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

Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Sections 61–70

§ 61. Concerning reputation, I shall only remark this one thing more of it, that though it be not the true principle and measure of virtue, (for that is the knowledge of a man’s duty, and the satisfaction it is to obey his maker, in following the dictates of that light God has given him, with the hopes of acceptation and reward) yet it is that which comes nearest to it: and being the testimony and applause that other people’s reason, as it were by a common consent, gives to virtuous and well-order’d actions, it is the proper guide and encouragement of children, ’till they grow able to judge for themselves, and to find what is right by their own reason.

§ 62. This consideration may direct parents how to manage themselves in reproving and commending their children. The rebukes and chiding, which their faults will sometimes make hardly to be avoided, should not only be in sober, grave, and unpassionate words, but also alone and in private: but the commendations children deserve, they should receive before others. This doubles the reward, by spreading their praise; but the backwardness parents shew in divulging their faults, will make them set a greater value on their credit themselves, and teach them to be the more careful to preserve the good opinion of others, whilst they think they have it: but when being expos’d to shame by publishing their miscarriages, they give it up for lost, that check upon them is taken off, and they will be the less careful to preserve others’ good thoughts of them, the more they suspect that their reputation with them is already blemish’d.

§ 63. But if a right course be taken with children, there will not be so much need of the application of the common rewards and punishments as we imagine, and as the general practice has establish’d. For all their innocent folly, playing and childish actions, are to be left perfectly free and unrestrain’d, as far as they can consist with the respect due to those that are present; and that with the greatest allowance. If these faults of their age, rather than of the children themselves, were, as they should be, left only to time and imitation and riper years to cure, children would escape a great deal of misapply’d and useless correction, which either fails to overpower the natural disposition of their childhood, and so by an ineffectual familiarity, makes correction in other necessary cases of less use; or else if it be of force to restrain the natural gaiety of that age, it serves only to spoil the temper both of body and mind. If the noise and bustle of their play prove at any time inconvenient, or unsuitable to the place or company they are in, (which can only be where their parents are) a look or a word from the father or mother, if they have establish’d the authority they should, will be enough either to remove or quiet them for that time. But this gamesome humour, which is wisely adapted by nature to their age and temper, should rather be encourag’d to keep up their spirits, and improve their strength and health, than curb’d and restrain’d; and the chief art is to make all that they have to do, sport and play too.

§ 64. And here give me leave to take notice of one thing I think a fault in the ordinary method of education; and that is, the charging of children’s memories, upon all occasions, with rules and precepts, which they often do not understand, and constantly as soon forget as given. It be some action you would have done, or done otherwise, whenever they forget, or do it awkwardly, make them do it over and over again, ’till they are perfect, whereby you will get these two advantages. First, to see whether it be an action they can do, or is fit to be expected of them: for sometimes children are bid to do things which upon trial they are found not able to do, and had need be taught and exercis’d in before they are requir’d to do them. But it is much easier for a tutor to command than to teach. Secondly, another thing got by it will be this, that by repeating the same action ’till it be grown habitual in them, the performance will not depend on memory or reflection, the concomitant of prudence and age, and not of childhood, but will be natural in them. Thus bowing to a gentleman, when he salutes him, and looking in his face, when he speaks to him, is by constant use as natural to a well-bred man, as breathing; it requires no thought, no reflection. Having this way cured in your child any fault, it is cured for ever: and thus one by one you may weed them out all, and plant what habits you please.

§ 65. I have seen parents so heap rules on their children, that it was impossible for the poor little ones to remember a tenth part of them, much less to observe them. However, they were either by words or blows corrected for the breach of those multiply’d and often very impertinent precepts. Whence it naturally follow’d that the children minded not what was said to them, when it was evident to them that no attention they were capable of was sufficient to preserve them from transgression, and the rebukes which follow’d it.

Let therefore your rules to your son be as few as possible, and rather fewer than more than seem absolutely necessary. For if you burden him with many rules, one of these two things must necessarily follow; that either he must be very often punish’d, which will be of ill consequence, by making punishment too frequent and familiar; or else you must let the transgressions of some of your rules go unpunish’d, whereby they will of course grow contemptible, and your authority become cheap to him. Make but few laws, but see they be well observ’d when once made. Few years require but few laws, and as his age increases, when one rule is by practice well establish’d, you may add another.

