John Locke was a philosopher of the Enlightenment, working in the second half of the 17th century.
Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education was mostly composed from a series of letters to a friend about the education of his children. Locke believed that the purpose of education was to bring children up to be virtuous, using the power of reason to overcome desire. This meant that children should be trained in self-control: ‘The Principle of all Vertue and Excellency lies in a power of denying our selves the satisfaction of our own Desires, where Reason does not authorize them’ (section 38). He felt that children were naturally selfish and driven by their own desires, but not innately wicked; they learned bad behavioural habits by observation. Education was to be directed towards learning moral behaviour in society rather than exploring the desires of the individual.
How do Locke’s ideas about education seem now?
Some of Locke’s ideas about the education of children seem oppressive now – they should not be dressed too warmly and they should wear shoes that leak, so that their bodies should become hardened; they should not be allowed to cry; and ‘if he [a child] have a Poetick Vein, 'tis to me the strangest thing in the World, that the Father should desire, or suffer it to be cherished or improved. Methinks the Parents should labour to have it stifled, and suppressed’.
On the other hand he recommends that children should learn to swim early and that they should spend as much time out of doors; this is recommended even for girls – ‘the more they are in the Air, without prejudice to their faces, the stronger and healthier they will be’.
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The Enlightenment's emphasis on reason shaped philosophical, political and scientific discourse from the late 17th to the early 19th century. Matthew White traces the Enlightenment back to its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War, and forward to its effects on the present day.