The most famous English philosopher of the 17th century was John Locke (1632-1704) whose published works covered a wide range of subjects. However, one of his most widely read books was Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) which remained a classic of progressive education for almost two centuries and still has relevance today.  It is refreshing to know that some of the problems of raising children and their education have remained remarkably constant over the years. 

Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Locke wrote that “The most precious of all possessions is power over ourselves”.  Clearly therefore education and upbringing should strive to develop self-discipline.  However, this extended beyond personal actions to thoughts and opinions.  “Few men think”, he wrote “yet all will have opinions.  Hence men’s opinions are superficial and confused.”  The answer is to hold opinions only in light of demonstrable evidence and experiences and to regard logic as “the anatomy of thought”.  Belief should serve evidence.  Evidence should not serve belief.  

With regard to parenting, as the “only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it” and our knowledge cannot exceed our experience, it is clear that children are incapable of realistically anticipating their future and must rely upon the experience of their parents and teachers to navigate it.  However, this requires a certain humility on the part of the young to acknowledge that what they know does not determine the full scope and limits of human knowledge.  Devoid of that realization they become prisoners of their own limitations.  Correspondingly, it also requires possessing a certain degree of deference for age as having provided the opportunity to develop this knowledge and wisdom.   

It remains to be seen whether these pre-existing conditions are sufficiently present today to allow children to benefit from the experience of their elders.   Future progress depends upon this dynamic for if we cannot build upon the experiences of the present generation, the next generation is doomed to repeat their mistakes or even make worse ones.  Societies can advance, stay the same or go backwards.   It is the process of parenting and teaching that determine the outcome.  Therefore, education in one form or another is the most important dynamic of ongoing human existence. 

An additional factor that Locke did not mention was the willingness on the part of adults to impart knowledge from their experience.  One can infer from Locke’s discussion that this was an assumption that he did not feel necessary to make explicit.  After all, adults as parents and teachers were traditionally considered as leaders.  But perhaps we have moved on from that to a position of being just fellow travelers.