§ 66. But pray remember, children are not to be taught by rules which will be always slipping out of their memories. What you think necessary for them to do, settle in them by an indispensable practice, as often as the occasion returns; and if it be possible, make occasions. This will beget habits in them which being once establish’d, operate of themselves easily and naturally, without the assistance of the memory. But here let me give two cautions. 1. The one is, that you keep them to the practice of what you would have grow into a habit in them, by kind words, and gentle admonitions, rather as minding them of what they forget, than by harsh rebukes and chiding, as if they were wilfully guilty. 2. Another thing you are to take care of, is, not to endeavour to settle too many habits at once, lest by variety you confound them, and so perfect none. When constant custom has made any one thing easy and natural to ’em, and they practise it without reflection, you may then go on to another.

This method of teaching children by a repeated practice, and the same action done over and over again, under the eye and direction of the tutor, ’till they have got the habit of doing it well, and not by relying on rules trusted to their memories, has so many advantages, which way soever we consider it, that I cannot but wonder (if ill customs could be wondered at in any thing) how it could possibly be so much neglected. I shall name one more that comes now in my way. By this method we shall see whether what is requir’d of him be adapted to his capacity, and any way suited to the child’s natural genius and constitution; for that too much be consider’d in a right education. We must not hope wholly to change their original tempers, nor make the gay pensive and grave, nor the melancholy sportive, without spoiling them. God has stamp’d certain characters upon men’s minds, which like their shapes, may perhaps be a little mended, but can hardly be totally alter’d and transform’d into the contrary.

He therefore that is about children should well study their natures and aptitudes, and see by often trials what turn they easily take, and what becomes them; observe what their native stock is, how it may be improv’d, and what it is fit for: he should consider what they want, whether they be capable of having it wrought into them by industry, and incorporated there by practice; and whether it be worth while to endeavour it. For in many cases, all that we can do, or should aim at, is, to make the best of what nature has given, to prevent the vices and faults to which such a constitution is most inclin’d, and give it all the advantages it is capable of. Every one’s natural genius should be carry’d as far as it could; but to attempt the putting another upon him, will be but labour in vain; and what is so plaister’d on, will at best sit but untowardly, and have always hanging to it the ungracefulness of constraint and affectation.

Affectation is not, I confess, an early fault of childhood, or the product of untaught nature. It is of that sort of weeds which grow not in the wild uncultivated waste, but in garden-plots, under the negligent hand or unskilful care of a gardener. Management and instruction, and some sense of the necessity of breeding, are requisite to make any one capable of affectation, which endeavours to correct natural defects, and has always the laudable aim of pleasing, though it always misses it; and the more it labours to put on gracefulness, the farther it is from it. For this reason, it is the more carefully to be watch’d, because it is the proper fault of education; a perverted education indeed, but such as young people often fall into, either by their own mistake, or the ill conduct of those about them.

He that will examine wherein that gracefulness lies, which always pleases, will find it arises from that natural coherence which appears between the thing done and such a temper of mind as cannot but be approv’d of as suitable to the occasion. We cannot but be pleas’d with an humane, friendly, civil temper wherever we meet with it. A mind free, and master of itself and all its actions, not low and narrow, not haughty and insolent, not blemish’d with any great defect, is what every one is taken with. The actions which naturally flow from such a well-form’d mind, please us also, as the genuine marks of it; and being as it were natural emanations from the spirit and disposition within, cannot but be easy and unconstrain’d. This seems to me to be that beauty which shines through some men’s actions, sets off all that they do, and takes all they come near; when by a constant practice, they have fashion’d their carriage, and made all those little expressions of civility and respect, which nature or custom has establish’d in conversation, so easy to themselves, that they seem not artificial or studied, but naturally to follow from a sweetness of mind and a well-turn’d disposition.

On the other side, affectation is an awkward and forc’d imitation of what should be genuine and easy, wanting the beauty that accompanies what is natural; because there is always a disagreement between the outward action, and the mind within, one of these two ways: 1. Either when a man would outwardly put on a disposition of mind, which then he really has not, but endeavours by a forc’d carriage to make shew of; yet so, that the constraint he is under discovers itself: and thus men affect sometimes to appear sad, merry, or kind, when in truth they are not so.

