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Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Important Terms

1–30: Introduction and the Health of the Body

The Principle of Virtue

Given that Locke is one of the great minds of the last few centuries, we might expect him to put a high value on intellectual development. Actually, though, the strongest message of Some Thoughts is exactly the opposite: a child's bodily health and the soundness of his character are far more important, in Locke's view, than the state of his intellect. The primary goal of Locke's education plan is to create a virtuous, well-bred, and wise young man, and not to create a scholar.

According to Locke, virtue is proportional to an individual's capacity for self-denial. A person who has the ability to forego his desires when reason tells him to do so, will be a virtuous person. A person without this capacity cannot be a virtuous person. Locke calls this capacity the "principle of virtue" and instilling this principle is the educator's overriding aim.

The optimal time to instill this capacity, Locke tells us, is in early childhood, while the mind is still tender and malleable. In order to do this, though, parents need to stifle their natural instincts, which tell them to coddle and indulge. If you coddle and indulge your baby, Locke warns, then your child will learn that his desires ought to always be satisfied, and he will find himself incapable of self-denial. If, instead, you maintain a stern authority over your child, and do not indulge his whims, then your child will grow accustomed to subverting his immediate desires to the dictates of reason. For the time being, of course, it is your reason that he is yielding to, but this is setting a pattern that will serve him well when his own reason begins to develop: he will then be able to subvert his immediate desires to the dictates of his own reason.

Locke even goes so far as to say that a child cannot be allowed to ask for anything by name. He can tell you that he is hungry, but if he tells you that he wants a plum, he will be denied that fruit. He can tell you that he is thirsty, but he cannot tell you he wants beer. In this way, the child comes to realize that his appetites will only be satisfied when they agree with what reason shows to be best. As the child matures and his specific requests begin come from discernment, then he can ask for things by name.

In order for this principle of virtue to take hold, the authority of the parents must be absolute and based in fear and awe. Under no circumstances should the child be beaten for doing wrong, but he also cannot be rewarded with toys or sweets for doing right. These sorts of motivations, Locke points out, just reinforce what we are trying to root out: they make immediate physical desires the objects of all actions. Instead of physical motivations, Locke suggests that parents use mental motivations. When the child does wrong he must be met with cold disapproval, and when he does right he must be commended and treated warmly. The child thus comes to be motivated by the desire to be in his parents' good graces; he wants to avoid disgrace and warrant esteem. This sort of motivation will later develop into a desire to warrant his own esteem — that is, to always follow his conscience.

Education As Fun

It might sound like no fun to be a child growing up under Locke's method: your parents are stern and denying, you cannot ask for what you want by name, everyone is cold to you whenever you do anything wrong, and you are never rewarded with toys or sweets no matter how good you are. But, actually, Locke's entire battery of advice is almost single-mindedly geared toward making the experience of education as pleasant as possible for the child. In part this is because Locke felt a lot of sympathy for children. But there is also a more practical reason for making education pleasant: it makes the learning process that much more effective. If the child enjoys learning then he will really apply himself and get much more out of his lessons.

The key to making learning fun, Locke thinks, is to make sure that it is never seen as a task or duty. The only reason children love to play and hate to learn, he is convinced, is that children play at their own liberty and work under duress. Like any human being, children like to feel that they are free to make their own choices and that their actions come from these choices. If children are not forced to learn, but come to it of their own volition, then they will apply the same high-spirited energy (what Locke calls a "gamesome humor") that we see in their play, to their learning.

Part of never presenting learning as a task is never making a child learn when he is not in the mood. Instead, the parents should closely observe the child to see when he is best suited for learning (during what seasons, days of the week, times of the day etc.) and only have him learn during these periods. The best possible situation is to have the child learn only when he specifically requests it, but, of course, some children will not request to learn often enough to make this a feasible option.

Locke also suggests that games be used in learning, particularly in learning how to read. And one of the best ways to make learning enjoyable, he thinks, is to engage the child in constant conversation rather than lecturing to him endlessly. In this way children get to use their reason (which any rational creature enjoys) and they come to love knowledge because it enables them to participate in these conversations and to have their ideas taken seriously. Other suggestions Locke has for making education as pleasant as possible is never to scold or mock for a wrong answer, never to withhold and answer when a child is having difficulty solving a problem, and never to get annoyed when a child behaves like a child (that is, loud, boisterous, playful, forgetful, with wandering attention, etc.).

