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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
III. Locke and Milton
By Professor H. W. Holmes
IN the history of education the seventeenth century is a period of much interest and importance. It is a time of earnest thought, of noble expression, and of zealous and faithful effort; yet throughout the century educational progress is at best sporadic. For education, it is a century of preparation. That the reformers of the period were thus pioneers whose endeavor bore, for the most part, little immediate fruit, was an almost inevitable consequence of the circumstances of their day.  1
  Theirs was an age of reorganization in religion, in political life, and in philosophy and science. The Thirty Years’ War and the Civil War in England were conflicts in which the basis of modern religious toleration was laid in suffering and desolation. In America the Colonies were begun. In England the continued struggle with the House of Stuart resulted in the assurance of political liberty, to be secured at length by an evolution without the price of blood which the Continent, and especially France, had later on to pay. On the Continent itself, despotisms, big and little, were strengthened, often to the direct detriment of education. Meanwhile modern science had its birth in the work of many a courageous intellectual adventurer, from Kepler and Galileo, astronomers, to Harvey, physiologist.  2
  Francis Bacon was herald and journalist of that revolt against scholasticism which attacked mediæval error and superstition by the new method of observation, experiment, and inductive reasoning. With the writings of Descartes and his contemporaries began modern philosophy. In a century of such spiritual and material disturbance, what wonder that there should have been much inspiration to educational effort, with but little fixed accomplishment?  3
  A new world of knowledge had already been partly explored; but the schoolmasters had not entered it, and it was only years afterward that science became even meagerly available for school purposes. A new method had also been discovered, a method not more important in the search for truth than in the attainment of intellectual freedom; but the schoolmasters did not know it, or thought less of intellectual freedom than of more obvious results in linguistic proficiency. A new need for universal education had begun to be foreseen; but to the schoolmasters of the seventeenth century democracy was not even a Utopian promise. Schools remained, therefore, narrow in curriculum and authoritative in method, and education the opportunity of the privileged. Writers on practical school keeping, such as John Brimsley and Charles Hoole, were more concerned over improvements in the teaching of the classics than over fundamental changes in programs of study, in the spirit of instruction and discipline, or in the extension of educational opportunity.  4

  To dream, therefore, in that time, of an educational system, state-administered, state-supported, compulsory, and hence democratic; a system serving the varying need of all individuals, yet aiming in the education of each at a socially valuable result; a system culminating in great academies of research and experiment, with parallel graduate schools for professional training, including the training of teachers; a system, finally, in which all subjects were to be taught and learned by the mind-freeing method of science, and all schools, classes, and subjects to be ordered and managed in natural yet effective ways: this was an achievement, even among reformers. This dream and a life of effort to realize it must be credited to the greatest educator of the century, who was neither John Locke nor John Milton, but the Moravian bishop, John Amos Comenius.

  It cannot be denied that neither Locke’s “Thoughts on Education” 1 nor Milton’s “Tractate on Education” 2 is a document of such historical importance as the chief work of Comenius, “The Great Didactic.” Indeed we might well wish that both Locke and Milton had studied this treatise and had written in the light of it. Their minds, better trained, both of them, than that of the Moravian, and more highly endowed by nature, might have given more permanently profitable form to his far-reaching projects. At it is, Locke does not refer to Comenius’s work at all, and Milton refers to it only slightingly, as by hearsay. Accordingly, although we have in the “Thoughts” an essay on the education of a gentleman’s son at home, with the improvements on current practice suggested by the sound sense of one of the first modern psychologists and one of the most clear-headed of moral philosophers, and in the “Tractate” a scheme for the education of the better classes under requirements suggested by the vigorous mentality of a great poet and an ardent patriot, we can find in neither much sympathy with the new movement for science nor any forecast of democracy in and through education.
  Yet these works of Locke and Milton are still readable and profitable English essays, whereas the “Didactica Magna” (which was first written in Czech and later translated by its author into Latin) is now to be remembered chiefly as an important document in the history of education.  7
  The power of Milton’s prose, his generous vision, and his place in English literature and English history lend an interest to the “Tractate” aside from any present pertinence in Milton’s practical suggestions. Locke’s place in English philosophy and the insight and consistency of his views, especially as to the government of children in the home, give to the “Thoughts” a permanent value. If we read Milton’s essay for the vigor and dignity of its style and for its general inspiration, admitting the present inapplicability of most of its detailed proposals, it will well repay us. If we take into account the avowed limitation of scope in Locke’s treatise and make due allowance for the conditions of life and schooling in his day, we may still find his advice worthy of careful study.  8

