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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 14. Locke’s Thoughts on Education and Essay concerning Human Understanding

The transition is short from the courtesy books to the reform of education in general. The most notable instance of the passage is afforded by the work just quoted, the greatest of English books of its time which deal with its subject, and the most trenchant condemnation of the mode of education then in favour. The book is the fruit of Locke’s experience of tuition, but still more is it the outcome of reading and reflection. His debt to Montaigne is extensive. The general principles of the two writers are very much the same; where Montaigne gives details of procedure, Locke adopts and elaborates them; many passages in his book are but free renderings of the earlier writer’s French. Isolated passages, when compared, are not without significance; but the really instructive comparisons are those of general principles, of outlook and attitude. So compared, it is evident that Montaigne is the source of much of Some Thoughts. Both writers have chiefly in mind the future man of affairs in whose education learning is much less important than the discipline of judgment and character. Both desire to make their pupils grow in practical wisdom, both employ the same method of action, practice, example, as against the bookish method of the school. The serious business of education, as Locke saw it, was not a matter for children. The training which he would give a child was, primarily, a moral or a quasi-moral one; at that stage, intellectual exercise should be altogether subordinate. So far as knowledge is concerned, it is enough for the child and boy to enjoy a moderate use of the intellectual powers, to avoid unoccupied moments and to get a “little taste” of what industry must perfect at a later period. Childhood, in Locke’s view, is that “sleep of reason” to which Rousseau afterwards appealed in justification of the dictum that early education should be purely negative. In spite of mistakes which a better informed psychology has exposed, this conception of childhood gave birth, in due time, to much in modern practice which distinctly benefits the little child; it was also a fruitful conception in eighteenth-century theorising about education in general.

This is not the place to attempt to follow Locke’s many prescriptions respecting the course of study, and the method of teaching. He was in sympathy with the innovators of his day who proposed to admit modern studies, and it is evident that he was convinced of the value of the instruction given by French academies to young nobles and gentlemen who resorted to them from all parts of Europe, Britain included. Yet, even in respect of academies, Locke asserts his own point of view, passing lightly over their distinctive arts of riding, fencing, dancing, music, but dwelling at length upon the manual arts, particularly the useful handicrafts, as woodwork and gardening.

The importance of Some Thoughts was recognised from the first, as witness the amended and amplified editions which appeared during the author’s lifetime. Leibniz valued the book highly. Richardson introduces it into Pamela as a suitable present for a young mother. It reached the continent so early as 1695 in Coste’s defective French translation, which passed through five editions in fifty years. In 1763, it was translated into Italian, and, in 1787, two German versions appeared. These translations show that there was a greater demand for the work than could be met by the French, a language familiar to the educated all over Europe.

Locke’s second contribution to the literature of education is the fragmentary and posthumously published Of the Conduct of the Understanding, an addition to the great Essay of 1690, and one which Locke put forward as a substitute for the textbooks of logic studied by undergraduates in their first year at the university. Of the Conduct and Some Thoughts are mutually complementary. Originally, at least, the latter was meant to express Locke’s opinions concerning the education of children; Of the Conduct is a manual of practice for young men, who are educating themselves. It is in this work that we find the true Locke, independent of the authorities which lie behind Some Thoughts, intent mainly upon the problem of building up, confirming, and making continuously operative the essentially rational character of the mind. Locke believes the solution of the problem to be largely independent of schoolmasters and tutors; and every man in proportion to his opportunities is called upon to face the question for himself. This view of the educational process was unlikely to influence those who wrote on, or dealt with, education as customarily understood.

The educated person, as he is drawn in Of the Conduct, is one who before all else has learned to think for himself. Convinced that reason will enable him to attain so much of truth as he needs to know, he has habituated himself to its skilful exercise. Mathematics and divinity are named as his appropriate studies; the concluding pages of Some Thoughts enable us to add ethics, civil law and constitutional history. A healthy, graceful body and considerable manual skill are desirable possessions for whose attainment the latter book gives many directions. The contrast between Locke’s ideal of culture and our own is sufficiently obvious. It is not surprising that he says little of the educational advantage to be got from the study of physical science, though his lifelong interest in research shows this was not an oversight. But of the culture of the human spirit, which literature confers, Locke says nothing, and such cultivation of fine art as he recommends is chiefly for utilitarian ends. The development of the rational is, for him, wellnigh everything: imagination and sentiment are not merely left out, but are more than once referred to as objects of distrust. Locke believed that the “ancient authors observed and painted mankind well and [gave] the best light into that kind of knowledge”; but of English writers Some Thoughts recommends by name for the pupil’s reading, only two, Cudworth and Chillingworth, and neither for “that kind of knowledge.”