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A Look at the Philosophy of John Locke Regarding Education.

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A discussion on the benefits of a good education using the philosophy of John Locke.

With all due respect to Pink Floyd, education is one of the most important aspects to maintaining our society. We do, in fact, need an education. A well educated people will be happier and more prosperous and therefore be more inclined to social order. “Man becomes a rational animal when he is educated” (Goel). Understanding how to educate each successive generation is the key to creating a sustainable society. It is a twist on the old adage that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him to fish; you feed him for the rest of his life. In the case of education: if you become educated, you teach yourself; if you learn how to educate others, you teach the world.

The philosopher John Locke had a great deal to say about education. Locke uses the term education to encompass the process of a child growing into an adult. This process includes the need to socialize the child and prepare them to enter into society. Locke draws from his work on natural rights and the formation of society to establish the need to prepare the child for entering into a social contract with the other members of their society. He also has the underlying idea that there is no such thing as innate knowledge. According to Locke, we are born a blank slate. We may have the capacity to learn and yet the knowledge itself has to be taught. This education begins at birth when the child is most eager to learn about the world around them. The Childs’ socialization is best begun at an early age as this will insure that their willingness to comply with the social contract will be lost if the child is allowed to learn to give in to their natural desires. Thus, education is the basis for social order which makes a thorough study of Locke and his philosophies on education well worth the while.

In the following article I will be looking into the philosophy on education that Locke establishes in his “Essay Concerning Education”. The essay was originally a series of letters that Locke wrote to a friend in order to assist him in the education of his son. It was only later that Locke was convinced of the need to publish his ideas so that they could be used to help others. I believe that Locke has some excellent ideas about parenting and the foundation of a good education and his ideas are just as pertinent today as they were when Locke first wrote them in the seventeenth century.

The first idea that Locke establishes is that good physical health is essential to achieving an education. “A sound mind in a sound body, is a short, but full description of a happy state in this world”. (Locke 1). This idea translates quite easily into today’s society. The need for good physical health is widely considered to be the first component of a proper education. My daughter, who is in the sixth grade, recently brought a paper home from school espousing these very same principles. The note to parents was intended to give them suggestions for preparing their children for the proficiency tests that they are required to take. The important tips to remember were that the child should get a good night sleep the night before the exams and the child should have a good breakfast the morning of the exams. Locke likewise establishes the ideas that children need plenty of sleep, a good diet, and plenty of exercise in fresh air in order to be able to learn.

 On the topic of sleep, Locke espouses that the very young child be allowed to get as much sleep as they can. It isn’t until the child reaches an age between seven and fourteen that their sleep should be restricted to eight hours a day. Benjamin Franklin also related the need for sleep as well as the time of day that was best for that sleep. “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” (Franklin). Locke also felt that going to bed early and getting up early was the best way to live. Locke and Franklin both believed that people tended toward sinful things at night. Having the child go to bed early avoided their being exposed to these things. This line of thinking has been used in the development of the schedule of programming for television. Programs that are not suitable for children to watch are usually shown late at night.

The next aspect of health that Locke looks at is diet. He believes that a child should eat plenty of vegetables and only be given meat sparingly. The diet of the child should be plain and simple. The high fiber diet is intended to promote regular bowel movements. Locke, being a doctor, understood the need to maintain a person’s digestive system. The food is to be looked upon as being nourishment. This is in stark contrast to modern society that all too often looks upon food as being a luxury. We would all do well to take this page from Locke and exercise better judgment in regard to our diets.

Plenty of fresh air and sunshine is the last idea on health that I want to talk about. I thought it was quite humorous when I read that Locke said that children spent too much time in front of the fireplace. It reminds me of the complaint that I heard when I was a child that children spent too much time in front of the television. I guess that is going to be a generational thing. Nowadays the complaint is that kids spend too much time in front of the computer. The bottom line is that the human body needs vitamin D, oxygen, and other things that are best obtained from the fresh air and sunshine that they get while playing outdoors. This will naturally give them the chance to run off the food that they eat, it will burn off excess energy, and it will give them the chance to develop strong and healthy muscles and bones. 

Having established the need to be healthy, Locke moved on to the subject of disciplining a child. It is necessary to discipline the child in order to get them to study and learn. It is not natural for a child to want to do these things; they will want to be carefree and play. The trick to education is to get the child to go away from that which they will want and get them to go to something that they would not naturally want. They have to be disciplined to suffer hardships of the mind.

