John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”: Not at All What I Thought it Would Be

As readers of this blog may have gleaned, for some time now I’ve become interested in the question of what comprises “traditional education.” It struck me again recently, while reading Maria Montessori, that so many of the writers, philosophers, and theorists who are comprise the educational “canon” are advocates of progressive, child-centered (or in Montessori’s case, deeply Romantic) forms of education, all of which seem to be responding to some monolithic tradition of lectures, rote learning, and the like – but the question is, who are the thinkers that really comprise, defend, or even originate that traditional approach?  

I want to read something different; I want some pushback; I want to hear what traditionalists have to defend themselves.  I’m not talking about modern traditionalists; I’ve read those already: E.D. Hirsch and the modern-day Essentialists; Allan Bloom, Mortimer Adler, and the 20th Century Perennialists.  Those arguments are important, and they are powerful.  But I want to know more about the thinkers and traditions that shaped whatever it is that Maria Montessori was pushing back against in 1900, whatever it was that John Dewey was rebelling against in 1896, whatever it was that Rousseau was responding to back in the 19th Century.  Who were those thinkers, what were those traditions, and why did they come to be the way they are?

But just who are these writers?

Then I remembered that in Emile, the writer who Rousseau most overtly seems to reference and to respond to was John Locke.  If there’s one writer who begins to stand out to me as seminal in the advent of our modern liberalism – both in his political contributions (which deeply influenced our Constitution) and in his epistemological contributions (which deeply influenced our system of “liberal science”), it’s Locke.  And – surprise, surprise – Locke also wrote an influential book on education, Something Thoughts Concerning Education.  I’ve got a Locke deep dive planned for myself – Two Treatises of Government, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, both of which I (theoretically) read in college – and I thought it was appropriate to begin with his ed book, both as an introduction (reintroduction?) to Locke, and as a way of perhaps understanding the traditional ed canon a little more clearly.  Surely John Locke, high priest of the Enlightenment, was a foremost advocate of all the things that Montessori, Kilpatrick, Dewey, et al would rail against.  Surely I would open Locke to find diabolically evil defenses of lecturing (no, droning!), soul-crushing curriculum, dry-as-dust content, rote memorization, corporal punishment, stand and deliver, the vertible strangulation of the fragile dreams of cherub-faced children.  Surely Locke would be writing in favor of all that stuff that we’re supposed to regard as evil – not the lighting of a fire, but the filling of the bucket; transmission of knowledge; archaic learning; proto-tracking, testing, all that stuff.  What’s more, Locke was the originator of empiricism – the idea that we have no innate ideas, that children are – in Locke’s famous phrase – a “bare cabinet” – a tabula rasa – a blank slate on which to be written.  Surely his would be a book about imposition, about the necessity of pouring knowledge into empty vessels.  Locke had to be traditional ed at its most advanced, defensive, reactionary form, right?


No – Locke is against corporal punishment.  He hates rote memorization.  He dismisses Greek and Latin as dry and unnecessary.  He advocates learning a vocation.  He favors discussion over lecturing.  This is not really even a book about the primacy of academic knowledge – something you would expect from the high priest reason.  He’s even, dare I say it, child-centered.  This was not what I expected, based on what I recall of Rousseau’s critiques. Yet throughout my reading of Locke, one thought kept springing to mind:

Locke was saying a lot of stuff about developmentalism and child-centeredness way before Rousseau.

Locke’s book apparently grew out of and attempt to inform a friend of his on how to raise his son, and as a result, the book is self-consciously not a philosophic treatise on education, but a how-to manual on how to raise a very specific type of child for a very specific “vocation”: the education of an English gentleman, back in 1693.  As a result, the book is surely aimed at a certain set of educational goals that are, at least superficially, different than the usual goals of ed books today.  Locke is preparing an upper class boy for entry into society, and he is doing so in an era when many children were educated at home, either by parents, or by private tutors (a key aspect of the book, in fact, is Locke’s preference for private tutors over traditional grammar schools).  But despite these admittedly narrow confines, Locke’s book has a great deal of wisdom to offer for all types of students, and, in my view, is still very much relevant to this day. 

