rule. After he has become completely comfortable with this rule, another rule may be added, and then another, and so on. There should never be too many rules, however.

Instead of teaching by rules, Locke would like parents to teach through practice and experience. If you want your child to do something, Locke says, have him do it over and over until he gets it right. There are two advantages to this method. First, you can determine whether the child is even capable of performing the task. Second, by having the child repeat the action over and over you form a habit. Since children have bad memories and tend not to reflect before they act, habits are much more effective than rules, since they bypass both memory and reflection.

Manners in particular, Locke thinks, should not be taught by rules. Instead, he thinks that children should be allowed to learn proper manners naturally over time by watching those around them. So long as a child has a good nature, so that he loves and respects all of mankind, Locke claims, he will find the way to express these sentiments in the best possible way. Because manners are learned through observation, though, it is very important that the child be surrounded with good company. For this reason (among others) they should not spend too much time with the servants, but rather they should be kept as much as possible with their parents and with their tutor.

One other way in which Locke suggests making education as pleasant for children as possible is to use reason with them. As soon as a child can speak he can reason, and children, like all rational creatures, like to have their reason respected. When you forbid or permit anything, let them know why you are doing so in as clear and simple a way as possible.

Analysis

It is appealing to think that every child is capable of loving arithmetic just as much he loves splashing in mud puddles. If this were true, the job of teachers would be simple. But though Locke asserts it with full confidence, it remains a slightly dubious claim. Locke is right in claiming that children love liberty. Anyone who has observed children knows that they love to have free reign over their lives. Locke is also right to claim that this holds just as true for adults. People tend to prefer almost any activity when they do it by choice rather than under duress: pick up a Sherlock Holmes mystery on your own, and you cannot put it down; get it assigned to you in English class and it suddenly becomes a burdensome chore. Still it is one thing to claim that children hate to be forced to do things, and a completely other thing to claim that this is the sole determinant of their likes and dislikes.

The fact that Locke thinks that all children can come to love learning as much as they love playing, might be a symptom of a recurring problem in the following sections. He is unable to fully appreciate the diversity of human minds. Probably there are many children who could be made to thoroughly enjoy learning all subjects through Locke's method. In fact, there are undoubtedly many children who enjoy learning as much as playing even in the absence of Locke's method. What is equally probable, though, is that there are many children who would continue to prefer splashing in mud puddles, no matter how free and easy you tried to make arithmetic seem. It is not unlikely that some people simply do not like math, and can never by made to like math. The same goes for poetry, philosophy, literature, etc. It is possible, in other words, that people are born with dispositions that strongly incline them to certain likes and dislikes and that no matter how appealing you try to make something seem, they still will not grow to like it. What would be the source of these inherent inclinations to like or dislike a pursuit? Maybe it would have to do with inherent talents; after all, it is a lot easier to enjoy mathematics or poetry if you actually understand mathematics or poetry. It is even easier to enjoy them if you have the ability to creatively engage in them yourself.

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