The other is, when they do not endeavour to make shew of dispositions of mind, which they have not, but to express those they have by a carriage not suited to them. And such in conversation are all constrain’d motions, actions, words, or looks, which, though design’d to shew either their respect or civility to the company, or their satisfaction and easiness in it, are not yet natural nor genuine marks of the one or the other, but rather of some defect or mistake within. Imitation of others, without discerning what is graceful in them, or what is peculiar to their characters, often makes a great part of this. But affectation of all kinds, whencesoever it proceeds, is always offensive; because we naturally hate whatever is counterfeit, and condemn those who have nothing better to recommend themselves by.

Plain and rough nature, left to itself, is much better than an artificial ungracefulness, and such study’d ways of being illfashion’d. The want of an accomplishment, or some defect in our behaviour, coming short of the utmost gracefulness, often escapes observation and censure. But affectation in any part of our carriage is lighting up a candle to our defects, and never fails to make us be taken notice of, either as wanting sense, or wanting sincerity. This governors ought the more diligently to look after, because, as I above observ’d, ’tis an acquir’d ugliness, owing to mistaken education, few being guilty of it but those who pretend to breeding, and would not be thought ignorant of what is fashionable and becoming in conversation; and, if I mistake not, it has often its rise from the lazy admonitions of those who give rules, and propose examples, without joining practice with their instructions and making their pupils repeat the action in their sight, that they may correct what is indecent or constrain’d in it, till it be perfected into an habitual and becoming easiness.

§ 67. Manners, as they call it, about which children are so often perplex’d, and have so many goodly exhortations made them by their wise maids and governesses, I think, are rather to be learnt by example than rules; and then children, if kept out of ill company, will take a pride to behave themselves prettily, after the fashion of others, perceiving themselves esteem’d and commended for it. But if by a little negligence in this part, the boy should not pull off his hat, nor make legs very gracefully, a dancing-master will cure that defect, and wipe off all that plainness of nature, which the a-la-mode people call clownishness. And since nothing appears to me to give children so much becoming confidence and behaviour, and so to raise them to the conversation of those above their age, as dancing, I think they should be taught to dance as soon as they are capable of learning it. For tho’ this consist only in outward gracefulness of motion, yet, I know not how, it gives children manly thoughts and carriage, more than any thing. But otherwise, I would not have little children much tormented about punctilio’s or niceties of breeding.

Never trouble your self about those faults in them, which you know age will cure: and therefore want of well-fashion’d civility in the carriage, whilst civility is not wanting in the mind, (for there you must take care to plant it early) should be the parents’ least care, whilst they are young. If his tender mind be fill’d with a veneration for his parents and teachers, which consists of love and esteem, and a fear to offend them: and with respect and good will to all people; that respect will of itself teach those ways of expressing it, which he observes most acceptable. Be sure to keep up in him the principles of good nature and kindness; make them as habitual as you can, by credit and commendation, and the good things accompanying that state: and when they have taken root in his mind, and are settled there by a continued practice, fear not, the ornaments of conversation, and the outside of fashionable manners, will come in their due time: if when they are remov’d out of their maid’s care, they are put into the hands of a well-bred man to be their governor.

Whilst they are very young, any carelessness is to be borne with in children, that carries not with it the marks of pride or ill nature; but those, whenever they appear in any action, are to be corrected immediately by the ways above-mention’d. What I have said concerning manners, I would not have so understood, as if I meant that those who have the judgment to do it, should not gently fashion the motions and carriage of children, when they are very young. It would be of great advantage, if they had people about them from their being first able to go, that had the skill, and would take the right way to do it. That which I complain of, is the wrong course that is usually taken in this matter. Children, who were never taught any such thing as behaviour, are often (especially when strangers are present) chid for having some way or other fail’d in good manners, and have thereupon reproofs and precepts heap’d upon them, concerning putting off their hats, or making of legs, &c. Though in this, those concern’d pretend to correct the child, yet in truth, for the most part, it is but to cover their own shame; and they lay the blame on the poor little ones, sometimes passionately enough, to divert it from themselves, for fear the by-standers should impute to their want of care and skill the child’s ill behaviour.

