John Locke’s Theory On The Education Of The Young


In my Thirty-Seven, I wrote at length (Ch. 7, “A Program of Education”) on the educational views of the Renaissance humanist Paolo Vergerio.  His ideas stressed the importance of character and discipline as the foundations and prerequisites for intellectual study; not to master one’s desires, he knew, was fatal to any meaningful progress in education.

It is a lesson that seems to be totally forgotten today, where schools have become holding pens for budding narcissists, whose parents possess only the dimmest idea of how to instill discipline in their young.  It is not the fault of the young, however, that they lack character and discipline; blame for this must be placed squarely where it belongs, which is on the shoulders of the older generations, who have criminally neglected their responsibilities for several generations.

A reading of the English philosopher John Locke’s treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) reinforces the soundness of the educational principles advocated by Vergerio.  Locke held the following points to be most important in the education of the young.  Besides being a brilliant intellect, Locke had served as a tutor to the first Earl of Shaftesbury, and thereby had a practical frame of reference on the subject.

1.  Physical health and stamina are all-important.  There is no point, Locke thought, trying to scale the intellectual heights when one neglects his body.  No sound thought can come from a degenerate body.  Students should be trained to get used to a simple diet, unaffected clothing, plenty of exercise, fresh air, and tolerance for extremes of weather.

Pupils also should avoid alcohol and excessive use of medicine (“very little or no physick”), since such things can often do more harm than good.  Soft bodies must be toughened up and forged into instruments of the will.

2.  Character must be molded.  The first and most important lesson in the formation of character, Locke maintained, was the control of the desires.  Unless appetites (for food, drink, pleasure, etc.) can be tamed and forced to submit to the will, nothing good will happen.  This is where the concept of classical “virtue” comes in.  Virtue originally was tied to “strength,” in its classical conception, and this link must be restored.  He said,

Children should be used to submit their desires, and go without their longings, even from their very cradles.

Compare this to the parenting skills of today’s “parents,” who trip over themselves to indulge every passing whim of their child, with the result that the child quickly turns into a spoiled, overweight, vindictive weakling.

On the other hand, discipline should not be arbitrary, cruel, or deliberately unpleasant.  The key seems to be that a teacher or tutor must balance his principles with the realities of the situation.  Corporal punishment may be allowed in some cases, but in general should be avoided if possible.  On the other hand, a bit of pain here and there can do wonders:

Inuring children gently to suffer some degrees of pain without shrinking is a way to gain firmness for their minds, and lay a foundation for courage and resolution in the future part of their lives.

The child’s personality and individuality must be respected, while at the same time, it must be subjected to discipline and the molding of character.  Herein lies the challenge of the teacher.


3.  Good habits are the backbone of character.  It is not enough to talk about character, or even to illustrate it by example.  Essential to the formation of character is to make it a matter of regular habit.  Good behavior and conduct must become so ingrained as to be almost automatic.  Locke says,

Habits work more constantly [i.e., powerfully] and with greater facility than reason, which, when we have most need of it, is seldom fairly consulted, and more rarely obeyed.

4.  The subjects of education.  When it comes to languages, Locke thought, the student should have the earliest exposure possible.  French and Latin he seemed to favor; these should be taught by conversation, rather than by dull grammatical exercises (here he apparently took a page from Montaigne’s book).


A student should also be thoroughly familiar with mathematics, geography, astronomy, and anatomy; ethics and philosophy should be saved for last, apparently for fear of leading an unformed mind too far astray.  The purpose of education was not to make a student a master of these subjects, but only to season his or her mind for further study, should that be necessary.

5.  Habit is the backbone of virtue, and logical reasoning is the backbone of thought.  Locke wisely favored mathematics for its emphasis on deductive reasoning.  To follow a geometric proof from start to finish was to see the glory of human reason in action.  The point of teaching mathematics was not to make students mathematicians, but to give them the tools needed to be reasoning creatures:

We are born to be, if we please, reasonable creatures, but it is use and exercise that makes us so, and we are indeed so no further than industry and application has carried us…I have mentioned mathematics as a way to settle in the mind a habit of reasoning closely and in train…

This emphasis on mathematics was something that Locke may have borrowed from Descartes.  In any case, it remains a valid point.

