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Understanding Why Schools are the Way They Are: John Locke

Introduction to the Understanding Why Schools Are the Way They Are Series

When thinking about schools and education it is important to consider its philosophical ‘underpinnings’. This article will be the first of many that attempts to unpack the ideas of some of education’s most notable philosophers, those that I believe have been most influential in the how and why of our schools as they exist today. In some ways, these thinkers and their philosophies represent the ideals that we share, yet they also represent some of the entrenched ideological conflicts that we see and experience today in the ongoing debate of the how and why of schooling. In any effect, their ideas matter, and so the hope of these articles is to bring them to the forefront so that we all might not only better understand our schools today, but so that we might become more aware of our own thinking about them. So, in an effort to begin this conversation, I am going to reach back to the Enlightenment and the work of the British philosopher, psychologist and educator, John Locke.

Who is John Locke?

John Locke has long been considered a “pioneer”[1] of schooling and of what we might consider to be a ‘good’ education. His work not only contributed to much of our understanding in relation to the childhood development, but also showed us the integral role of education and schooling in the formation of our children. His work has influenced many educational philosophers since its root during the 17th century, and his ideas have found their way into much of the curricular theory (what we teach), pedagogy (how we teach) and policy that we build our schools on and around. His philosophical reach was such that not only did the entire function of schooling in England shift as a result, but from which entire moral and social philosophies emerged. Scholars often credit Locke for inspiring the American instinct towards public education, and in particular, the importance of the relationship between teacher and student. It makes sense, then, that having been one of the forefathers of our American public education system today, we consider what he would think of the state of public schooling today, particularly in a politicized age of standardization and accountability? Would he be satisfied with where we have come, and where we seem to be going? What would he change about the way we educate our children, and how would he change it?

Much of Locke’s work, and many of his philosophical premises, seem to have, quite naturally, been built from his own educational experience as a student, and then later from his observations as a psychologist and educator. Growing up in the English countryside during the early to mid 17th century, he was taught mostly by his father, a mentorship that he clearly revered through his own philosophy. Much of his work idealizes the student-teacher relationship as one of mentorship, and values pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that support a more one-on-one approach to teaching and learning. The influence of his father’s tutelage and the pastoral beauty of his childhood home also allow us to better understand his opposition to formal scholasticism, as well as his devotion to what he called the “native propensities” [2]of the youth. The importance of this will be discussed later, but what is most interesting, here, is that Locke ultimately left the farm and enrolled in the Westminster School, and later Oxford University, two places that, to this day, very much embody formality, discipline and scholasticism.

The Birth of Student-Centered Education and Teaching the Whole Child

It was at Westminster, and then Oxford, that Locke truly began to develop his educational philosophy, mostly in opposition to his own experience at these places. The strict disciplinarianism and the way in which he and his peers were made to feel inferior to their instructors, lent to a subversive streak in Locke, ultimately getting him expelled from Oxford. Having been, essentially, home-schooled for much of his youth by a loving father served as a stark contrast to his experiences in Westminster and Christ Church. Following his expulsion, Locke began writing, sharing his ideas with a readership that, given the scientific ideals of the Enlightenment, didn’t quite buy into the empirical ideal that his ideas had come from – the scientific method and the rise of rationalistic thinking during the late 17th century did not exactly jive with Locke’s focus on personal experience, observation using the senses and reflection. We can certainly see, today, the bias to the former in our schools, particularly with the rise of STEM and the relative fall of the arts and humanities. Truly, what concerned Locke, both as a psychologist and a philosopher, and certainly as an educator, was the concept of the mind, how the individual self identifies with it, and the power of learning that can come from one’s own understanding of it. In many ways, he advocated for the earliest forms of student-centered learning, of the idea of the whole-child approach to education, as well as the educational ideal of differentiation. Quite essentially, he put the student’s learning experience on par with, if not above, the teacher or subject-matter’s needs, wants and values; in his world, the teacher’s responsibility is to help students find themselves within their learning first and foremost, and to learn the content second.