For, as for the children themselves, they are never one jot better’d by such occasional lectures. They at other times should be shewn what to do, and by reiterated actions be fashion’d beforehand into the practice of what is fit and becoming, and not told and talk’d to do upon the spot, of what they have never been accustom’d nor know how to do as they should. To hare and rate them thus at every turn, is not to teach them, but to vex and torment them to no purpose. They should be let alone, rather than chid for a fault which is none of theirs, nor is in their power to mend for speaking to. And it were much better their natural childish negligence or plainness should be left to the care of riper years, than that they should frequently have rebukes misplac’d upon them, which neither do nor can give them graceful motions. If their minds are well-dispos’d, and principled with inward civility, a great part of the roughness which sticks to the outside for want of better teaching, time and observation will rub off, as they grow up, if they are bred in good company; but if in ill, all the rules in the world, all the correction imaginable, will not be able to polish them. For you must take this for a certain truth, that let them have what instructions you will, and ever so learned lectures of breeding daily inculcated into them, that which will most influence their carriage will be the company they converse with, and the fashion of those about them. Children (nay, and men too) do most by example. We are all a sort of camelions, that still take a tincture from things near us; nor is it to be wonder’d at in children, who better understand what they see than what they hear.

§ 68. I mention’d above one great mischief that came by servants to children, when by their flatteries they take off the edge and force of the parents’ rebukes, and so lessen their authority: and here is another great inconvenience which children receive from the ill examples which they meet with amongst the meaner servants.

They are wholly, if possible, to be kept from such conversation; for the contagion of these ill precedents, both in civility and virtue, horribly infects children, as often as they come within reach of it. They frequently learn from unbred or debauch’d servants such language, untowardly tricks and vices, as otherwise they possibly would be ignorant of all their lives.

§ 69. ’Tis a hard matter wholly to prevent this mischief. You will have very good luck, if you never have a clownish or vicious servant, and if from them your children never get any infection: but yet as much must be done towards it as can be, and the children kept as much as may be in the company of their parents, and those to whose care they are committed. To this purpose, their being in their presence should be made easy to them; they should be allow’d the liberties and freedoms suitable to their ages, and not be held under unnecessary restraints, when in their parents’ or governor’s sight. If it be a prison to them, ’tis no wonder they should not like it. They must not be hinder’d from being children, or from playing, or doing as children, but from doing ill; all other liberty is to be allow’d them. Next, to make them in love with the company of their parents, they should receive all their good things there, and from their hands. The servants should be hinder’d from making court to them by giving them strong drink, wine, fruit, playthings, and other such matters, which may make them in love with their conversation.

§ 70. Having nam’d company, I am almost ready to throw away my pen, and trouble you no farther on this subject: for since that does more than all precepts, rules and instructions, methinks ’tis almost wholly in vain to make a long discourse of other things, and to talk of that almost to no purpose. For you will be ready to say, what shall I do with my son? If I keep him always at home, he will be in danger to be my young master; and if I send him abroad, how is it possible to keep him from the contagion of rudeness and vice, which is every where so in fashion? In my house he will perhaps be more innocent, but more ignorant too of the world; wanting there change of company, and being us’d constantly to the same faces, he will, when he comes abroad, be a sheepish or conceited creature.

I confess both sides have their inconveniences. Being abroad, ’tis true, will make him bolder, and better able to bustle and shift among boys of his own age; and the emulation of school-fellows often puts life and industry into young lads. But still you can find a school, wherein it is possible for the master to look after the manners of his scholars, and can shew as great effects of his care of forming their minds to virtue, and their carriage to good breeding, as of forming their tongues to the learned languages, you must confess, that you have a strange value for words, when preferring the languages of the antient Greeks and Romans to that which made ’em such brave men, you think it worth while to hazard your son’s innocence and virtue for a little Greek and Latin. For, as for that boldness and spirit which lads get amongst their play-fellows at school, it has ordinarily such a mixture of rudeness and ill-turn’d confidence, that those misbecoming and disingenuous ways of shifting in the world must be unlearnt, and all the tincture wash’d out again, to make way for better principles, and such manners as make a truly worthy man. He that considers how diametrically opposite the skill of living well, and managing, as a man should do, his affairs in the world, is to that mal-pertness, tricking, or violence learnt amongst schoolboys, will think the faults of a privater education infinitely to be preferr’d to such improvements, and will take care to preserve his child’s innocence and modesty at home, as being nearer of kin, and more in the way of those qualities which make an useful and able man. Nor does any one find, or so much as suspect, that that retirement and bashfulness which their daughters are brought up in, makes them less knowing, or less able women. Conversation, when they come into the world, soon gives them a becoming assurance; and whatsoever, beyond that, there is of rough and boisterous, may in men be very well spar’d too; for courage and steadiness, as I take it, lie not in roughness and ill breeding.

