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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

88–94: The Tutor

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

95–99: As Child Gets Older

Now that Locke has urged parents to hire a tutor rather than send their sons to school, he turns his attention to the question of what sort of tutor to hire. Locke thinks that one cannot overestimate the importance of finding a good tutor. No expense should be spared in the effort, and the search should be taken as seriously as the search for a wife. The most important qualities to look for in a tutor, he claims, are virtue, good breeding, and knowledge of the world. It is of much less importance that the tutor be a scholar. In terms of academic education the tutor only has to give his students the tools and inclination, and the student can do the rest on his own, by reading books. Virtue, breeding, and worldly wisdom, on the other hand, can only be learned from someone who already possesses them.

It is very important that the tutor is well bred, in particular, because there is no way to learn good breeding other than by being in the presence of well- bred company. Remember that Locke does not think that manners should be learned by rules. Good breeding, in turn, is of the utmost importance in the child because without it all other accomplishments fail to come off as positive. Courage in an ill bred man comes off as brutality; wit comes off as buffoonery; plainness comes off as rusticity; good nature comes off as fawning; and learning comes off as pedantry.

The tutor needs to know about the world so that he can teach his student the "ways, humors, follies, cheats and faults" of his age and country. In this way the child will not be taken by surprise when he finally leaves his father's house, and so will not be easily dazzled and corrupted. In order to prepare the child for the outside world, the tutor should talk to him about it and should occasionally tell tragic or ridiculous stories about men who were ruined by various vices. The tutor must be careful, though, when introducing these vices, keeping a special eye toward the child's particular weaknesses. After all, he does not want to give the child ideas.

Locke ends this section with a concise summary of the tutor's role. The work of the tutor, he tells us, is to "fashion the carriage and form the mind". He must instill in his student good habits and principles of virtue; he must help him to understand mankind, and to love all that is excellent. And, in the course of doing all this, he must also inspire the student's vigor and industry.

Analysis

Locke himself acted as a tutor for several years in the home of his patron Lord Ashley (he also acted as advisor, personal physician, and resident scholar in that household). One might wonder whether Locke considered himself adequate for the weighty role he describes. Though it might sound as if Locke is asking for a lot from the tutor, his demands are not at all out of line, given what he hoped to accomplish with his method of education. If education really is what determines how a man will turn out, and if so much of moral education revolves around observation, it does not seem like a stretch to demand that children only be taught by extraordinary men. In fact, if education is anywhere near as important as Locke considers it to be (and presumably, it is somewhere near as important), it starts to seem like a scandal that more care is not taken in choosing the people responsible for this task. Every human being is educated at some point, and so simply by raising the standards for those doing the educating, we could conceivable raise up the quality of all humankind. This, anyway, is certainly what Locke would have us believe.

In general the section on the tutor seems fairly uncontroversial. So long as we buy Locke's other claims (about the importance of virtue, breeding, and wisdom in education, and about the importance of learning these qualities from observation and direct discourse) there seems to be little to argue with. He does, however, manage to slip one potentially controversial claim into this section. At one point he criticizes the schools for only preparing children for the university and not for actual life. In one sense this claim seems unobjectionable: obviously children should be prepared for life and not just for further study. But it raises another question, which seems to loom throughout much of the remaining parts of the book: to what extent is the purpose of schooling only to provide skills and knowledge that will prove directly useful in life? Locke seems, at times, to be saying "to the fullest extent"; in other words, that the sole purpose of education is to arm children with skills that they will use in life. We can call this the "pragmatic" view of education.

Contrast this view with one we can call "The Liberal Arts Education" view, or the LAE view. According to the LAE view, education is not simply about providing those skills and knowledge that a child will use later in life. Instead, it is about expanding a student's mind as much as possible, introducing the student to all sorts of ways of thinking and of approaching the world, and allowing him to become acquainted with fields of inquiry that will never be of any direct use to him. The idea behind this view is that this very expansion of the mind itself has good effects on a person: it allows them to think better, it makes them more tolerant and open minded, and it also opens up many new options for enjoyment.

Before asking whether the pragmatic view of education is better or worse than the LAE view, it is important to determine where Locke really stands in relation to these two views. On the one hand, Locke is adamant that a child learn how to behave in the world before he learn the more scholarly pursuits. He also, as we will see later, emphasizes the importance of academic subjects that will be of direct use to the student (such as law and accounting, as opposed to logic and Greek). Yet, it is important to remember that on Locke's view, a child's academic education only begins with the tutor. The tutor, he stresses on numerous occasions, only provides the tools and the inclination. It is then up to the child to pursue whatever other knowledge he wants to acquire. For instance, if a child wants to learn Greek, Locke says, he should by all means do so; when he has completed his more basic studies, he should take out a book on Greek and learn it that way.

Locke's view, then, is somewhere in between the pragmatic view and the LAE view. He thinks that a pragmatic education is more important than an LAE type education, but he does not discount the worth of pure scholarly inquiry. (This should not come as a surprise since Locke himself was a scholar.) In practice, he thinks that a child should only be held responsible for practically useful subjects, and that further study should be done on the child's own time and according to his own initiative.

Our own school system once aimed at Locke's version of education. Elementary and high schools were supposed to provide the practical skills that we all need in order to get by in life. College, then, was supposed to be an available option for those who chose to augment their studies before entering the real world. Today, many would argue, we have come far from that original conception. The lower schools do not provide many of the necessary skills (such as how to deal with finances). They also force students to learn much that is not, strictly speaking, necessary (such as calculus and Ethan Frome). In addition, college has become all but requisite for those seeking to enter most professions and so the debate over pragmatic versus liberal arts has found its way into debates over college curricula as well. Instead of Locke's plan of required pragmatic studies succeeded to optional impractical studies, a pessimistic person might say that we are left with a mishmash of practical and impractical, with no one really sure what should be taught and why.

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