It is, like Emile, a very, very rich, dense mixture of both on-the-ground practical advice for parents and caregivers, as well as lofty philosophical principles.  Below I will try to outline the key aspects of the book as I understand them.

(One thing I should mention: The used version of this book that I ordered online is actually an abridged version — with spelling and punctuation apparently “cleaned up” to represent more modern usage. My apologies if any of the following quotes are somewhat edited.)

Educational Goals:  Character, not Learning; Utility

“You will wonder, perhaps, that I put learning last, especially if I tell you I think it the least [important] part.  This may seem strange in the mouth of a bookish man” (129).  

The most interesting thing about Some Thoughts is that its primary concern is not any sort of academic learning, but on developing character.  In fact, Locke repeatedly disparages the traditional learning of Latin and Greek as ornamental at best, and counterproductive at worst.  He dismisses “dry systems of logic and philosophy” (118), considers silly “what ado is made about a little Latin and Greek, how many years are spent in it and what a noise and business it makes to no purpose” (129), and repeatedly castigates “a great part of the learning now in fashion in schools of Europe” as unnecessarily academic.  

Instead, Locke’s focus is on the education of character, which he identifies (in descending order of importance) as comprising virtue, wisdom, and breeding.  

Virtue, Locke says, is the most important educational goal, and it is important “to make him [the person] valued and beloved by others, acceptable or tolerable to himself” which will make him happy “in this [or] the other world” (123).  I thought that this, for starters, was quite interesting.  Here were see Locke’s place in the Realist tradition – a focus on (mostly) this world, and a goal of attaining virtue not as a means of salvation, but as a means of human happiness.  And Locke’s mention here of the importance of the esteem of others seems important as well; there is much of that in this book – a focus on the development of a child who will fit well into social society.  There was little in this book about virtue for its own sake; there always seemed the hint just off-stage that virtue or character was important largely because of how it looked to others.  

But what does Locke mean, specifically, by virtue?  First, he means self-discipline in observance of reason.  Virtue is comprised of “that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations and purely follow what reason directs as best, though the appetite lean the other way” (40).  And, “a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires where reason does not authorize them” (45).  

This is another interesting point – Locke seems to talk little in the book about just what reason is, why it is especially important, or how to cultivate it.  There is some (fairly provocative) discussion in which Locke maintains that parents should attempt to reason with children; this section is actually far more subtle and astute than it sounds – but beyond that Locke says little about reason itself.  There is nothing, for example, in his discussion of either pedagogical methods or in his discussion of curriculum that describes why or how reason might be either taught to or honed in a child.

The other major aspect of character education that Locke aims at, and which he repeatedly cites throughout the book as an explicit goal of education (particularly in his memorable chapter about the importance of selecting a good private tutor) is “breeding.” Where virtue seems to aim more at conducting oneself in accordance with reason, breeding seems like more of a social grace.  He writes, “Breeding is that which sets a gloss upon all his other good qualities and renders them useful to him in procuring the esteem and good will of all that he comes near.  Without good breeding his other accomplishments make him pass but for proud, conceited, vain or foolish” (110).  Breeding helps him make “a good reception and make him welcome wherever he comes” (110).  It is a “graceful way and fashion” and a “free composure of language, looks,  motion, posture, place, etc., suited to persons and occasions” (110).  Later he defines breeding as the ability “not to think meanly of ourselves or others” – which is to say not to be conceited or bashful in social situations, and to “avoid making anyone uneasy in conversation” (127).  

The third goal Locke mentions is “wisdom.” By this he does not mean a Platonic conception of philosophical wisdom in the grand sense, but “a man’s managing his business ably and with foresight in this world” (124).  

Just as Locke did not say much about the importance of reason, or about how to cultivate it, he is also somewhat offhanded and not particularly systematic in writing about why the education of character must take precedence.  He does not, for example, ever mount the classic argument that virtue is a good in itself, or that the exercise of virtue is pleasurable; he does not even make a particularly moral argument – maintaining, for example, that morality is the critical aspect that all humans should aim at because lying is immoral and it’s wrong to misuse other humans.  Yes, Locke is surely utilitarian; he is constantly arguing in favor of education that is useful – but useful for what?

