The View From 1776
Monday, March 21, 2005
How Far Have We Fallen?
Educational standards in colonial times vs those of today.
[This article is scheduled to be published in the next newsletter of the RepublicanVoices website.]
John Locke was a man of considerable stature in the late 17th century. His “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” was sufficiently highly regarded that the French thinkers of the 17th and early 18th century referred to Locke simply as The Philosopher. His 1689 “Second Treatise of Civil Government” was the philosophical foundation for both the English Glorious Revolution of that year and, ninety years later, for our Declaration of Independence.
Some scholars have described Locke as the father of modern education in England. His 1692 “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” provides us a base line for assessing present-day educational practices. Harvard at that time was 56 years old. The Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth 72 years earlier.
Locke begins with a child’s infancy and lays out an educational path through the child’s coming of age. Locke also advises that children’s natural curiosity should be used to engage them in learning. He continually admonishes against the use of punishments in education. He brooks no nonsense or bullying by students, however, seeing that as a flaw in teaching morality and decorum.
Several things will surprise today’s students.
The first surprise is the order of emphasis Locke assigns to the objects of education. They are virtue, wisdom, breeding (courtesy and decorum), and, last, learning specific subjects.
Of virtue, he writes: “I place virtue as the first and most necessary of those endowments that belong to a man… As for the foundation of this, there ought to be very early imprinted on his mind a true notion of God, as of the independent Supreme Being, Author and Maker of all things, from Whom we receive all our good, Who loves us, and gives us all things. And consequent to this, instill in him a love and reverence of this Supreme Being.”
Needless to say, not only God, but also “value judgments” are non-starters today.
Locke continues: “Having laid the foundations of virtue in a true notion of a God, such as the creed wisely teaches, as far as his age is capable, and by accustoming him to pray to Him, the next thing to be taken care of is to keep him exactly to speaking the truth, and by all the ways imaginable inclining him to be good-natured.”
Today, of course, Progressive educational doctrine reflects John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy that denies God and timeless principles of morality. The contrasting understanding of Locke’s era was that from prayerful immersion in the love of God, individuals absorb benevolence and a desire to emulate the Godly qualities of rectitude and fairness in dealing with their neighbors in the same way that they wish to be dealt with themselves.
Wisdom follows from the foundation of virtue. Wisdom is knowing how most effectively to manage one’s affairs with foresight. Acquiring it is a product of good temper, application of mind, and experience. Wisdom can only be initiated by the teacher, as it is a life-long process of learning from experience how to apply the lessons of virtue. What the teacher can do is to hinder the student from being cunning, what today we call playing the angles, or being street-smart (both of which are end products of John Dewey’s pragmatism, now taught as situation ethics, the idea that you make up the rules for each situation that arises).
Closely related to virtue and wisdom is the concept of good breeding, which flows from the love of God. What Locke meant by the term was an Aristotelian mean between extremes: the student should not be too bashful or gauche in dealing with other people, nor should he be prideful and too full of self-importance. He summarizes the aim as “not to think meanly of ourselves, and not to think meanly of others.” Ill breeding reveals itself in “too little care of pleasing or showing respect for those we have to do with.” The aim is “that general good will and regard for all people, which makes everyone have a care not to show in his carriage any contempt, disrespect, or neglect of them; but to express, according to the fashion and the way of that country, a respect and value for them according to their rank and condition.” Students are to be schooled against roughness, fault-finding (denunciation or ridicule), and being contradictory and captious.
Needless to say, this is not the same thing as politically correct, multi-cultural education enforced by the Thought Police. Nor is it what passes as “self-esteem” supposedly arising from sensitivity and diversity in education.
Locke than writes: “You will wonder, perhaps, that I put learning [of academic subjects] last, especially if I tell you I think it the least part… Reading and writing and learning I allow to be necessary, but yet not the chief business. I imagine you would think him a very foolish fellow that should not value a virtuous or a wise man infinitely before a great scholar.”
Today’s secular education completely reverses this understanding by simply denying the existence of God and virtue. Tolerance, meaning the absence of all standards of behavior and thought, is the guideline for the teacher. In practice it amounts to humiliating Christians and religious Jews and exalting all manners of paganism and liberal-socialist secularity.
Locke opines that a child should begin learning to read as soon as he begins to talk, but it should be approached as a matter of enjoyment for the child. Today, of course, far too many students can’t read well, if at all, when they “graduate” from high school.
The young pupil should be given to understand that reading is a special key to gaining the privileges that his older siblings and their friends enjoy, so that the child will be eager to learn. Reading should begin with something children enjoy, like Aesop’s Fables.
While Locke supports reverence for God, he counsels against the customary practice of reading the entire Bible, as understanding it requires more experience and wisdom than the student may be expected to possess. Suitable for young students, however, are stories from the Bible, “such as are the story of Joseph and his brethren, of David and Goliath…”
“When he can read English well, it will be seasonable to enter him in writing…. When he can write well and quick, I think it may be convenient not only to continue the exercise of his hand in writing, but also to improve the use of it further in drawing…How many buildings may a man see, how many machines and habits meet with, the ideas whereof would be easily retained and communicated by a little skill in drawing..”
“Shorthand, an art, as I have been told, known only in England, may perhaps be thought worth the learning, both for dispatch in what men may write for their own memory, and concealment of what they would not have lie open to every eye.”
“As soon as he can speak English, ‘tis time for him to learn some other language. This nobody doubts of, when French is proposed [which Locke thinks should be learned via intensive and extensive conversation and reading with a person fluent in French, rather than learning grammar rules]...When he can speak and read French well…. he should proceed to Latin….For the exercise of his writing, let him sometimes translate Latin into English….”
Locke would gladden the hearts of today’s students by downplaying the teaching of grammar rules, which he believes can most effectively be absorbed by association with good reading and with those who speak well. “But more particularly to determine the proper season for grammar, I do not see how it can reasonably be made anyone’s study, but as an introduction to rhetoric.” The problem today, of course, is finding someone who speaks English well.
“....join as much other real knowledge with it as you can, beginning with that which lies most obvious to the senses, such as is the knowledge of minerals, plants and animals, and particularly timber and fruit trees….but more especially geography, astronomy, and anatomy….At the same time that he is learning French and Latin, a child, as has been said, may also be entered into arithmetic, geography, chronology, history, and geometry too.” By chronology, Locke means knowing the principal dates of world history, so that a pattern emerges in the student’s mind, against which his study of history will be more understandable.
The student should also acquire a basic knowledge of the laws of the land, which requires studying the documents that collectively make up the English constitution, together with the common law, and reading in what Locke calls natural philosophy. In that regard, he recommends works such as Cicero’s “Offices” and Grotius’s “Concerning the Law of War and Peace,” a study of the application of religious natural-law principles to international relations.
Finally, Locke recommends familiarity with the chemistry of Robert Boyle and the mathematics of Isaac Newton, both of whom were Locke’s personal friends.
Secular education today has inverted Locke’s approach by assuming the aspect primarily of a trade school to prepare students for high-paying jobs. The question we must ask is whether doing so, without first instilling a respect for God, along with the ideals of virtue, courtesy and civility that flow from that approach, is preserving, let alone creating, a decent and just society.