John Locke & Education Research Paper Starter

John Locke & Education

(Research Starters)

This article examines why John Locke is considered one of the most influential philosophers in reshaping society from a system of monarchy and aristocracy to the modern concept of democracy and liberal capitalism. The article starts by giving a brief biography of Locke, including a concise description of the areas and issues that engaged Locke during his life. Next, it examines Locke's basic philosophy on reason, knowledge and critical thinking, and shows the relationship of this philosophy to his other seminal works. The paper briefly explains Locke's influence on Jefferson and the founding documents of America, as well as his continuing influence on American democracy. Finally, this article demonstrates the close correlation between Locke's thoughts on education and the way American education and pedagogy is perceived and practiced today.

Keywords: Act/Belief Distinction; Blank Slate; Critical Thinking; Divine Right; Epistemology; Learner-Centered Education; Liberal Capitalism; Logical Fallacy; Rationalism; Social Sciences; Tabula Rasa


America's most important founding father, Thomas Jefferson, asserted that the three "greatest men that have ever lived" were Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke. Newton and Bacon were both central to developing modern science, but why did Jefferson believe John Locke was so important? Jefferson wrote that these three men "laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences," (Faulkner, 2008, p. 26). Though the term "moral science" seems quite odd today, Jefferson is referring to what we would call the "social sciences" such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, etc., though these fields of knowledge had not yet emerged as distinct disciplines in Jefferson's day. Now scholars and historians can clearly see the powerful influence of Locke's seminal works on all of these fields, and Jefferson seems to have astutely evaluated the historical importance of the three individuals who led the way to a new age of physical and social sciences.

The fact that Jefferson lists Locke as one of the most important men in human history also indicates that Locke highly influenced Jefferson as an intellectual, statesman, scientist, philosopher, U.S. President, and framer of America's most important document, the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, when we examine the works of John Locke, his importance on the development of human civilization in general becomes quite apparent. Locke contributed in many ways to the furtherance of modern society; he set the foundations for modern democracy, significantly contributed to many fields of knowledge, and also affected the way we perceive and practice education today. He modernized the meaning and method of education such that his basic principles are still the foundation of modern American education. To understand Locke's role in human history, and his influence on contemporary Western society, we must first briefly examine his life, the social institutions of his time, and the basic theories and tenets he forwarded. Once we consider these aspects, then it will become clear that Locke was, metaphorically, an intellectual bridge crossing from a previous period of human history to a new age of enlightenment and reason.

The Life

In 1632, Locke was born in Somerset, England. He came from a prosperous family, and his father was a lawyer who owned a good deal of land. Through his father's influential contacts, Locke was accepted to one of the top English public schools of England, Westminster School, where he was an excellent student. He received an Oxford University scholarship, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1656, and in 1659 completed a master's degree. Locke stayed at Oxford, where he began teaching Greek in 1660, and later became a Rhetoric teacher. But Locke was not merely a teacher. He had a very broad interest in knowledge; for example, he was fascinated with developments in medicine, including the discovery that blood circulated throughout the human body. He decided to study medicine in his spare time, and eventually became a medical doctor, writing many treatises on the practice of medicine ("Fifty Major Economists," 2003, p. 7). Locke was quite diverse in his intellectual pursuits, and he became a leading proponent on one side or another of many of the most important issues of his day. Locke also made important contributions in the theory of knowledge with his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and he contributed significantly to theories on education through his essay Some Thoughts on Education.

One of Locke's fundamental ideas was that humans are born with minds that are a "blank slate" (also known as "tabula rasa"). This means human development is highly influenced by environment, and that people fill their "blank slates" through life experiences that are reflected upon to gain knowledge (Henson, 2003, p. 7). Gintis (2006) notes that this theory influenced the founders of modern sociology and anthropology, making Locke the original source of these new fields of knowledge (p. 377). The "tabula rasa" concept also relates to Locke's theories on human reasoning. Locke believed all humans are capable of rationality and the ability to reason, and this led to his belief that individuals can and should collectively control the government. As Huyler writes, Locke proposed that civil society should be grounded in "a social contract signed by free and equal men rather than in a patriarchal theory that conferred divine-right grace on any sitting monarch" (1997, ¶ 8).

