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John Locke (1632–1704). Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

JOHN LOCKE was born near Bristol, England, on August 29, 1632; and was educated at Westminster School, where Dryden was his contemporary, and at Christ Church, Oxford. Of the discipline then in vogue in either institution, the future educational theorist had no high opinion, as may be gathered from allusions in the present treatise; yet, after taking his master’s degree in 1658, he became tutor of his college, and lecturer in Greek and rhetoric. After a visit to the Continent in 1665, as secretary to an embassy, he returned to Oxford and took up the study of medicine. He became attached, as friend and physician, to Lord Ashley, afterward the first Earl of Shaftesbury; and while this nobleman was Lord Chancellor, Locke held the office of Secretary of Presentations.

Shaftesbury went out of office in 1673, and two years later Locke went to France in search of health, supporting himself by acting as tutor to the son of Sir John Banks, and as physician to the wife of the English Ambassador at Paris. In 1679, Shaftesbury, being again in power, recalled Locke to England. He reluctantly obeyed, and remained in attendance on his patron, assisting him in political matters and superintending the education of his grandson, the future author of “Characteristics,” till Shaftesbury’s political fortunes finally collapsed, and both men took refuge in Holland.

Locke’s first two years in Holland were spent in traveling and in intercourse with scholars; but in 1685 the Dutch Government was asked to deliver him up to the English as a traitor, and he was forced to go into hiding till a pardon was granted by James II in 1686, though there is no evidence of his having been guilty of any crime beyond his friendship with Shaftesbury.

It was not till now, at the age of fifty-four, that Locke began to publish the results of a lifetime of study and thought. An epitome of his great “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” was printed in his friend Le Clerc’s “Bibliothèque Universelle,” and the work was finally published in full in 1690. It was from Holland also that he wrote, as advice to a friend on the bringing up of his son, those letters which were later printed as “Thoughts Concerning Education.”

During his exile Locke had come into friendly relations with his future sovereigns, William and Mary; and when the Revolution was accomplished he came back to England with the Princess in 1689. He was offered the Ambassadorship to Prussia, but declined on account of his weak health and because he thought he was not valiant enough in strong drink to be Ambassador at the court of the Elector of Brandenburg; so he stayed at home and published his “Essay.”

The remainder of his life was spent chiefly at the home of his friends, the Cudworths and Mashams, at Oates in Essex. He held the office of Commissioner of Appeals, and was for some years a member of the Council of Trade and Plantations, a position which led to his occupying himself with problems of economics. At Oates he had the opportunity of putting his educational theories into practise in the training of the grandson of his host, and the results confirmed his belief in his methods. He died at Oates, October 27, 1704.

It has been noted that while at school and at the university Locke disapproved the educational methods employed; and this independence of judgment marked him through life. In medicine he denounced the scholasticism which still survived and which in various branches of learning had already been attacked by Bacon and Hobbes; and he advocated the experimental methods adopted by his friend Sydenham, the great physician of the day. In educational theory and method he held advanced opinions, insisting especially on the importance of guarding the formation of habits, and on training in wisdom and virtue rather than on information as the main object of education. Many of his ideas are still among the objects aimed at, rather than achieved, by educational reformers. It will be observed from the following “Thoughts” that they bear the mark of their original purpose, the individual education of a gentleman’s son, not the formation of a school system.

But it is as a philosopher that Locke’s fame is greatest. He was the ancestor of the English empirical school, and he exercised a profound influence on philosophic thought throughout Europe. Almost all the main lines of the intellectual activity of the eighteenth century in England lead back to Locke, and the skepticism of Hume is the logical development of the principles laid down in the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”