The Goals of Virtue Education

I think here it is probably important to remember that Locke is describing the education of a gentleman.  In fact, he begins the book by suggesting that focusing on the education of the highest class of society will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of society: “For if those of that rank [gentlemen] are by their education once set right, they will quickly bring all the rest into order” (25).  Keeping this in mind does shed some light on Locke’s overall purpose.  His goal is not to educate a class that will change or necessarily improve society (something that many educational advocates take for granted today), or really even to actively participate in governance or civic life (there is almost nothing in the book about political education whatsoever).  There is some mention of the importance of education for economic or business life, but overall, that does not seem to be a main factor; after all, the gentlemen Locke was writing about were likely quite rich already.  And again, even though reason is frequently cited as a goal, Locke does little to outline just what that means or looks like, or why it’s important.  

Instead, Locke’s fundamental goals seem largely social.  The whole element of “breeding,” which Locke mentions repeatedly as a goal, seems primarily focused on helping a person become socially successful, with – as I read it – the possible added benefit of career success, too.  For example, Locke writes that the pupil who becomes well-bred,

“. . . will find that this one accomplishment will more open his way to him, get him more friends and carry him farther in the world than all the hard words or real knowledge he has got from the liberal arts or his tutor’s learned encyclopedia” (111).  

There is much of this in Some Thoughts.  As a result, it sometimes seems as though Locke was aiming to prepare upper class gentlemen for little more than being amusing company at parties, or, at best, good “networkers” as we might say now; there was more than a little focus on the classic American formulation – “how to win friends and influence people.” Virtue is seen as important, but largely as a kind of social currency; being an upstanding person who doesn’t lie, steal, or cheat keeps one in the good graces of others, which potentially leads to economic or social success.  It’s the social-utilitarian justification for virtue.

But it’s wider than just that, of course.  The wider goal, it seems to me, is to produce happy citizens; recall again Locke’s insistence in the introduction that the goal is “a happy state in this world” (25).  This is surely a secular vision of of-this-world happiness, and it’s also a vision of creating citizens who fit well into their society.  Breeding and even virtue to some extent are relative; more than once, Locke cites the importance of parents or tutors helping a child learn breeding by adapting to the customs of their society by learning from good examples.  It’s definitely a book about integrating into one’s culture, fitting in well, being liked and appreciated, even having rewarding hobbies (a point Locke actually writes at length about).  

One of the key aspects of virtue as I understand it from Locke – his particular kind of virtue that seems focused on a kind of happy integration with one’s society – is a certain sense of self-possession, or even incorruptibility.  This goes hand-in-hand with his goal of teaching the abstinence of wants and desires in favor of reason.  For Locke, a virtuous man is one who is not corruptible by other men or by society, especially when this man is still fairly young.  This point, to me, was where Locke was at his strongest, particularly in the sections where he advises fathers and tutors on how to prepare children for the temptations of the world.

Let me back up and say that Locke is so very astute about developmentalism in general.  He has a keen understanding – better even than Rousseau, in my view – about what children want and will do at each stage of development.  His is the view of the wise father, savvy in his methods, patient and gentle in his approach.  

When they’re young, children must hold their parents in “awe” and a parent must be strict (though observant and judicious); although Locke writes brilliantly against the use of corporal punishment, he advises fathers to use praise and shame quite liberally to weed out any maladies of character observable in his child (especially obstinance).  Yet as the child gets older, Locke advises treating the boy more and more like a man, in order to – and I thought this section was so genuine and humane – bring the child more and more into friendship with his father.  This was such a fascinating section:

“ . . . a father would do well, as his son grows up and is capable of it, to talk familiarly with him, nay, ask his advice and consult with him about those things wherein he has any knowledge or understanding” (54).  