Although the idea of each citizen voting and having power over government seems quite normal to us today, it is important to consider that during Locke's day, such a sociopolitical system did not exist. Many problems arose from societies being ruled by kings who believed God had bestowed upon them the divine right to rule over others, and religious institutions had a tendency to support this system by issuing that "divine right" to the king — as long as he supported the Church. As Huyler points out, "English-men feared and hoped to thwart … the prospect of a monarch religiously responsive to the authority of a foreign Pope and puffed up by a pretentious divine-right doctrine." This system "threatened liberty in the political and the private sense" and it caused "intolerance, persecution, and conflict, as well as a dire disturbance to property and commercial freedom" (Huyler, 1997, ¶ 36). In the historical and social context in which Locke developed his theories, the notion that citizens should control government seemed quite radical in his day. Through strong reasoning, Locke demonstrated the need and justification for "innate indefeasible, individual rights which limit the competence of the community and stand as bars to prevent interference with the liberty and property of private persons" (Huyler, 1997, ¶ 9).

Thus, Thomas Jefferson had good reason to consider Locke one of the most important figures in human history, since Locke's philosophical treatises pushed feudalism and aristocracy aside to make intellectual space for individualism and the approaching age of commerce and industrialism. As Faulkner points out, "Bacon is best known for explaining the method of mastering nature; Locke, for explaining the political science of liberty" (2008, p. 28).

Further Insights

Reason, Democracy

Esperanza (2006) points out the philosophical transition, within Locke's mind, that caused his development to a more modern viewpoint. Esperanza writes that in his earlier writings, Locke concentrates more on theology and presents a viewpoint that seems more typical of seventeenth century thought. But then there is a psychological and philosophical shift wherein Locke begins developing a "strong inclination to empirical theories", and "began to show a deeper appreciation of the power of rational faculties and the role of sense-experience." Esperanza points out that this is why most scholars place Locke in the rationalist school of thought (Esperanza, 2006, p. 14). Locke also states his firm belief that learning how to think, or exercising our ability to reason, is the most important thing any of us can achieve in our lives. In his essay Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke writes, "For when all is done, this [the ability to reason well], as the highest and most important faculty of our minds, deserves the greatest care and attention in cultivating it: the right improvement, and exercise of our reason being the highest perfection that a man can attain to in this life" (1693, Part VIII, Section 122).

Locke's belief in human reason is a key to the rest of his writing because this is the underlying system of thought that allows him to envision a differently organized society, and a new method of education as well. Locke's system of reasoning is what led him to propagate a modern democratic system based on individual rights, including human rights and property rights that complement and support today's global system of liberal capitalism. For Locke, reason is "the discursive faculty of the mind, which advances from things known to things unknown and argues from one thing to another in a definite and fixed order of propositions. It is this reason by means of which "mankind arrives at the knowledge of natural law" (Esperanza, 2006, p. 53). Locke places sense perception at the center of this system of reasoning. For Locke, sense perception, which we can also interpret to mean experience, leads the way to knowledge. Esperanza observes that sense experience and reason, as the foundation of all knowledge, represents Locke's "most salient epistemological doctrine" (p. 54).


However, Foley (1999) also brings up an important point about understanding Locke's epistemology. Foley argues that Locke's main concern is "not with how we acquire knowledge but rather with how we regulate opinion." Foley then observes that Locke defines knowledge such that it "requires certainty and, thus, is extremely scanty". On most topics or issues, all humans actually have are opinions, which is why Foley thinks Locke's epistemological philosophy is mostly concerned with how to best form one's own opinions (Foley, 1999, p. 1). Thus, what are in effect critical thinking skills are at the center of Locke's thoughts on reason, knowledge, and rationalism. Citing Wolsterstorff, Foley outlines the fundamental principles that Locke espouses for best forming one's opinion. When examining these three principles, it seems clear that Locke is essentially giving advice on how to develop critical thinking skills:

  • Principle of evidence: Base opinion on evidence, where evidence consists of what one knows.
  • Principle of appraisal: Examine the evidence one has collected to determine its force, that is, appraise the probability of the proposition in question on that evidence.
  • Principle of proportionality: Adopt a level of confidence in the proposition that is proportioned to...

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