In reading these old treatises, one cannot but shake one’s head in disappointment.  Our “modern” educational system has strayed so far from these principles that it seems to occupy a different universe from what was advocated in eras past. But human nature has not changed at all from 1500 to the present day.

Students today are not taught discipline; they are not trained to control their impulses; and they are not conditioned to accept habits that make for civic order.  Instead, they are coddled, pampered, and taught that each is his or her own little emperor, who can do no wrong.  There is limitless talk of rights, privileges, and benefits, yet almost no corresponding understanding of the responsibilities and duties that must come before any of them.

Character and virtue do not magically descend from the sky into the hearts and minds of men; they must be taught through good habits, examples, and conditioning.  There is, sadly, almost none of this today in our educational system.  All of society suffers grievously as a result.

Worse still, they are trained to scour the internet to cherry-pick whatever strikes their fancy, a habit that only reinforces their short attention spans and budding narcissistic tendencies.  The price for all this is being paid now, and will continue to be paid in the years ahead.


Take a look at my book On Duties for more ideas on education, training, and discipline at all phases of life.

10 thoughts on “John Locke’s Theory On The Education Of The Young

  1. Very true. It’s amazing how inept most parents are. I suppose they didn’t have a good example of parenting set for them. Some parents almost seem to worship their children, as if the child is some form of diety that must be satiated at every turn.

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  2. Character is the intrepid kindness which defines an intellect. Discipline is recursive. This is a sort of social contract. Tolerance for the extremes of weathering is the archetypal means for generating information. Soft bodies are malleable to the force of introspection. Virtue is strength through self-control. Corporal punishment does not always inspire discipline. A child’s personality and individuality are improved by nourishing moods and nurturing emotions.

    Good habits are the backbone of character, but as the spine of a book with ordinal type. French and Latin are highly beneficial to the developing mind, but the languages should be learned primarily through written composition, along with conversation. Mathematics, geography, and anatomy define the subject matter by which philosophy and ethics are reasoned about, so those topics are prerequisite. Logical reasoning is the backbone of thought, but as the spine of a dictionary with cardinal entries.

    The emphasis on mathematics is foundational to Western philosophical thought. Our modern educational system has strayed far from the objectivity of scientific knowledge, and our universities thus offer less universal wisdom. Logic is the good habit that makes for civil order, it is the collective way for us to control our impulses as a society.

    Examples and conditioning do not magically fall from the sky into the hearts and minds of humans. God’s rainwater does so; a long walk in the rain is inspiring as extreme weather tempers the spirit. The reprieve is that enlightened citizens will only scour the internet to support the truth with factual statements. The price of that power is invaluable; and it does not include the cost being paid today in the loss of our societal dogmatism.

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  3. It’s a sort of schizophrenic system. It is true that kids often get ‘participation trophies’ but it’s also true that they begin organized sports at 3. We have obese students, and yet the demands of high school athletics have never been higher. High school is no longer a time to ‘dabble’- in athletics, and in music, the expectation is that a student has specialized by the time they are 12. Club sports start cutting kids from teams by about the age of 10. You get kids who put forth the ‘affluenza’ defense and yet the kids I know have been worried about their college applications by the 6th grade. (full disclosure- i have 5 children they range in age from 22-16, so I have one in medical school, 3 in university and 1 in high school)
    It has become a very stratified system and it’s very difficult for even the most committed parents to find balance in the expectations they have for their children. I knew a whole hell of a lot more about having children before I actually raised any…..

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  4. Maybe. I think it varies a lot from school to school and even from classroom to classroom. I know a lot of people agree with you- I am just not sure I’ve seen that in action. I’ve seen sobbing 13-year-olds who were convinced that they wouldn’t get into college if they weren’t in all AP classes by 9th grade. I don’t disagree with Locke, or with you actually, I just think its a lot more complex than “kids are spoiled”. I think our education system has become incredibly stratified- so that even in public schools(disclosure-my youngest child is currently at a large public high school for half days doing AP classes, my other kids all went to a Catholic prep school for high school -none of them went to public grade school) you get very different educational outcomes. There is no question that the standards need to much higher in some schools.
    At the higher end academically I think it can be pretty brutal actually. I think that too often parents want to just make things easier for their kids rather than teach them how to constructively deal with disappointments and setbacks. I do wish though that high school gave teens opportunities to try more things without having to be accomplished at them. Hell, if you can’t try new things at 15 when can you?


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