The Encylopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

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John Locke's Pedagogy

Dwight Goodyear

Fairleigh Dickinson University

I. Introduction

In 1693 John Locke, after writing extensively on topics such as human understanding, government, money, and toleration, published a book which seemed quite heretical at the time: Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Unfortunately, for the modern reader there doesn’t seem to be any shock value left at all. Consider the three key themes which are addressed:

  1. the development of self-discipline through esteem and disgrace rather than force or reward;
  2. the significance of developing a good character; and
  3. the importance of developing reason in a child by treating the child as a rational entity.

Now what could possibly be so heretical about these themes? At first glance it doesn’t seem like much. Indeed, many of Locke’s ideas are quite humane and consistent with his strong democratic sentiments. However, as we will see, there is something left for us to worry about; something which may still be a bit heretical for us today: Locke’s belief that the mind is a piece of wax or white paper which the active educator must keep as still as possible in order to accurately stamp the information she would have the pupil passively receive. Let us begin with an over-view of the three themes.

II. Self-Discipline

Locke begins his book by noting that a sound mind in a sound body is the formula for happiness. The problem is that nature rarely supplies an individual with both; thus one needs education to acquire both physical and mental fortitude. Locke writes in section 32:

As the strength of the body lies chiefly in being able to endure hardships, so also does that of the mind. And the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth is placed in this, that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs is best, though the appetite lean the other way.

Locke’s “great principle”, that which allows one to cross one’s inclinations, is self-discipline. But in order to achieve such discipline one must first be disciplined:

The great mistake I have observed in people’s breeding their children has been, that this has not been taken care enough of its due season; that the mind has not been made obedient to discipline, and pliant to reason, when at first it was most tender, most easy to be bowed.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education,section 34

However, parents all too often err by being too lenient or too strict. Either extreme prevents a child from growing up as an adult governed by reason, that is, an adult marked by self-discipline. For a spoiled child will end up having no mastery over inclinations and a severely disciplined child will lose the vigorous, self-confident spirit necessary to amount to something in the world. But by no means are we faced with an either/or; rather, a perfect balance between the two is where the secret of education resides:

To avoid the danger that is on either hand is the great art: and he that has found a way to keep up a child’s spirit, easy, active, and free; and yet, at the same time, to restrain him, from the many things he has a mind to; and to draw him to the things that are uneasy to him; he, I say, that knows how to reconcile these seeming contradictions, has, in my opinion, got the true secret of education.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education, section 46

But how can we approach this secret? How can we reconcile these dangerous contradictions? Well one approach, the first approach which Locke is interested in refuting, is the so-called “rod”. This common chastisement “is the most unfit of any to be used in education” (section 47) insofar as the rod (1) leads to no mastery over our inclination to indulge corporeal pleasure and avoid pain but rather encourages it; (2) leads to an aversion of what the tutor is trying to get the student to be interested in; (3) leads to the development of a “slavish temper”; (4) leads to a timid creature who has no spirit and will therefore be “useless to himself and others” (section 51). All four criticisms are united by the same logic: the rod ends up producing and/or strengthening the faulty disposition it was employed to remove. As a result the rod is self-defeating as a means of developing the discipline which is to lead to self-discipline or rational autonomy.

But why all this gruesome talk of rods? Why not talk of sugar plums and apples at the end of a long mathematics lesson? Won’t a child work and obey if it has some sweet end in view, that is, some reward rather than a punishment? Perhaps. But then the child doesn’t learn the material for the sake of the material but for the sake of the reward. And, insofar as rewards play to the appetites, they are inconsistent with the general function of education: to engender a mind which can resist inclinations. Of course, Locke hears your question before you can raise it: “But you take away the rod on the one hand, and these little encouragments, which they are taken with, on the other; how then (will you say) shall children be governed?” (section 54).

Locke’s own answer comes to us in section 56: the incentives of esteem and disgrace. This answer is based on two observations: (1) children are very susceptible to praise and commendation; (2) esteem and disgrace works best when accompanied by corresponding agreeable or disagreeable rewards. In short, Locke’s idea is this: the best means of discipline is to cast a cold shoulder and to use the silent treatment when a child does wrong. For no child wants to be left out. No child wants his or her actions to go unrecognized. Thus to be disgraced is to allow the child to experience the consequences of its bad behavior. The child comes to realize that certain actions will lead the group to turn their backs on uncivilized behavior. Conversely, esteem leads to acceptance, recognition, and productive social cooperation. The key is that in both cases the discipline comes about indirectly and the benefits do not attend any particular action. Rather, the rewards that come must be construed as “necessarily belonging to, and constantly attending one, who by his carriage has brought himself into a state of disgrace or commendation” (section 58). But Locke goes on to tell us that if the right course be taken with children then “there will not be so much need of the application of the common reward and punishments, as we had imagined, and as the general practice has established” (section 63). For all too often parents place too many rules on children which naturally lead to more frequent punishments of transgressions. In fact, children “are to be left perfectly free and unrestrained, as far as they can consist with the respect due to those that are present; and that with the greatest allowance” (section 63). But there must be some restraints and habits which are necessary. What could they be?

