Locke: Empiricist Educator

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Locke: Empiricist Educator
John Locke (1632–1704), an English physician and philosopher, supported the important political changes that gave England a more representative government. He attacked Plato’s idealist epistemology of innate ideas, emphasizing instead that ideas arose from sensation.

Locke opposed King James II, who wanted to be England’s absolute ruler. James was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In his The Second Treatise of Government, in 1689, Locke argued that the political state was founded on a contract between the people and the government, which ruled by the consent of those who had established it. He asserted that all persons possessed inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property.1 Locke’s philosophy contributed to the concepts of representative government and checks and balances among a government’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the American republic borrowed many of Locke’s ideas.

Locke’s theory implied that citizens should establish their own government and elect their own leaders. To do this intelligently and responsibly, they had to be educated. This idea of civic education became a significant principle of the nineteenth-century American common-school movement and remains a major responsibility of public schools.
Principles of Teaching and Learning
Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, examined how we acquire ideas.2 He held that at birth the human mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, empty of ideas. We gradually acquire knowledge about the world from information our senses bring to us. Simple ideas become compound ideas as we combine them, and these in turn become more complex through comparison, reflection, and generalization.

Although Locke’s emphasis on the senses resembled realism, his philosophy of empiricism, which asserted that all human ideas were based on sensation, went beyond Aristotle, Comenius, and other realists. Its emphasis on sensation links empiricism to induction, the logic of arriving at explanations or hypotheses by observing phenomena. Further developers of Locke’s emphasis on learning from the environment were Rousseau and Pestalozzi, and also Dewey, who declared the scientific method—testing hypotheses by experimentation—the best approach for teaching and learning. In fact, Locke’s empiricism was a forerunner of pragmatism, a philosophy discussed in the chapter on Philosophical Roots of Education.

Education and Schooling
In his 1697 Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke wrote that a proper education began in early childhood. Emphasizing a sound mind in a strong and healthy body, he called attention to the importance of a child’s physical and social environments, diet, and activities. Children should breathe fresh air, have plenty of sleep, eat nourishing and plain food, bathe frequently, exercise regularly, and have time for recreation and play.

Learning, Locke said, should be a gradual process; instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic should be slow and cumulative. In addition to these basics, Locke’s curriculum included conversational foreign-language learning, especially French; higher mathematics; and history. Physical education, games, and athletics were encouraged. He believed that this foundation would achieve the educational goal of cultivating ethical individuals and competent managers of social, business, and political affairs.3

Influence on Educational Practices Today
Locke’s advocacy of representative political institutions helped shape American democracy and public schools’ role in citizenship education. His empiricist epistemology, which emphasized sensation as the process by which we construct our ideas, encouraged experiential process learning and use of the scientific method in instruction. Pragmatic experimentalist philosophy and constructivist psychology owe much to Locke’s pioneering work.4

After reading about John Locke, think back to the questions at the beginning of the chapter. How would you relate each of those questions to Locke? How did Locke’s ideas influence modern education, especially experimentalism and constructivism?

1 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (New York: Dover 2002).

2 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Prometheus Books, 1994).

3 Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov, eds. John Locke: Some Thoughts Concerning Education and the Conduct of the Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 187.

4 John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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