When a father takes his son seriously like this, treats him like a man, he becomes more like a man, argues Locke – more responsible, and more thoughtful.  This also serves to deepen the bond between father and son, crossing into friendship; Locke finds the opposing approach more prevalent, yet more detrime ntal – “as if [these fathers] were never to enjoy or have any comfort from those they love best in the world” (55).  This friendship is both enjoyable for its own sake – what a remarkable point to insist on – but it’s also useful for a father’s being able to keep an eye on his son.  If the father is able to become a sounding board or confidant for his son, and if the father is able to refrain from judgment or at least harsh rebuke, his son will trust him, tell him everything, and at least allow the father to keep a closer eye on his son than he might otherwise.  Finally, Locke advises a particularly Burkean-conservative point – that bringing one’s son into more confidence regarding the affairs of the business of one’s estate and dealings has a positive effect: 

“When your son sees you open your mind to him, when he finds that you interest him in your affairs, as things you are willing should in their turn come into his hands, he will be concerned for them as for his own, wait his season with patience . . .” (55). 

Here educational advice merges with parenting advice to form a wonderful mixture of humane, practical wisdom geared toward a Burkean conservation, a passing along to the future generation.

Again, Locke is particularly savvy about developmentalism; he writes with a clear knowledge of just what boys and young men are like at different stages of life.  And if his goal is to ensure that young men are prepared to fit well into their society, and if a large part of that is an instruction in virtue, Locke is sensible about how to prepare children to  make their way into civilization.  He writes, “The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it” (114).  Locke really does have a sense that young men are easily corrupted when they enter the world; several times he cites “vices” that are common to young men of the time (and still are!) such as gambling and drinking, and he feels it a key duty of parents and educators to prepare children not to fall prey to these dark habits.  He is the same way when describing the importance of judging character; he repeatedly warns readers to take care to select a tutor who will teach a child how to recognize charlatans and knaves of all stripes.

Locke is also good at emphasizing that parents and tutors should not overreact – that children will grow out of certain phases, and that coming down hard on them is very often counterproductive.  Show them models, he says – especially through your own conduct – and keep the number of rules, if you must have them, as low as possible.  Think ahead, says Locke, and always keep your eye on the long game when it comes to children.

Locke’s Child-Centeredness

One aspect of Locke’s approach that surprised me was his child-centeredness.  Throughout the book, Locke is constantly writing about the need for observation of one’s pupil – just the point that Maria Montessori was making in her work.  For the creator of the concept of children as examples of blank slates –  “tabula rasas” – Locke is surprisingly open about the notion that different children are born with different natures: “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” (92).  That means that the educator’s job is to understand both what goals each child needs, and what methods work best with each individual child to attain these goals.  This requirement of observation of the uniqueness of each child, and the need to use careful, not-too-harsh methods, comes up again and again in Locke.  Here he emphasizes this is in what I consider one of the most sensible passages about education I have read in some time:

“He therefore that is about children should well study their natures and aptitudes and see by often trials what turn they easily take and what becomes them, observe what their native stock is, how it may be improved, and what it is fit for; he should consider what they want, whether they be capable of having it wrought into them by industry and incorporated there by practice, and whether it be worth while to endeavor it.  For in many cases all that we can do or should aim at is to make the best of what nature has given, to prevent the vices and faults to which such a constitution is most inclined, and given it all the advantages it is capable of” (93).

This is a curiously pragmatic and “realistic” vision – “all that we can do or should at at is to make the best of” – this is certainly not a particularly expansive vision of the power of education.  But it is an astute one – a vision that blends Dewey’s pragmatic notion of the educator as “psychologizing” the academic material through careful observation of a child’s proclivities and interests – with Maria Montessori’s principle that a child must be at liberty in order to best observe these tendencies (something Locke actually says, explicitly).  

In fact, one related and fascinating aspect of Locke is that he writes repeatedly that learning should be fun.  He warns with characteristic good sense that children want to feel as though they are in charge of their own lives, and compulsory learning will never be nearly as effective as learning in which students have (or perceive they have) choice, and in which they are enjoying themselves and having fun.  This is not child-centered learning for its own sake – Locke clearly has things he believes children need to learn – but he is deeply humane about children, seems to understand their perspectives in the learning process well, and is constantly advising parents and tutors to use as gentle a hand as possible.  

