17 Mar

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education is important to studies about gender and education in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.

Locke wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693 to his friend Samuel Clarke, who asked for advice on the education of his son. The audience for this educational manual is telling for what it relays to historians about gender and education. In the introduction, Locke noted that this “is how a young gentleman should be brought up from his infancy, which, in all things, will not so perfectly suit the Education of Daughters, though where the difference of sex requires different treatment, ‘twill be no hard matter to distinguish.”[1] Locke did not intend this book to be used as a guide for the education of females. Nevertheless, Colonial and early Republic Americans incorporated many of Locke’s ideas into their debates about women’s education in general, and the curriculum at female academies and schools. Below I will outline Locke’s arguments about education.

Locke begins his treatise by suggesting “that of all the Men we meet with, Nine parts of Ten are what they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education.”[2] Education was responsible for the conduct of men in everyday life. This departed with other notions of being, which suggested that humanity was tied to Original Sin or other innate logical premises. Locke’s notion of education first appeared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which suggested that infants were born with a tabula rasa, or blank state. Children had no innate ideas and, thus, could be educated in particular ways that would transform them into gentlemen. Children started learning as soon as they were born and it was parents’ jobs to educate them.

The first step in educating gentlemen was to train boys’ bodies so they would be healthy. The conditions under which parents trained boys’ bodies would make them more amenable to changes in their lives and particular situations. For example, boys required sleep. But, parents should make sure to alter the bedding so that boys would not be too comfortable in sleep. Changing the material of the bedding would train boys to sleep soundly in different situations, which would help them cope with travel and alternative sleeping situations later in life. Similarly, Locke suggested that boys’ bodies be trained in “Going to Stool, regularly,” exercise, getting air, eating, and dressing. The care of the body served a particular purpose. According to Locke, “Due care being had to keep the Body in Strength and Vigor, so that it may be able to obey and execute the order of the Mind.”[3] A rightly ordered body secured a rightly ordered mind.

The rightly ordered mind was based on rationality, logic, and reason. Locke advised parents to treat boys as “Rational Creatures.”[4] This meant allowing children to have curious minds, but not overindulging children by giving in to their demands. Children who always received what they wanted would not learn the discipline and self-denial required for a rational mind. Children who were overindulged would not attain virtue as men. Thus, Locke argued that children should be obedient to their parents’ reason until their own reason fully developed.

Despite Locke’s insistence on obedience, he wanted children to enjoy education. Education was a privilege, not a duty. Locke, advised parents to educate their children through experience and practice, rather than by memorizing rules. The focus on parents’ educating children is important to Locke’s pedagogy. Locke did not think that parents should send their children to schools. Boys required individual and specific attention in order to learn to be gentlemen. This could be achieved by parents’ instruction, and interaction with fathers and other male figures.

Locke argued that boys should be educated so they would attain virtue, wisdom, breeding, and learning. The primary reason for educating boys was to make them virtuous gentlemen. Locke placed “Vertue as the first and most necessary Endowments, that belong to a Man or a Gentleman.” A virtuous man would be loved by others, and would be happy in this world and the next. But, virtue did not mean being “good” in any abstract, amoral sense. Locke suggested that “As the Foundation of this, there ought very early be imprinted on his Mind a true notion of God, as of the independent Supreme Being….”[5] Educating children in virtue meant providing them with a religious education. Lock also insisted that children learn to pray and read scripture.  Wisdom was a “Man’s managing his Businesses abely, and with fore-sight in this world.[6] Children could not achieve wisdom in their youth because this required the learning of reason, a good temperament, and experience. Breeding meant that children learned good manners in order to display self-control, a good disposition, and composure in the company of others. Locke also described academic learning as part of children’s education.

Academic learning was the least important element of education for Locke. He suggested that “much Vertue, and a well-temper’d Soul is to be preferr’d to any sort of Learning or Language.[7] Academic education without virtuous or moral education was sure to produce the “worse or more dangerous Man.”[8] Nevertheless, Locke listed a curriculum appropriate for boys. First, boys should learn to read and write in English and then move on to French and Latin. With the introduction of these languages, boy should also begin learning geography, geometry, chronology, history, ethics, law, and natural philosophy. This was a classical education. Children should also learn a manual skill from gardening to carpentry to grinding optical lenses. These skills would help relax children’s minds and keep them from idleness. Travel was also a significant aspect of a child’s education because it allowed him to experience the world.

In the coming weeks, I will compare Locke and other pedagogues’ ideas about gender and education to understand their importance for education in nineteenth-century America.

[1] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (A. and J. Churchill, 1693), 5.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 160.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] Ibid., 211.

[8] Ibid.

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