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Thursday, August 13, 2015

How a 17th-Century Philosopher Speaks to Today's School Reformers by Peter Gibbon

Photo: Peter Gibbon
"Concerned about the moral laxity of Restoration England, the wealthy landowner and politician Edward Clarke turned to his lifelong friend John Locke for advice about how to raise his son. Out of a series of letters to Clarke came Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693." according to Peter Gibbon, senior research associate at the Boston University School of Education and the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002).

Photo: Jared Boggess for Education Week

We know John Locke today as a social and political philosopher. In his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding," he famously characterized the human mind at birth as a "blank slate." Less known today is Locke as an educational philosopher; yet, his published letters to Clarke became the most celebrated treatise on education during the Enlightenment, influencing Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and untold numbers of anxious parents and uncertain teachers.

Drawing on Locke's experience as a physician, psychologist, diplomat, and political adviser, Some Thoughts Concerning Education is part medical manual, part guide for parents and teachers, and overall a meditation on motivation and human nature. Radical for its time, the book prefigures many of today's educational debates.

In a world that considered children miniature adults, Locke discovered the child:

"Children are strangers to all we are acquainted with." They must play. Their minds wander. They need to be busy, and they love change and variety. They are naturally curious. To motivate, the skillful teacher simplifies lessons, sympathetically answers naïve questions, seizes the moment when the child is "in tune," engaged, and responsive.

Anticipating Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, Locke further urges parents and tutors to be aware of individual differences. Not only minds but also temperaments differ. Lacking the advantage of contemporary theories of inheritance, Locke relied on close observation: "Some men by the unalterable frame of their constitution are stout, others timorous, some confident, others modest, tractable or obstinate, curious or careless, quick or slow."

In Locke's book, the mind is not a blank slate. Repeatedly, he celebrates the importance of education. Simultaneously, he concedes the importance of temperament. He would sympathize with Susan Cain's contemporary bestseller, Quiet, that suggests we are shaped in the womb and have less autonomy than we believe.
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Source: Education Week


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