Some Thoughts Concerning Contemporary Education

The assigned reading this week for the class in which I am a TA included several selections from John Locke, among them excerpts from his 1693 “Some thoughts concerning education.” In this piece, Locke argues that children need to be guided, encouraged, tempered, and, at times, disciplined, but that too much rigidity or punishment creates a “slavish” temperament. He calls the rod a lazy form of punishment that causes the student to study or learn out of fear and that it “breeds an aversion to that which it is the tutor’s business to creating a liking to.” Locke also calls for different education for different people, ostensibly because people learn at different rates and it is not necessary for everyone to know Latin. [1]

For their weekly discussion question, I asked my students to consider Locke’s proposals about education in relation to their own experiences. For a variety of reasons, I received fewer responses than usual this week and some of those responses got bogged down in the curriculum proposals rather than those about the educational theory. Some of the more insightful responses (paraphrased) were:

  1. Locke might be frustrated with the expedience of shipping kids to school because a one-size-fits-all approach will result in less efficient learning, particularly for students who learn slower and faster than “normal.”
  2. Children should not be coerced into study, but encouraged to be actively engaged. As such, students should be engaged in conversation, not lectured at. [2]
  3. Over-regulation and over-obedience results in people of slave-ish temperament, which is ill-suited for an engaged member of society. This is a tenet at least paid lip service to in education today.
  4. There should be (at least some) emphasis on skills of various sorts. [3]

The thing that jumped out at me in this exercise was the role of the teacher. The teacher’s job, according to Locke, is not just to inscribe trivia onto the mind of the students, but to give skills and interest in the subject so that the students can become engaged citizens. To wit, there are only so many hours that one can read for an English class in school, but someone who learns to love reading in school will continue to read later in life.

When the emphasis is on how well one performs on a canned test or testing the ability to produce cliched, hackneyed short essays after idly doodling through hours of lectures rather than engaging with material, it is an exercise in futility. Students are not conditioned to fear the rod or the lash, but they are equally conditioned. The topics in class are associated with drudgery that leads up to a test and so students want to know what will be on the test and what the answer is–they would just rather you skip the boring part. Of course, teachers are then evaluated on how well students perform on those tests, creating a vicious circle.

More than three hundred years have gone by and new expediencies have produced a similar result in education. Lectures, blue-book exams, standardized tests, these are all expediencies created in a world with large numbers of people and even more paperwork. Locke called the rod a lazy tool, but these new tools are not necessarily borne of sloth, but perhaps mechanization or standardization and the effects are just as insidious. I got the sense that some of my students thought I was being pedantic when I said that Locke has relevance and isn’t just another boring dead white guy rolling around in his grave. I may have been falling victim to the type of trap Locke lamented, but I wasn’t kidding.


[1] This is a somewhat gross exaggeration since Locke actually divides the curriculum by social class rather than just by ability. His divisions could still be applicable, though, if one were to assume that, regardless of actual class, there are underlying characteristics that map onto what Locke calls class. It likely behooves someone going into a trade to learn Spanish, for instance, while Latin may only be helpful for a smaller segment of the population. Of course everyone should learn Gree…oh, that is a personal picadillo? Nevermind, then.

[2] I find this answer simultaneously accurate, frustrating, and ironic since conversation is a great way to learn, but the standard for many college courses, including this one, is a lecture, and then it is at times excruciating to get the students to actually converse when given the opportunity, as if the discussion needs to be coerced.

[3] The student believed that this is something education today does emphasize to a degree, but disagreed with the idea that manual skills should be included because not everyone will need to use e.g. carpentry.

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