Virtue is harder to be got than a knowledge of the world; and if lost in a young man, is seldom recover’d. Sheepishness and ignorance of the world, the faults imputed to a private education, are neither the necessary consequences of being bred at home, nor if they were, are they incurable evils. Vice is the more stubborn, as well as the more dangerous evil of the two; and therefore in the first place to be fenced against. If that sheepish softness which often enervates those who are bred like fondlings at home, be carefully to be avoided, it is principally so for virtue’s sake; for fear lest such a yielding temper should be too susceptible of vicious impressions, and expose the novice too easily to be corrupted. A young man before he leaves the shelter of his father’s house, and the guard of a tutor, should be fortify’d with resolution, and made acquainted with men, to secure his virtues, lest he should be led into some ruinous course, or fatal precipice, before he is sufficiently acquainted with the dangers of conversation, and has steadiness enough not to yield to every temptation. Were it not for this, a young man’s bashfulness and ignorance in the world, would not so much need an early care. Conversation would cure it in a great measure; or if that will not do it early enough, it is only a stronger reason for a good tutor at home. For if pains be to be taken to give him a manly air and assurance betimes, it is chiefly as a fence to his virtue when he goes into the world under his own conduct.

It is preposterous therefore to sacrifice his innocency to the attaining of confidence and some little skill of bustling for himself among others, by his conversation with ill-bred and vicious boys; when the chief use of that sturdiness, and standing upon his own legs, is only for the preservation of his virtue. For if confidence or cunning come once to mix with vice, and support his miscarriages, he is only the surer lost; and you must undo again, and strip him of that he has got from his companions, or give him up to ruin. Boys will unavoidably be taught assurance by conversation with men, when they are brought into it; and that is time enough. Modesty and submission, till then, better fits them for instruction; and therefore there needs not any great care to stock them with confidence beforehand. That which requires most time, pains, and assiduity, is, to work into them the principles and practice of virtue and good breeding. This is the seasoning they should be prepar’d with, so as not easily to be got out again. This they had need to be well provided with, for conversation, when they come into the world, will add to their knowledge and assurance, but be too apt to take from their virtue; which therefore they ought to be plentifully stor’d with, and have that tincture sunk deep into them.

How they should be fitted for conversation, and enter’d into the world, when they are ripe for it, we shall consider in another place. But how any one’s being put into a mix’d herd of unruly boys, and there learning to wrangle at trap, or rook at span-farthing, fits him for civil conversation or business, I do not see. And what qualities are ordinarily to be got from such a troop of play-fellows as schools usually assemble together from parents of all kinds, that a father should so much covet, is hard to divine. I am sure, he who is able to be at the charge of a tutor at home, may there give his son a more genteel carriage, more manly thoughts, and a sense of what is worthy and becoming, with a greater proficiency in learning into the bargain, and ripen him up sooner into a man, than any at school can do. Not that I blame the schoolmaster in this, or think it to be laid to his charge. The difference is great between two or three pupils in the same house, and three or four score boys lodg’d up and down: for let the master’s industry and skill be never so great, it is impossible he should have fifty or an hundred scholars under his eye, any longer than they are in the school together: Nor can it be expected, that he should instruct them successfully in any thing but their books; the forming of their minds and manners requiring a constant attention, and particular application to every single boy, which is impossible in a numerous flock, and would be wholly in vain (could he have time to study and correct every one’s particular defects and wrong inclinations) when the lad was to be left to himself, or the prevailing infection of his fellows, the greatest part of the four and twenty hours.

