The 17th Century English political philosopher John Locke is perhaps best remembered for his ideas on religious toleration and the qualities of potential rulers, but he also had some interesting and salient ideas about the function and structure of education. Locke was educated at Westminster and had originally gone to Oxford to study medicine, yet meeting the First Earl of Shaftesbury changed the course of his life forever, and he became an influential thinker and theorist.
Locke’s most significant contribution to education came in the form of his book Some Thoughts on Education (1693). The work originated from a series of letters he wrote to the aristocrat, Edward Clark, who had asked Locke in 1684 for advice on how to raise his son, despite the fact that Locke didn’t have any children of his own and probably didn’t even like their company. In his book, Locke argued against the conventions of the day, which stated that children were born with all kinds of ideas already formed in their heads. Locke, however, believed that we learn form outward experience and internal reflection. Consequently, education was vital to the kind of person a child would become, and nobody could be said to have been born good, evil or anything else.
Locke argued that we are most vulnerable to the “association of ideas” we make when we are young, so we should be careful whom we expose our children to (Locke particularly feared the ignorant and the superstitious). However, Locke was not a fan of the Arts and felt that students should not waste their time with what he believed to be useless subjects (Latin, Greek, poetry and music). Instead, we should learn only what would be useful to us later in life, for example business, ethics, science and psychology, subjects which would teach us to calm ourselves, be kind and understand others.
Locke’s arguments indicate that education should stretch beyond the classroom and that knowledge and experience were not always imparted by those paid to do so. An edifying trip to the zoo or a well-chosen murmur of praise could be equally as formative as an entire morning studying a textbook. Locke did not advocate one form of experience and education over another, he simply acknowledge that our minds are a composite of both elements. Perhaps most importantly, he had little time for predestination or destiny. While a supportive and loving background was clearly important for a child, they were not the only things that would shape the kind of person they became. According to John Locke, we are not born the person we are supposed to become. That development is in our power, and in the power of those around us.
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