Probably one of the most influential of his ideas, Locke presented a concept that, at the time, was quite controversial. He argued that children – that we all – are born with minds that are like ‘blank slates’, or as he called it tabula rosa. [3] This idea that we are born without any biases or deficiencies served in stark contrast to the Calvinist ideal of Original Sin which had dominated the scholastic method of education at the time. His ‘blank slate’ attested that rather than being born bad, our children are born, quite simply, without this badness. By being ‘blank’ they have promise to be good, or bad, or anything else for that matter. The means and purpose of education become paramount then in how our children become who they become – it means that we must take care in our education of them. What it also means, however, is that we should not assume the worst in them, that they will somehow fail us if we do not discipline them into an external value system that does not help them to grow internally. In fact, according to an early scholar of Locke’s work, Bird T. Baldwin[4], it was in Locke’s later work that we begin to see a bit of a shift in his thinking, when he began to understand that while our youth are born with minds that may be blank and thus can be written upon, that they do have something to offer, quite naturally, from within, certain talents and internal resources that are subtle and hard to come by unless carefully drawn out. These aforementioned “native propensities” of our youth could be tapped into and used in a way that would be lasting and relevant and beneficial to both the individual and his or her world. In fact, Locke’s notion of tabula rosa suggested that a good and wholesome education should not try to change or fix a child’s mind simply because it is not at all broken or in need of changing. Rather, he argued that it should “perhaps be a little mended” [5] so that it might “make the best of what nature has given”. What’s more is that rather than an education seeking to create genius, one should look to help a child discover his or her own “natural genius” and be designed to “carr[y] it as far as it could” go. This more asset-based approach to learning would be hard to come by today, even and especially in our 21st century efforts to standardize education which tends to be more deficit-minded in its approach.

Locke in Today’s American Schools

Locke’s ideas, in many ways, created a platform of thinking that allowed for a more American model of education to emerge out of the British model, and one that much of our Progressive ideals rest on today. It provides a philosophy with which schools can develop curriculum, promote pedagogies, and enact policies that value the experiences of students, that make them relevant to their own innate interests, and that develop what Locke argued is the most important goal of education: the habit of learning. As we try to make our schools and classrooms more ‘rigorous’ how are we creating that habit? Are we not, as Locke warned us, risking their “minds growing stiff”, as the word ‘rigor’ itself suggests? As we continue to standardize our approach to learning, and as testing becomes more and more both the end and the means of it, are we not also forgetting the practical purpose of education (nevermind the philosophical) in creating life-long habits of critical thinking and problem-solving. These are questions that we must ask ourselves. As both a philosopher and a psychologist, Locke understood that a habit of learning doesn’t just come all that naturally for everyone, or for anyone, even though we are born with a certain degree of instinct that we can confidently rely on at times in our learning. In fact, he did believe that discipline is necessary for a good education, yet not the rigid and unforgiving kind that he had experienced at Westminster and Oxford. The kind of discipline that Locke spoke of is one that does require focus and sustained effort, but that must also be flexible and malleable so that it can be transferred from one situation to the next, from the classroom to life. He recognized, for example, that learning the particulars of math does, in fact, matter so that the natural tendencies of the mind might become better disciplined, focused and coherent. However, if a singular focus on the skills and content of algebra or calculus means that we somehow forget that the real purpose is to cultivate thoughtful, reasonable, motivated, even friendly, human beings, then we have sorely missed the mark.

So, in summary, Locke’s old ideas to do matter today, and while we do not necessarily want to just fall into the past without purpose or intention, turning back to the philosophies of our educational existence may help us to re-orient and remind ourselves of what we value in our schools – or not, for that matter. Moreover, it may help us to critically re-think our current position on school reform, to re-engage our own “natural propensities” for learning, and “carry” our schools and our children as far as they can go for it is they who will ultimately carry us.

In the next installment of this series, we will look at Jean Jacques Rousseau’s educational philosophy, one that built upon Locke’s idea of “natural propensities” in a way that brings the trust and attention back to the individual student, presenting an educational value-system that we often claim is the purpose of our schools, yet upon closer analysis may find that we still have some ways to go.

[1] [1] Bird T. Baldwin, “John Locke’s Contribution to Education”, 1913

[2] John Locke, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” 1693

[3] John Locke, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, 1690

[4] Bird T. Baldwin, “John Locke’s Contribution to Education”, 1913

[5] John Locke, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” 1693

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