But fathers, observing that fortune is often most successfully courted by bold and bustling men, are glad to see their sons pert and forward betimes; take it for an happy omen that they will be thriving men, and look on the tricks they play their school-fellows, or learn from them, as a proficiency in the art of living, and making their way through the world. But I must take the liberty to say, that he that lays the foundation of his son’s fortune in virtue and good breeding, takes the only sure and warrantable way. And ’tis not the waggeries or cheats practis’d amongst school-boys, ’tis not their roughness one to another, nor the well-laid plots of robbing an orchard together, that make an able man; but the principles of justice, generosity, and sobriety, join’d with observation and industry, qualities which I judge school-boys do not learn much of one another. And if a young gentleman bred at home, be not taught more of them than he could learn at school, his father has made a very ill choice of a tutor. Take a boy from the top of a grammar-school, and one of the same age bred as he should be in his father’s family, and bring them into good company together, and then see which of the two will have the more manly carriage, and address himself with the more becoming assurance to strangers. Here I imagine the school-boy’s confidence will either fail or discredit him; and if it be such as fits him only for the conversation of boys, he were better to be without it.

Vice, if we may believe the general complaint, ripens so fast now-a-days, and runs up to seed to early in young people, that it is impossible to keep a lad from the spreading contagion, if you will venture him abroad in the herd, and trust to chance or his own inclination for the choice of his company at school. By what fate Vice has so thriven amongst us these years past, and by what hands it has been nurs’d up into so uncontroul’d a dominion, I shall leave to others to enquire. I wish that those who complain of the great decay of Christian piety and virtue every where, and of learning and acquir’d improvements in the gentry of this generation, would consider how to retrieve them in the next. This I am sure, that if the foundation of it be not laid in the education and principling of the youth, all other endeavours will be in vain. And if the innocence, sobriety, and industry of those who are coming up, be not taken care of and preserv’d, ’twill be ridiculous to expect, that those who are to succeed next on the stage, should abound in that virtue, ability, and learning, which has hitherto made England considerable in the world. I was going to add courage too, though it has been look’d on as the natural inheritance of Englishmen. What has been talk’d of some late actions at sea, of a kind unknown to our ancestors, gives me occasion to say, that debauchery sinks the courage of men; and when dissoluteness has eaten out the sense of true honour, bravery seldom stays long after it. And I think it impossible to find an instance of any nation, however renown’d for their valour, who ever kept their credit in arms, or made themselves redoubtable amongst their neighbours, after corruption had once broke through and dissolv’d the restraint of discipline, and vice was grown to such an head, that it durst shew itself barefac’d without being out of countenance.

’Tis virtue then, direct virtue, which is the hard and valuable part to be aim’d at in education, and not a forward pertness, or any little arts of shifting. All other considerations and accomplishments should give way and be postpon’d to this. This is the solid and substantial good which tutors should not only read lectures, and talk of, but the labour and art of education should furnish the mind with, and fasten there, and never cease till the young man had a true relish of it, and plac’d his strength, his glory, and his pleasure in it.

The more this advances, the easier way will be made for other accomplishments in their turns. For he that is brought to submit to virtue, will not be refractory, or resty, in any thing that becomes him; and therefore I cannot but prefer breeding of a young gentleman at home in his father’s sight, under a good governour, as much the best and safest way to this great and main end of education, when it can be had, and is order’d as it should be. Gentlemen’s houses are seldom without variety of company. They should use their sons to all the strange faces that come here, and engage them in conversation with men of parts and breeding, as soon as they are capable of it. And why those who live in the country should not take them with them, when they make visits of civility to their neighbours, I know not. This I am sure, a father that breeds his son at home, has the opportunity to have him more in his own company, and there give him what encouragement he thinks fit, and can keep him better from the taint of servants and the meaner sort of people, than is possible to be done abroad. But what shall be resolv’d in the case, must in great measure be left to the parents, to be determin’d by their circumstances and conveniences; only I think it the worst sort of good husbandry for a father not to strain himself a little for his son’s breeding; which, let his condition be what it will, is the best portion he can leave him. But if, after all, it shall be thought by some, that the breeding at home has too little company, and that at ordinary schools, not such as it should be for a young gentleman, I think there might be ways found out to avoid the inconveniences on the one side and the other.