Monday, September 1, 2014

Learning Virtue from John Locke

John Locke, living in a culture in which “education” primarily meant sending a boy to a public boarding school to learn classics, questions the wisdom of that cultural norm. The boys also, he points out, generally learn to be scoundrels at school. Is the acquisition of Greek and Latin really worth the price of a child’s virtue and innocence? As a remedy, Locke advocates homeschooling by a tutor, consisting mostly of training in virtue, and he points out that virtue should be taught by example and the training of habit, not by rules, which may easily be forgotten.

Locke has my sympathy in his admiration of schooling at home and in his advice to train the young in virtuous behavior. But beside the obvious problem of the need to train virtue in children whose parents can’t afford a private tutor’s complete salary, I’m not sure I see Greek and Latin as in opposition to the learning of virtue. The discipline required to acquire a reading fluency in these ancient languages is itself an education in the virtue of perseverance. And if Locke doesn’t want children learning virtue from Homer or Cicero, he can have his Greek and Latin scholars reading the Bible in those languages.

Locke does appreciate the value of intellectual learning; he just thinks it should come later in life. Children should get shallow overviews of each field of study, he says; leave the details to adults. While I don’t entirely agree, he grabbed my attention with this sentence:
A gentleman, that would penetrate deeper, must do it by his own genius and industry afterwards: for nobody ever went far in knowledge, or became eminent in any of the sciences, by the discipline and constraint of a master.
I saw myself in that sentence. I don’t pretend to be all that an English person might mean by the word “gentleman,” but didn’t I start my own liberal education, pursue it by the energy of my own inner vision, and stick with it by the strength of my own persistence? Could I have done this even as a teenager? I don’t see it. But then, maybe, if I had been told from the age of 7 or so that such an education were possible . . . .

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