In a memorable quote in the introduction, Locke compares education to a kind of gentle redirection, which, if undertaken judiciously and carefully early in a child’s life, has a dramatic effect on the development of their character and their integration into the world.  He writes: 

“The little or almost insensible impressions on ou tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences; and there ‘tis, as in the fountains of some rivers, where a gentle application of the hand turns the flexible waters in channels that make them take quite contrary courses; and by this direction given them at first in the source they receive different tendencies and arrive at last at very remote and distant places” (26).

What a beautiful way to put it.

But . . . Locke is a Realist, Not a Romantic

One key difference between Locke on the one hand and Rousseau and other educational Romantics on the other is that Locke does not believe in the inherent natural goodness of children. Although Locke is certainly what I would call child-centered — in that a key feature of his practice is the observation of individual students — he is clear-eyed about the fact that children have natural tendencies that are destructive to themselves and to society. As I have mentioned, Locke is keenly aware of the vices and temptations to which young men fall prey — and he is completely aware of their inherent desire to prove themselves to their companions, to be led astray, and to lead others astray. Locke even has a whole section of the book devoted to “defects of character” and how to correct them. His entire goal is the overcoming of instinctive natural impulses in favor of reason — an aim that is predicated on Locke’s view that humans are not naturally able to do this on their own. No, there is nothing in Locke about the inherent sinfulness of human beings, but he does write that children are naturally distracted, that they are often frustrated by adults, eager to pursue their own interests rather than those of anyone else, and requiring of constant guidance to stay on track. There is nothing of Rousseau’s (or Montessori’s) attempt to restructure education to better reconcile society to the child, rather than vice-versa. Locke is squarely focused on reconciling the child for society. There is little to nothing of the Romantic in him.


I think my favorite part of Locke’s book has to be the pages where he writes at length about how to prepare young men for the real world so that they integrate well into their society, as self-reliant, compassionate, self-confident men and citizens.  And it is Locke’s inclusion of such good practical, sensible advice for teaching students and children how to prepare for this transition that will stay with me.  There is much of Polonius’s famous advice to his son, Laertes, in Hamlet (“neither a borrower or a lender be”) in Locke: “[The tutor] should acquaint him with the true state of the world and dispose him to think no man better or worse, wiser or foolisher than he really is” (112).  He is the wise father, the savvy tutor, the old man who nevertheless remembers well the sort of things young men like to do, and the variety of influences they will inevitably be exposed to:  “For having been bred up in a great ignorance of what the world truly is, and finding it quite other thing, when they come into it . . . [they] are easily persuaded by other kinds of tutors” (113).  (“Other kinds of tutors”!)  As a result, the young man “should by degrees be informed of the vices in fashion and warned of the applications and designs of those who will make it their business to corrupt him” (113).  This requires a good teacher –  “a discreet man of parts who knows the world and can judge of the temper, inclination and weak side of his pupil” – who can “with a gentle hand set right as time an age permits” (68).

When I look back on Locke, it is these deeply wise and humane passages that I will remember, and carry forward myself as a father and educator.  His are the virtues of patience, of observation, of moving in gently but firmly – and above all, early – to help a child grow to his full capacity.  To be sure, Locke is writing about the education of only upper class males, and during a time and place before the advent of compulsory education.  Yet I am struck more by this book’s fundamental applicability to the current era.  And moreover, by the way that this book was not what I expected it to be.  What I expected, I am not entirely sure – perhaps something along the lines of a scholastic insistence on the training of reason, or an essentialist’s fanaticism about the memorization of “fact!” (in the immortal words of Thomas Gradgrind, in Dickens’s Hard Times), or perhaps – coming from the father of empiricism – a strong focus on observation in education (similar to Maria Montessori’s sensory training).  Or maybe just a neo-classical dedication to the study of the classics, with a strong belief in mental training. 

But as I look back at the examples above, they’re fairly implausible.  Locke is writing in the Realist tradition, with an Aristotelian focus on happiness as the primary goal – happiness in this world, not the next – and with a realistic focus on the integration of the man with his characteristic society.  

I am struck again, as I wrote before, that someone – John Locke! – had thought of “child-centered” education before the Romantics, before Rousseau.  But of course someone had.  This I suppose – to overcome our own historical prejudices – is one of the chief reasons, I suppose, to read old books.  

I am not sure I have ever read a more sensible book on education.