He asserts that discipline has to begin at birth. Once the child has been allowed to grow up thinking that they can have everything they want, it is too late to apply discipline. The damage is done when they are still babes. On the subject of discipline, Locke warns that there are two methods that are to be avoided. First is disciplining your child through violence. “Beating them, and all other sorts of slavish and corporal punishments, are not the discipline fit to be used in the education of those we would have wise, good, and ingenuous men; and therefore very rarely to be apply’d, and that only in great occasions, and cases of extremity”(Locke 52). Here we get a sense of the influence that religion had on Locke. He is unwilling to say that you should spare the rod completely, but he also wants to make the point that violence does not address the real problem. Locke explains that using physical punishment may alter the child’s actions as long as they are under the care of the parent; however, they will revert to their natural tendency after they have left that care.

Locke also warns against the use of rewards as a means of getting a child to do what you want. Encouraging your child to learn by offering them a dollar for every “A” they get on their report card doesn’t teach the child to appreciate an education. Locke warns against coddling your child and acting as if everything they do is wonderful; this can only lead to a spoiled brat. A spoiled brat, in later years, will be impossible to manage.

The form of discipline that Locke believes most fruitful is the use of “esteem and disgrace” (56). What that means is that you give the child praise in front of others to reinforce a behavior that you want them to continue doing and you disgrace them to get them to refrain from doing that which you do not want them to do. This would translate into educational terms as when the child performs their studies well, you give them praise in front of others to build their esteem. If the child slacks and does not do their studies, you disgrace them in front of their peers in order to quell that behavior.

This form of training has been used by such people as General George S. Patton. He was a firm believer in the benefits of building soldiers esteem in order to get them to perform well in battle. Disgrace was used to get them to refrain from giving in to their fears. A prime example of his using this technique was an incident that occurred in Sicily during World War II. Patton was visiting an army hospital. He was decorating the soldiers who had been wounded in battle. This was Patton’s way of building their self esteem by giving them praise and honor in front of others. As he was walking through, he encountered a soldier who was suffering from battle fatigue. Patton did not believe that battle fatigue was a legitimate problem. He saw fatigue as being a natural result of battle; it was something to be overcome. Patton reacted by using disgrace to get the soldier to discontinue his non-productive behavior. He yelled and screamed at the man and even went so far as to slap him in the face. To Patton, this was all symbolic of publicly humiliating the soldier to show him that his unwillingness to participate in battle would not be accepted. Patton was severely admonished for his treatment of the soldier, but the truth is his tactic actually worked. The soldier went on to perform admirably. General Omar Bradley commented that the slapped soldier probably contributed more to win the war than anyone else in his outfit (Blumenson 213-219).

I know this sounds a little harsh, but this line of logic can be seen in other areas of society. Michel Foucault chronicled the shift in punishment that occurred during the development of the modern day penal system: “Punishment, if I may so put it, should strike the soul rather than the body” (16). Society readily accepted that the proper form of discipline was to inflict emotional hardship on someone rather than physical pain. Disgrace, in other words, is a much more humane way of dealing with behaviors than to simply inflict pain on a person.

I would also like to mention some of the other aspects of early education that Locke talks about. He is a proponent of teaching children how to swim and dance. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise not to mention the fact that knowing how to swim could save their life. Learning to dance gives the child gracefulness, especially boys whom Locke identifies as not being naturally graceful. When it comes to learning foreign languages, Locke believes that being multi-lingual is a good thing but only to the extent that they become fluent in those languages. The study of grammar, says Locke, should be confined to the child’s own native language.

Probably the most difficult aspect of studying Locke has been the fact that Locke is literally all over the map. He micro manages to the point that it becomes somewhat difficult to follow what he is getting at. When he talks about sound mind and body, he goes into a long description as to the need to harden children to the elements. He claims that parents dress their children too warmly in winter and they do not let them become accustomed to physical hardship. This is later born out when he says that preparing the child for physical hardship is also preparing the child for the mental hardships in education. Likewise when Locke talks about the different forms of discipline, he spends page after page reiterating the same concepts. It can be quite confusing after a while. An interpretation of Locke is an arduous yet fruitful activity.

In conclusion, we stand to learn a lot from Locke and his suggestions on education. One of the strong points that I find with his work is that it was originally intended as advice to a friend. This isn’t a work done to garner public fame for Locke. His views are sincere and are intended to do the most good to help someone that Locke had a great deal of admiration for. As a result, we can also take his ideas as ways which we can hopefully better educate our children; and, by doing so insure the future of our world for generations to come.

Works Cited

Blumenson, Martin. Patton The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945. New York: Quill William Morrow, 1985. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish. The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richards Almanac. Us history. 4 July 1995. Web. 7 May 2010.

Goel, Manu. The Importance of Education .Searchwarp. 6 July 2007. Web. 7 May 2010.

Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Stilwell, KS.: Digreads,2005.Print.

---. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, 1690. Project Gutenberg. Web. 11 April 2010.

---. On Politics and Education. New York: The Classic Club, 1947. Print.

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Roberta Baxter
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