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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

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John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education is a collection of musings on the topic of education. Locke does not present a systematic theory of education, and the work reads more like an instruction manual than a philosophical text.

Locke's is convinced that moral education is more important than other kinds of education. The goal of education, in his view, is not to create a scholar, but to create a virtuous man. More particularly, the aim of education is to instill what Locke calls the Principle of Virtue, namely the ability to subvert one's immediate appetites and desires to the dictates of reason. According to Locke, the goal of education is to create a person who obeys reason instead of passion. The importance Locke places on this quality cannot be overstated: nearly two thirds of the book is devoted to an account of how best to instill this principle.

While discussing how to best instill this quality, Locke addresses other related ideas. He says that learning should be enjoyable. There is no good reason, Locke thinks, that children should hate to learn and love to play. The only reason that children happen not to like books as much as they like toys is that they are forced to learn, and not forced to play. Locke sets out to show how learning can be a form of recreation. Among his proposals are that children should never be forced to learn when they are not in the mood; that they should never be beaten or spoken to harshly; that they should not be lectured to, but should be engaged in conversation; and that their ideas should be taken seriously. In addition, the boisterous, loud, and playfully unruly spirit of children should be cultivated rather than curbed. Any mischief that stems from the age rather than the character of the child should not be punished.

Not only should the general temperament of childhood be taken into account, but so should the individual temperament of the child. Every mind, Locke tells us, is different, and what is right for one child is not right for another. The goal of education is to guard against any vices to which a child is predisposed. By tailoring children's educations to their characters, teacher not only obtain more effective results, but they also make the experience enjoyable.

Locke also stresses the importance of habit and example in education, while downplaying the role of rules. Children generally do not understand rules, Locke claims, nor can they remember them. Teaching by rules, therefore, is counterproductive. The child will either end up being punished constantly and then giving up on the attempt to be good, or else the rules will not be enforced and the child will lose his respect for authority. Habit and example bypass the weaknesses of childhood by utilizing instinct in place of memory and reflection. Because of the importance of example, Locke views it as crucial that the child spends the majority of his time with his tutor or parents. School is ruled out entirely because it does not provide the necessary close attention. In addition, parents are warned not to allow the child too much time in the company of servants.

Locke discusses the importance of parents at length. Most parents, Locke thinks, play a perverse role in their children's lives. When the children are young and need rational guidance, the parents are indulgent. When the children are grown, and can use their own reason, the parents suddenly begin imposing their will. Locke says that this pattern is illogical and that parents should reverse their behavior: when the children are young they should be placed under stern authority. Young children should relate to their parents through fear and awe. In this way, they will come to have the proper amount of deference to reason. Once a child is a rational creature, a parent can only retain his authority by inspiring love and reverence in his son. A grown son should be courted as a friend, his advice sought out and his opinion respected.

In the last third of the book, Locke finally turns his attention to academic learning. Here, Locke takes a strong stand against the schools. Where the schools stress Greek and Latin grammar, Locke thinks that these languages should not be a strong focus of the child's education, and that when they are taught, it should be through conversation rather than through memorization of rules. In place of the usual scholastic course of study, Locke proposes his own course. Just as within a subject there is a certain ideal way to present ideas (i.e. by introducing first one simple idea, then another one logically connected to the first, and so on), he also thinks that there is a parallel method that is best for teaching. The course begins with reading and writing in English, then moves on to French and then Latin. Simultaneously with the French studies, the child is introduced to a host of other subjects that receive little attention in the schools. The child begins with simple geography (locating places on a map), then moves on to arithmetic as soon as his abstract reason begins to develop. Once he learns addition and subtraction he can return to geography and learn about poles, zones, latitude and longitude. When he masters the terrestrial globe, he can move on to the celestial globe, and learn about the constellations in our hemisphere. Next he learns about the Copernican system, and after that he moves on to geometry, and then to chronology. Once chronology is mastered he can learn history, then perhaps a little bit of ethics, some law, and, finally, some natural philosophy. The advantage of this system, Locke thinks, is that it not only teaches all of the most useful subjects, but it also teaches them in a way that follows the natural development of a child's mind.

Locke ends the book by discussing the other accomplishments he thinks a child should make. In particular, Locke says that every child should learn a manual skill. He thinks that a manual skill (anything from gardening to carpentry to grinding optical lenses) is useful because it helps to relax and refresh the mind after it is worn out from study. It is better to have such a skill, he thinks, then to be idle. The last topic he touches upon is travel. Every young man should travel, he thinks, but not at the time that young men usually go abroad. The typical age for travel is between sixteen and twenty-one, but this is too late to be of any use in language acquisition, and too early to be of any real use in learning the culture. It would be far better, Locke asserts, to either send a son at an earlier age (with a chaperone) or else when he is older and can really understand the cultural differences between his own country and others.

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