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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