The Importance of Habit and Example

Another way in which things are very pleasant on Locke's method is that there are almost no rules to follow. Locke points out that children rarely understand rules, and that they cannot remember too many at a time. If they are given many rules, therefore, one of two bad consequences will follow: either they will be punished constantly for transgressing the rules, in which case they will despair of ever being good, and give up the attempt; or else, their parents will ignore most of the transgressions, in which case the child will develop contempt for parental authority. To avoid these unfortunate situations Locke suggests starting with just one rule, and only slowly adding more, one by one, as the child becomes fully accustomed to each rule.

Instead of teaching by rules, Locke suggests teaching by habit and example. If you want a child to do something, he tells us, have them do it again and again until it is a habit. This method has two advantages: First, it allows you to make sure that they are actually capable of performing whatever it is that you want them to perform (say, bowing gracefully). Second, by making the act into a habit you bypass two of the weaknesses of childhood, bad memory and a lack of reflection. Once something is a habit it does not require memory or reflection; it just gets done automatically.

Locke also emphasizes the importance of example in education. Most of what a child learns about manners and breeding he learns by watching those around him. There is no reason to enforce a whole slew of rules about etiquette and graceful behavior; simply by having a good nature and observing well-bred people, the child will naturally come to exhibit impeccable manners. For this reason it is of crucial importance that everyone around the child acts in the best possible manner. Because the servants cannot be expected to be well-bred, Locke suggests keeping the child away from the servants as much as possible. Instead he should be constantly in the company of his parents and of his tutor (who, himself, must be extremely well-bred).

The Individuality of Temperaments

Locke recognizes the fact that every person has their own unique temperament, and that this temperament needs to be taken account of in education. Given the variability of human strengths and weaknesses, he points out, there is no sense in having a set curriculum that is applied equally to all children. Instead, a child must be carefully observed (ideally, while he is at play, because that is when he is most freely himself) and his education tailor-made to suit his character.

Locke is convinced that children's minds are malleable, so that their natural faults can be remedied if they are intercepted early enough. But he only thinks that they are malleable up to a certain point. A child's character cannot be entirely altered, it can only be improved — the weaknesses guarded against and the strengths cultivated. Creating a unique plan of education to suit each child is just one more way in which Locke's method is as pleasant as possible for a child: no child is forced to do something of which he is incapable or ill-suited.

Though there is an endless variety of temperaments, Locke takes the time to run through some of the more common ones (mostly negative) in order to tell us how best to deal with them. He instructs parents on what to do with a cowardly child, an overly fearless child, a cruel child, a domineering child, a dishonest child, and a sluggish child, as well as how to cultivate a child's natural curiosity.

The Folly of Schools

In the last third of the book, Locke finally turns to academic learning. Here he presents his own course of study, which is very different from the course of study used at the schools. This section of the book is full of direct criticisms of the school system, which in large part are criticisms of the education Locke himself received at Westminster and Oxford. Though he does not tell us this outright in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke found his education unpleasant and fairly useless. He put in enough effort simply to get by, and focused his real energies on extracurricular learning.

Locke's biggest gripe with the school system is that it only prepares young men for the university, but not for life. The schools worry so much about teaching Greek and Latin, but they do not worry at all about instilling those virtues that made the Greeks and Romans great. This gripe is more relevant to the first two thirds of the book, on moral education, but as far as academic education goes Locke's main gripe is still the overemphasis on Latin, Greek, and other dead languages. Locke thinks that children should learn their own language best of all, and after that another living language (he suggests French). An educated boy should also learn some Latin, so that he can read the great works, but he need not learn Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic.

Locke also takes issue with the way that the schools go about teaching foreign languages. They teach a language by forcing the boys to memorize rules of grammar, but this is not how we learn our native tongue; we learn our native tongue through conversation. We should learn foreign languages in the same way. Locke suggests, therefore, that right after a child learns to read and write in English, all of his studies turn over to French. Instead of learning the rules of French, he will merely by constantly spoken to in French. All of his other subjects will be presented in French. He will learn French by being immersed in French. Once he has mastered French the exact same method should be used with Latin.

Locke also presents a further course of study, comprised of subjects that are largely neglected in the schools. He begins the child on basic geography, then moves him on to arithmetic. After that, the child returns to more complex geography, then moves on to astronomy and learns the Copernican system. The child is next taught chronology, and then right after that history. Law is another important component of education, as is a little natural philosophy.

Locke suggests avoiding those subjects that are given the most attention in the schools: rhetoric and logic. Rhetoric, he claims, does not teach a child how to speak well, and logic does not teach a child how to reason well. Instead, to learn how to speak well the child should be encouraged to tell stories, and then later to write these down. In order to learn how to reason well, a child should be exposed to examples of good reasoning, through reading well-reasoned books.

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