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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

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

64–67: Education as Pleasant

88–94: The Tutor

Summary

Until this point, Locke has been speaking as if education involves the same methods and aims in the case of all children. Now, though, he gives things a new twist: just as we must tailor the child's learning schedule to fit his moods and inclinations, we must also tailor the entire course of moral education to suit the child's character. Every child has a different temperament, just like every child has a different face and a different figure. (These temperaments are easiest to detect in childhood, before people think up a way to mask them.) Though a child's temperament can never be drastically altered, it can be improved. Our aim should be to prevent the vices and faults to which our child is most naturally inclined, and to encourage all of his strengths. In order to determine your child's temperament, Locke suggests that you watch him while he is playing. He will show his personality strongest when he feels that he is totally at liberty and unobserved.

If you do not pay attention to your child's personality, Locke warns, and try instead to force him to behave in ways that are alien to his temperament, then you will wind up with an affected child. That is, his actions will seem awkward and forced, and will appear not be genuine.

Because children need so much individual attention, Locke is strongly opposed to sending them away to school. At school they are just one of many students, all under the care of a single teacher. They cannot receive the individual attention that they will receive at home under the care of a tutor. Since little attention can be paid to any one child at school, the question of virtue is almost entirely ignored. After all, without individual attention how can you right all of a boys' natural weaknesses and faults? Many parents, Locke admits, are afraid to keep their sons at home because they believe that their sons will remain ignorant of the larger world, and unable to confidently interact with peers. Locke disagrees. He sees no reason why a young man should be unable to learn how to interact with other men while at home. His father must simply take care to invite over a variety of impressive company with whom his son can converse. All that a boy really learns at school, Locke claims, is how to be rude, pert, and forward. Despite what some parents might think, none of these are skills that will help him later in life.

Analysis

It is with his discussion of temperaments that Locke allows in the nature side to his nurture-heavy analysis of child development. By allowing that children have different natural inclinations that will never be eradicated, he is admitting that not every aspect of a man is a function of his upbringing. Temperament, presumably, is what accounts for that one tenth of men who are not what they are because of education. Whether Locke gives a fair hearing to nature is another question. We will explore that in greater depth when Locke begins to discuss different temperaments one by one.

For now, the more pressing issue is Locke's strong stance on home schooling. He claims to see absolutely no advantage to sending a child out of the house to receive his education. At school the child will be one of many. He will, therefore, not have an education tailored to his temperament. He will be forced to learn when he is not in the right mood to do so. And, worst of all, no one will be watching out for his moral development; in the schools, as Locke so eloquently puts it, they worry a great deal about teaching Greek and Latin, but give no thought to what actually made the Greeks and Romans such great figures: their virtues. What a child will acquire at school (and not at home) is a certain sort of behavior that Locke believes some parents mistake for competence and worldly-wisdom. They become, as Locke puts it, pert and forward. He claims that it is a mistake to think, as many fathers do, that a pert or a forward son has a better chance of getting on well in the world. These qualities, he declares, give no advantage. Instead, the great advantage in life comes from justice, generosity, and sobriety, joined with industry and observation.

It would certainly be nice if this were the case, but is this a realistic view? Barring the question of whether virtue itself is even an advantage rather than a hindrance to worldly success, can virtue really be all that is necessary? Someone who is aggressive might have a better chance of worldly success than someone who is not. Though Locke might find this quality less virtuous (or at least less charming) he might be too hasty in declaring that it confers no survival advantage.

There are also other related issues surrounding the debate over school vs. home that Locke does not seem to fully address. For instance, it is one thing to learn how to conduct yourself in conversation with other men (which Locke convincingly claims it is easy to learn at home), but it is an entirely different matter to learn how to form real relationships with peers. A boy who grows up at home, conversing now and then with his father's friends, might be missing out on more than just "pertness". He might be missing out on the opportunity to form bonds, and all the associated advantages that attend these bonds. This could have several negative consequences. First of all, it might make for a less pleasant childhood. For most people, the happiest moments of childhood are spent with friends, learning together, exploring the world together. In addition, he might actually be worse off for this lack in the future. He might grow up unable to ever form close bonds with friends, or to relate to people in a natural and familiar way.

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