John Locke is considered the father of the empirical tradition in philosophy, and his ideas about democracy are at the heart of the founding documents of America. His ideas about education are focused around the widely known metaphor of tabula rasa, or blank slate. He thought that knowledge or learning was impressed upon youngsters and that teachers and parents thus played a crucial role in their moral education. The ideas in his seventeenth-century works are still pertinent today.
Locke was born in Somerset, England, in 1632. He was educated at the Westminster School and then at Christ Church College, Oxford. At Oxford, he studied natural philosophy and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He went on to earn his medical degree and became a private physician and advisor for the Earl of Shaftesbury and his family.
In 1683, Shaftesbury, who was active in politics, fell on the wrong side of the controversy surrounding the ascension to the throne of the Catholic James II. Shaftesbury was forced into exile in the Netherlands and brought Locke with him. Shaftesbury died soon after he arrived in the Lowlands. Locke remained there until James II was deposed and William and Mary of Orange came to the throne in 1689. On returning to England, Locke was able to secure a government post and publish his key contributions to philosophy, including “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” He died in 1704.
To fully appreciate Locke’s ideas on education, one must first understand the broader agenda that his work represents. Locke is remembered for two great contributions to philosophy. First, he is the father of the empirical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy. The empiricist beliefs that are accessible through the senses—that there is no essential disconnect between the mind and the body, and that truths must be learned rather than innately delivered—have dominated the philosophic quest since Locke’s time.
His second widely known contribution is in the field of political philosophy, where he sought to show, in a quasi-historical sense, how civil society came to be founded, and within this context explained which rights belong naturally to the governed and which rights must necessarily be retained by the sovereign. In doing so, he formulated the conception of democracy that lies at the heart of modern liberal democratic institutions. Indeed, the claim in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was borrowed from Locke.
The marriage of the core ideals of empiricism and self-governance are seen in Locke’s key work in educational philosophy, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” Originally published in 1693, this work is not a guide for democratic education, but rather education for democracy. Although he was typical of his time in concentrating on education for the privileged classes, Locke was ahead of his time in that he was concerned with the whole child as a physical, moral, and intellectual being. What Locke describes is the way in which children should be raised, not merely educated, to have the physical, moral, and intellectual stamina necessary for the world as envisioned in his other philosophical works.
Locke’s view of the necessity and role of education is captured in his use of the term tabla rasa—literally, blank slate or tablet—which he introduces in his 1694 Essay Concerning Human Understanding. According to him, the individual is a medium on which knowledge and learning are inscribed or impressed. This conception is also present in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” Here, Locke talks about what children are, and what they need from their parents, teachers, and other role models.
He compares children to travelers in a strange country, and it is the role of the educator to guide them and illuminate their world. This description, echoed in the conception of the tabula rasa, does come with one vital caveat that sets Locke apart from many of his contemporaries’ thoughts on the topic. Locke argues passionately that children should be respected and treated as rational beings. Locke’s nearest philosophical rival, Thomas Hobbes, is noted for succinctly expressing the more common view of the time, in that he included the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, and children in a singular category of intellect.
Locke begins by giving much detailed advice on the physical care of the young in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” He offers recommendations on the topics of nutrition, clothing, and general health. However, it is his second major topic, moral education, or education for virtue, to which this concern, and his subsequent concern for academic or professional education, are subsumed. On the topic of virtue, Locke goes to lengths to explain what will lead a young man to become virtuous. For parents and educators, he offers admonitions against hypocrisy and corporal punishment. This places modeling at the center of Locke’s conception of education for virtue and sets the bar very high for those charged with this task.
The topic of learning in an academic setting is reserved for last. Locke chooses to make no apologies for this and offers a charged and colorful critique of existing educational practices with reference to the use of punishments, rewards, and misplaced efforts at curriculum design. While his remarks on many academic practices are scathing, to qualify Locke as an anti-academic would, of course, be an error. What Locke is concerned with is the methods and priorities by which education takes place.
Locke does have specific advice for what children should know and how they should be taught. He stresses, for example, that children should be taught to read as early as possible in their lives. The role of the parent or teacher in this situation is to not only teach the child to read, but also structure the instruction in such a way that the child will one day enjoy reading, rather than view it as a chore. This idea permeates the multiple examples offered on the topic of educational methodology.
Locke goes on to detail ways in which learning can be structured to appeal to children. He also offers a sequence of what topics should be covered, from initial reading instruction through abstract reasoning, philosophy, and accounting. Locke’s practical streak, which is sometimes more hidden in his political philosophy, is evident in recommending this last topic in education.
Locke’s overall contribution to educational thought in modern times is great. The themes of his work underlie much of the current debates in the field. In “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” he initiates dialogues about developmental stages of children, intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, appropriate curriculum and instructional methodologies, and meeting the needs of individual learners.
- Gay, P. (Ed.). (1964). John Locke on education. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Locke, J. (1801). Some thoughts concerning education. In The works of John Locke (10th ed.). London: J. Johnson & Company.
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