III. Reason And Character

The idea that a parent or instructor should not lay down too many rules serves as a nice bridge to the development of character and reason. Consider this quotation:

And here gives me leave to take notice of one thing I think a fault in the ordinary method of education; and that is, the charging of children’s memories, upon all occasions, with rules and precepts, which they often do not understand, and are constantly as soon forgot as given.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education, section 64

Here is how Locke thinks we should proceed: (1) make sure the child understands and can carry out the task you set for them; (2) have them repeat the task over and over until the performance of the task no longer depends on memory or reflection. Now this latter step is crucial for the development of a good character. For it is when a child is young that one can implant all the good habits necessary for further development. Locke writes in section 64: “Having this way cured your child of any fault, it is cured forever: and thus, one by one, you may weed them out all, and plant what habits you please”. But the key is that these rules are not to be imposed as duties or difficulties; rather, whatever rules you want a child to follow must be implanted by indispensable practice which will lead to natural habits functioning beyond conscious memory. Thus we see that character development is intimately connected with repetition and the formation of habits.

Now one of the most important habits one can develop in a child is the habit of reasoning well. Of course, the question arises: can one reason with a child? Rousseau didn’t think so: to reason with a youth is to impose those adult-like constraints which rob childhood of its innocence and wild freedom. But Locke is confident that children are indeed rational. He writes:

It will perhaps be wondered, that I mention reasoning with children and yet I cannot but think that the true way of dealing with them. They understand it as early as they do language; and, if I misobserve not, they love to be treated as rational creatures sooner than is imagined. It is a pride should be cherished in them, and, as much as can be, made the greatest instrument to turn them by.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education,section 81

Of course Locke doesn’t expect one to reason with a child like one would with an adult; yet he thinks it natural and proper that a teacher find the appropriate level of discourse and situate herself there. The point is to treat the child as a rational entity in order to make it become one:

The sooner you treat him as a man, the sooner he will begin to be one: and if you admit him into serious discourses sometimes with you, you will insensibly raise his mind above the usual amusements of youth, and those trifling occupations which it is commonly wasted upon.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education, section 95

For children, according to Locke, are curious; therefore, a good teacher will be the one who can seize this natural curiosity and channel it into knowledge. But how? Simple: by giving answers which are true, clear, and understandable within the sphere of the child’s experience. A teacher must never lie. A teacher must always give an account and inspire a student’s desire to learn more and more. But here we run into a few questions: Does the teacher share the inquiry? Does the teacher learn? Is the teacher to show ignorance? Is the child in any way active in relation to the material? Let us look at these questions.

IV. Implications

Recall the thesis which Locke puts forth in Book II of his Essay Concerning the Human Understanding (1690):

In that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected upon by ourselves, is that which supplies our understanding with all the materials for thinking. These two are the fountains of our knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring (IIi2).

This is Locke’s empiricism which states that all our ideas come from sense perception or reflection (introspection). Of course, this is not to say that ideas come ready made into the mind; but it is to say that every idea is ultimately reducible to elements which have been the data of sensible or introspective experience. But it is important to note that even introspection deals with ideas built up or abstracted from sensory data. There is nothing in a child’s mind at birth; indeed Locke argues in the Essay that at birth the mind is like a sheet of white paper (IIi2) or an empty cabinet (Iii15). This theory has profound consequences for his pedagogy. For if all knowledge is gained by experiencing the world through the senses, then what the child experiences and is habituated to will make all the difference.

Now we have already seen that a teacher or parent must instill discipline when a child’s mind is pliant and capable of being bowed. We have also seen the importance of planting the right habits for the formation of character. Indeed, at one point Locke suggests that we will be able to plant any habits we wish; but this radical statement seems to be checked by the observation that “God has stamped certain characters upon men’s minds, which, like their shapes, may perhaps be a little mended; but can hardly be totally altered and transformed into the contrary” (section 66). So there are certain natural capacities which do not allow the instructor free reign over the molding process. But it is important to note that both God and man actively stamp the child’s passive mind. Take, for example, these variations on the metaphor:

Keep the mind in an easy calm temper, when you will have it receive your instructions, or any increase of knowledge. It is as impossible to draw fair and regular characters on a trembling mind, as on shaking paper”

Some Thoughts Concerning Education, section 167

He continues in section 216 where he describes a man’s little son as follows: “I considered [the son] only as white paper, or wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases…”. The metaphor of the empty cabinet comes up in section 167:

It should therefore be the skill and art of the teacher, to clear their heads of other thoughts, whilst they are learning of anything, the better to make room for what he would instill into them, that it may be received with attention and application, without which it leaves no impression.

So we see that the educator, in order to educate, must “make room” in the head: the paper must be clean, the wax must be smooth, the cabinet must be empty. Any thoughts of fear or frustration will inevitably crowd the space which must receive the sensory data from without.

It is here that we can finally answer the questions put forth above. For although the educator is to tell the truth and give an account to the curious child in such a way that the information becomes interesting, the educator is the one who knows, who is active, and who has the authority to mold, choose, and instill habits into the pupil's passive mind. But why this asymmetry? Perhaps a pedagogy which emphasizes both passive and active transactions with one’s educational environment and a shared inquiry with the teacher would prove more fruitful. And wouldn’t a pedagogy which emphasizes active participation, transformation, and questioning have positive political consequences? For although Locke was a democrat, it is hard to reconcile a pedagogy which sees children as passive receptacles of pre-existing truth with the demand for transformation, adjustment, and critical involvement so integral to any democratic society. In the end Locke’s pedagogy should be admired for its bold steps in the direction of rational development and humane treatment of children; but, as with all thinkers, we must critically receive his theory lest our minds, too, become pieces of wax obedient to authority.


EEPAT is published in association with the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia and the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory.