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John Locke (1632–1704). Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Sections 191–200

§ 191. Of this History of the Bible, I think too it would be well if there were a short and plain epitome made, containing the chief and most material heads, for children to be conversant in as soon as they can read. This, though it will lead them early into some notion of spirits, yet it is not contrary to what I said above, that I would not have children troubled, whilst young, with notions of spirits; whereby my meaning was, that I think it inconvenient that their yet tender minds should receive early impressions of goblins, spectres, and apparitions, wherewith their maids and those about them are apt to fright them into a compliance with their orders, which often proves a great inconvenience to them all their lives after, by subjecting their minds to frights, fearful apprehensions, weakness and superstition; which when coming abroad into the world and conversation they grow weary and ashamed of, it not seldom happens, that to make, as they think, a thorough cure, and ease themselves of a load which has sat so heavy on them, they throw away the thoughts of all spirits together, and so run into the other, but worse, extream.

§ 192. The reason why I would have this premised to the study of bodies, and the Doctrine of the Scriptures well imbibed before young men be entered in natural philosophy, is, because matter, being a thing that all our senses are constantly conversant with, it is so apt to possess the mind, and exclude all other beings but matter, that prejudice, grounded on such principles, often leaves no room for the admittance of spirits, or the allowing any such things as immaterial beings in rerum natura; when yet it is evident that by mere matter and motion none of the great phaenomena of nature can be resolved, to instance but in that common one of gravity, which I think impossible to be explained by any natural operation of matter, or any other law of motion, but the positive will of a superior being so ordering it. And therefore since the deluge cannot be well explained without admitting something out of the ordinary course of nature, I propose it to be considered whether God’s altering the centre of gravity in the earth for a time (a thing as intelligible as gravity it self, which perhaps a little variation of causes unknown to us would produce) will not more easily account for Noah’s flood than any hypothesis yet made use of to solve it. I hear the great objection to this, is, that it would produce but a partial deluge. But the alteration of the centre of gravity once allowed, ’tis no hard matter to conceive that the divine power might make the centre of gravity, plac’d at a due distance from the centre of the earth, move round it in a convenient space of time, whereby the flood would become universal, and, as I think, answer all the phaenomena of the deluge as delivered by Moses, at an easier rate than those many hard suppositions that are made use of to explain it. But this is not a place for that argument, which is here only mentioned by the bye, to shew the necessity of having recourse to something beyond bare matter and its motion in the explication of nature; to which the notions of spirits and their power, as delivered in the Bible, where so much is attributed to their operation, may be a fit preparative, reserving to a fitter opportunity a fuller explication of this hypothesis, and the application of it to all the parts of the deluge, and any difficulties can be supposed in the history of the flood, as recorded in the scripture.

§ 193. But to return to the study of natural philosophy. Tho’ the world be full of systems of it, yet I cannot say, I know any one which can be taught a young man as a science wherein he may be sure to find truth and certainty, which is what all sciences give an expectation of. I do not hence conclude, that none of them are to be read. It is necessary for a gentleman in this learned age to look into some of them to fit himself for conversation: but whether that of Des Cartes be put into his hands, as that which is most in fashion, or it be thought fit to give him a short view of that and several others also, I think the systems of natural philosophy that have obtained in this part of the world, are to be read more to know the hypotheses, and to understand the terms and ways of talking of the several sects, than with hopes to gain thereby a comprehensive, scientifical and satisfactory knowledge of the works of nature. Only this may be said, that the modern Corpuscularians talk in most things more intelligibly than the Peripateticks, who possessed the schools immediately before them. He that would look further back, and acquaint himself with the several opinions of the antients, may consult Dr. Cudworth’s Intellectual System, wherein that very learned author hath with such accurateness and judgment collected and explained the opinions of the Greek philosophers, that what principles they built on, and what were the chief hypotheses that divided them, is better to be seen in him than any where else that I know. But I would not deter any one from the study of nature because all the knowledge we have or possibly can have of it cannot be brought into a science. There are very many things in it that are convenient and necessary to be known to a gentleman; and a great many other that will abundantly reward the pains of the curious with delight and advantage. But these, I think, are rather to be found amongst such writers as have employed themselves in making rational experiments and observations than in starting barely speculative systems. Such writings therefore, as many of Mr. Boyle’s are, with others that have writ of husbandry, planting, gardening, and the like, may be fit for a gentleman, when he has a little acquainted himself with some of the systems of the natural philosophy in fashion.

§ 194. Though the systems of physicks that I have met with, afford little encouragement to look for certainty or science in any treatise which shall pretend to give us a body of natural philosophy from the first principles of bodies in general, yet the incomparable Mr. Newton has shewn, how far mathematicks applied to some parts of nature may, upon principles that matter of fact justify, carry us in the knowledge of some, as I may so call them, particular provinces of the incomprehensible universe. And if others could give us so good and clear an account of other parts of nature, as he has of this our planetary world, and the most considerable phænomena observable in it, in his admirable book, Philosophiæ naturalis Principia Mathematica, we might in time hope to be furnished with more true and certain knowledge in several parts of this stupendous machine, than hitherto we could have expected. And though there are very few that have mathematicks enough to understand his demonstrations, yet the most accurate mathematicians who have examin’d them allowing them to be such, his book will deserve to be read, and give no small light and pleasure to those, who, willing to understand the motions, properties, and operations of the great masses of matter, in this our solar system, will but carefully mind his conclusions, which may be depended on as propositions well proved.

§ 195. This is, in short, what I have thought concerning a young gentleman’s studies; wherein it will possibly be wonder’d that I should omit Greek, since amongst the Grecians is to be found the original as it were, and foundation of all that learning which we have in this part of the world. I grant it so; and will add, that no man can pass for a scholar that is ignorant of the Greek tongue. But I am not here considering the education of a profess’d scholar, but of a gentleman, to whom Latin and French, as the world now goes, is by every one acknowledg’d to be necessary. When he comes to be a man, if he has a mind to carry his studies farther, and look into the Greek learning, he will then easily get that tongue himself: and if he has not that inclination, his learning of it under a tutor will be but lost labour, and much of his time and pains spent in that which will be neglected and thrown away as soon as he is at liberty. For how many are there of an hundred, ever amongst scholars themselves, who retain the Greek they carried from school; or ever improve it to a familiar reading and perfect understanding of Greek authors?

To conclude this part, which concerns a young gentleman’s studies, his tutor should remember, that his business is not so much to teach him all that is knowable, as to raise in him a love and esteem of knowledge; and to put him in the right way of knowing and improving himself when he has a mind to it.

The thoughts of a judicious author on the subject of languages, I shall here give the reader, as near as I can, in his own way of expressing them: he says, “One can scarce burden children too much with the knowledge of languages. They are useful to men of all conditions, and they equally open them the entrance, either to the most profound, or the more easy and entertaining parts of learning. If this irksome study be put off to a little more advanced age, young men either have not resolution enough to apply it out of choice or steadiness to carry it on. And if any one has the gift of perseverance, it is not without the inconvenience of spending that time upon languages, which is destined to other uses: and he confines to the study of words that age of his life that is above it, and requires things; at least it is the losing the best and beautifullest season of one’s life. This large foundation of languages cannot be well laid but when every thing makes an easy and deep impression on the mind; when the memory is fresh, ready, and tenacious; when the head and heart are as yet free from cares, passions, and designs; and those on whom the child depends have authority enough to keep him close to a long continued application. I am persuaded that the small number of truly learned, and the multitude of superficial pretenders, is owing to the neglect of this.”

I think every body will agree with this observing gentleman, that languages are the proper study of our first years. But ’tis to be consider’d by the parents and tutors, what tongues ’tis fit the child should learn. For it must be confessed, that it is fruitless pains and loss of time, to learn a language which in the course of life that he is designed to, he is never like to make use of, or which one may guess by his temper he will wholly neglect and lose again, as soon as an approach to manhood, setting him free from a governor, shall put him into the hands of his own inclination, which is not likely to allot any of his time to the cultivating the learned tongues, or dispose him to mind any other language but what daily use or some particular necessity shall force upon him.

But yet for the sake of those who are designed to be scholars, I will add what the same author subjoins to make good his foregoing remark. It will deserve to be considered by all who desire to be truly learned, and therefore may be a fit rule for tutors to inculcate and leave with their pupils to guide their future studies.

“The study, says he, of the original text can never be sufficiently recommended. ’Tis the shortest, surest, and most agreeable way to all sorts of learning. Draw from the spring-head, and take not things at second hand. Let the writings of the great masters be never laid aside, dwell upon them, settle them in your mind, and cite them upon occasion; make it your business throughly to understand them in their full extent and all their circumstances: acquaint yourself fully with the principles of original authors; bring them to a consistency, and then do you yourself make your deductions. In this state were the first commentators, and do not you rest till you bring yourself to the same. Content not yourself with those borrowed lights, nor guide yourself by their views but where your own fails you and leaves you in the dark. Their explications are not yours, and will give you the slip. On the contrary, your own observations are the product of your own mind, where they will abide and be ready at hand upon all occasions in converse, consultation, and dispute. Lose not the pleasure it is to see that you are not stopp’d in your reading but by difficulties that are invincible; where the commentators and scholiasts themselves are at a stand and have nothing to say. Those copious expositors of other places, who with a vain and pompous overflow of learning poured out on passages plain and easy in themselves, are very free of their words and pains, where there is no need. Convince yourself full by this ordering your studies, that ’tis nothing but men’s laziness which hath encouraged pedantry to cram rather than enrich libraries, and to bury good authors under heaps of notes and commentaries, and you will perceive that sloth herein hath acted against itself and its own interest by multiplying reading and enquiries, and encreasing the pains it endeavoured to avoid.”

This, tho’ it may seem to concern none but direct scholars, is of so great moment for the right ordering of their education and studies, that I hope I shall not be blamed for inserting of it here; especially if it be considered, that it may be of use to gentlemen too, when at any time they have a mind to go deeper than the surface, and get to themselves a solid, satisfactory, and masterly insight in any part of learning.

Order and constancy are said to make the great difference between one man and another: this I am sure, nothing so much clears a learner’s way, helps him so much on in it, and makes him go so easy and so far in any enquiry, as a good method. His governor should take pains to make him sensible of this, accustom him to order, and teach him method in all the applications of his thoughts; shew him wherein it lies, and the advantages of it; acquaint him with the several sorts of it, either from general to particulars, or from particulars to what is more general; exercise him in both of them, and make him see in what cases each different method is most proper, and to what ends it best serves.

In history the order of time should govern, in philosophical enquiries that of nature, which in all progression is to go from the place one is then in, to that which joins and lies next to it; and so it is in the mind, from the knowledge it stands possessed of already, to that which lies next, and is coherent to it, and so on to what it aims at, by the simplest and most uncompounded parts it can divide the matter into. To this purpose, it will be of great use to his pupil to accustom him to distinguish well, that is, to have distinct notions, whereever the mind can find any real difference; but as carefully to avoid distinctions in terms, where he has not distinct and different clear ideas.

§ 196. Besides what is to be had from study and books, there are other accomplishments necessary for a gentleman, to be got by exercise, and to which time is to be allowed, and for which masters must be had.

Dancing being that which gives graceful motions all the life, and above all things manliness, and a becoming confidence to young children, I think it cannot be learned too early, after they are once of an age and strength capable of it. But you must be sure to have a good master, that knows, and can teach, what is graceful and becoming, and what gives a freedom and easiness to all the motions of the body. One that teaches not this, is worse than none at all: natural unfashionableness being much better than apish affected postures; and I think it much more passable, to put off the hat and make a leg like an honest country gentleman than like an ill-fashioned dancing-master. For as for the jigging part, and the figures of dances, I count that little or nothing, farther than as it tends to perfect graceful carriage.

§ 197. Musick is thought to have some affinity with dancing, and a good hand upon some instruments is by many people mightily valued. But it wastes so much of a young man’s time to gain but a moderate skill in it; and engages often in such odd company, that many think it much better spared: and I have amongst men of parts and business so seldom heard any one commended or esteemed for having an excellency in musick, that amongst all those things that ever came into the list of accomplishments, I think I may give it the last place. Our short lives will not serve us for the attainment of all things; nor can our minds be always intent on something to be learned. The weakness of our constitutions both of mind and body, requires that we should be often unbent: and he that will make a good use of any part of his life, must allow a large portion of it to recreation. At least, this must not be denied to young people; unless whilst you with too much haste make them old, you have the displeasure to set them in their graves or a second childhood sooner than you could wish. And therefore, I think, that the time and pains allotted to serious improvements, should be employed about things of most use and consequence, and that too in the methods the most easy and short that could be at any rate obtained: and perhaps, as I have above said, it would be none of the least secrets of education, to make the exercises of the body and the mind the recreation one to another. I doubt not but that something might be done in it, by a prudent man, that would well consider the temper and inclination of his pupil. For he that is wearied either with study or dancing does not desire presently to go to sleep, but to do something else which may divert and delight him. But this must be always remembered, that nothing can come into the account of recreation, that is not done with delight.

§ 198. Fencing and riding the great horse, are looked upon so necessary parts of breeding, that it would be thought a great omission to neglect them; the latter of the two being for the most part to be learned only in great towns, is one of the best exercises for health, which is to be had in those places of ease and luxury: and upon that account makes a fit part of a young gentleman’s employment during his abode there. And as far as it conduces to give a man a firm and graceful seat on horseback, and to make him able to teach his horse to stop and turn quick, and to rest on his hanches, is of use to a gentleman both in peace and war. But whether it be of moment enough to be made a business of, and deserve to take up more of his time than should barely for his health be employed at due intervals in some such vigorous exercise, I shall leave to the discretion of parents and tutors; who will do well to remember, in all the parts of education, that most time and application is to be bestowed on that which is like to be of greatest consequence and frequentest use in the ordinary course and occurrences of that life the young man is designed for.

§ 199. As for fencing, it seems to me a good exercise for health, but dangerous to the life; the confidence of their skill being apt to engage in quarrels those that think they have learned to use their swords. This presumption makes them often more touchy than needs on point of honour and slight or no provocations. Young men, in their warm blood, are forward to think they have in vain learned to fence, if they never shew their skill and courage in a duel; and they seem to have reason. But how many sad tragedies that reason has been the occasion of, the tears of many a mother can witness. A man that cannot fence, will be more careful to keep out of bullies’ and gamesters’ company, and will not be half so apt to stand upon punctilios, nor to give affronts, or fiercely justify them when given, which is that which usually makes the quarrel. And when a man is in the field, a moderate skill in fencing rather exposes him to the sword of his enemy than secures him from it. And certainly a man of courage who cannot fence at all and therefore will put all upon one thrust and not stand parrying, has the odds against a moderate fencer, especially if he has skill in wrestling. And therefore, if any provision be to be made against such accidents, and a man be to prepare his son for duels, I had much rather mine should be a good wrestler than an ordinary fencer, which is the most a gentleman can attain to in it, unless he will be constantly in the fencing-school and every day exercising. But since fencing and riding the great horse are so generally looked upon as necessary qualifications in the breeding of a gentleman, it will be hard wholly to deny any one of that rank these marks of distinction. I shall leave it therefore to the father to consider, how far the temper of his son and the station he is like to be in, will allow or encourage him to comply with fashions which, having very little to do with civil life, were yet formerly unknown to the most warlike nations, and seem to have added little of force or courage to those who have received them; unless we will think martial skill or prowess have been improved by duelling, with which fencing came into, and with which I presume it will go out of the world.

§ 200. These are my present thoughts concerning learning and accomplishments. The great business of all is virtue and wisdom:

  • Nullum numen abest si sit Prudentia.
  • Teach him to get a mastery over his inclinations, and submit his appetite to reason. This being obtained, and by constant practice settled into habit, the hardest part of the task is over. To bring a young man to this, I know nothing which so much contributes as the love of praise and commendation, which should therefore be instilled into him by all arts imaginable. Make his mind as sensible of credit and shame as may be; and when you have done that, you have put a principle into him, which will influence his actions when you are not by, to which the fear of a little smart of a rod is not comparable, and which will be the proper stock whereon afterwards to graff the true principles of morality and religion.