Born in Somerset, England, John Locke was a noted philosopher and academician, political adviser, and physician. Educated as a child at the Westminster School, Locke endured an educational regimen that stressed strict adherence to rules, severe punishments, and rote memorization. Undoubtedly, Locke’s dissatisfaction with his education at Westminster was responsible, to a significant extent, for both his stalwart support of home schooling and private tutors and his forceful criticism of institutional education.
Much of Locke’s views on education and human development—set forth in a series of letters to a cousin and later published as Some Thoughts on Education— reflected his philosophical writings on the nature of knowledge and human understanding (although scholars differ on the precise relationship between these two bodies of work). In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argued that the human at birth is a tabula rasa (blank slate), entirely devoid of any ideas or other mental content. All the content of the human mind is derived from the data of sense experience, which is then transformed into increasingly complex ideas through reflection and reason. Crucial to Locke’s philosophical view, and of great significance for his thoughts on education, was his emphasis on the role of experience in the acquisition of knowledge. In the first paragraphs of Some Thoughts on Human Education, Locke contended that the depth and breadth of one’s knowledge are overwhelmingly a product of education and experience, as opposed to natural intellect. Locke recognized that children were born with different aptitudes that, for the most part, could not be significantly altered. Furthermore, Locke believed that children possessed a natural disposition for reason. In this regard, Locke’s view on childhood challenged the prevailing attitude of his day, according to which children were to be viewed suspiciously because they were inherently prone to vicious behavior. According to Locke, children should be thought of and treated as rational beings, with an inherent disposition for virtuous behavior. And children are best able to develop their intellectual and social skills, according to Locke, through various kinds of play and the practicing of certain skills, rather than through rote memorization of assorted rules.
Locke’s writings on education influenced successive work in education theory long after his death. By the end of the 19th century, Some Thoughts on Education had been through numerous English editions, as well as several editions in French, German, and Italian.
- Braverman, R. (1986). Locke, Defoe, and the politics of childhood. English Language Notes, 24, 36–48.
- Cleverly, J., & Phillips, D. C. (1986). Visions of childhood: Influential models from Locke to Spock. New York: Teachers College
- The Philosophy of John Locke, http://radicalacademy.com/phillockhtm