Can you please discuss and explain Sir Francis Bacon's essay "Of Custom and Education"?

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analiesev eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Sir Francis Bacon's essay "Of Custom and Education", published in 1625, Bacon argues that society would benefit from educating children about the behaviors ("deeds") that are most desirable for that society.

His reasoning begins with the idea that while one's thoughts are derived from personal inclination and one's talk is based upon learning and personal opinions, one's behavior is usually practiced to the point of one becoming accustomed to behaving that way. He gives several examples from history and culture showing how trained, chosen habits have been very powerful: Machiavelli preferred picking people accustomed to having blood on their hands in order to commit further crimes ("desperate conspiracies"); men who try to change certain behaviors will invariably fall back into their old habits; wise men of India, lads of Sparta, and monks of Russia all subject themselves to painful, ritualized physical damage because these actions are customs.

Bacon then goes on to say that since custom is such a powerful force in humans' behaviors ("custom is the principal magistrate of man's life"), we should all try to develop good customs. Furthermore, since children are better and learning new skills and behaviors than older people are, the best time to begin teaching people is in their "young years". He says that education is just one more type of custom. Bacon asserts that well-ordained and disciplined societies are responsibility for the virtue that is customary within them, and that while "commonwealths and good governments" appreciate virtuous citizens, they do not do much for the education of children ("do not much mend the seeds").

His final statement, "But the misery is, that the most effectual means are now applied to the ends least to be desired", seems to imply that Bacon wishes more resources would be put into education of children rather than some other less-desirable effort. One could look at other things going on in 1624-25 to speculate what that other effort might be, perhaps war with Spain or something like that. But we must be careful not to paint our interpretation of Bacon's intent with a modern paintbrush.