  The aim of education set forth in the “Tractate” is majestic: “I call therefore a compleat and generous Education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and publick, of Peace and War.” It is plain that the complexity of modern life makes it hopeless for any individual now to realize this ideal. But it may be noted that Milton’s conception of education agrees with the modern conception in that it is social. The individual is to be prepared for the duties of life, not cultivated merely for the possession of accomplishments or learning. Indeed the burden of the “Tractate” is that learning is to be put to use. Milton insists, therefore, that the first principle of that “better education in extent and comprehension far more large” for which he pleads, shall be emphasis on matter rather than on form. Education is to be primarily through literature and is to begin with Latin grammar—to this extent is Milton conventional; but it is to come rapidly to the place where the content and meaning of the books to be studied—“the substance of good things”—shall be chiefly the aim in view. This advice is as sound to-day as it ever was; and if it is less needed, it is still not without application. Abstractions and technicalities of form so easily encumber teaching that we may hardly expect ever to outgrow the warning not to give our pupils “ragged notions and babblements, while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge.”
  If, then, Milton’s scheme of national academies wherein picked youths are to be brought to a mastery of every art, science, and profession be impracticable, we need not therefore fail to find in this brief but pithy essay an ideal to be cherished. It is a plea for sound learning. Learning to-day may be had from sources unknown to Milton, and many sources he esteemed highly are to-day quite unimportant; but sound learning, now as then, is learning which comes at the realities of life. The author of “Lycidas” and “Comus” can never be accused of forgetting the requirements of form. We may heed him the more, therefore, when he warns us against “intellective abstractions” for “young unmatriculated Novices” and the learning of “meer words or such things chiefly, as were better unlearnt.” Happily it is one effort of modern education, from the first teaching of reading and arithmetic to the highest studies of the university, to make learning serve life and to make life illuminate learning.  10

  In Locke’s “Thoughts” we have no such comprehensive scheme as is presented in the “Tractate.” At another time Locke sketched in outline a national system of education; here he deals only with the home training of a gentleman’s son. He scorns the schools of the day, and urges great care in the selection of a tutor. Since Locke’s time schools have so improved that he might now revise his opinion on this point, as he might on others; for it must be confessed that Locke was not in the modern sense a student of child psychology, nor of mental and physical development in general. Thus his advice on the feeding of children, the general tenor of which is good, could hardly be followed with safety in detail. But for us the chief interest of Locke’s essay is in his conception of the moral discipline of children by their parents and teachers; and since he was a man of keen observation, wide experience, clear principles, and much human sympathy, his remarks on this subject are worth careful study.
  The gist of his counsel may be put thus: abandon the rod, except as a last resort; abandon scolding, threats, rules, rewards, arguments, and persuasion; train to right thinking and right action through the use of approval and affection, with all their normal accompaniment of benefits, when children behave properly, and of disapproval and coldness, with their natural consequences in the withdrawal of pleasures and companionship, when children misbehave. But above all, use this moral discipline morally—that is, with direct reference to your child’s motives, to his will in the matter, not with reference merely to the outward effect of his actions. Locke urges, in reality, a steady, consistent, sympathetic, yet dispassionate moral pressure as the surest means of bringing children to good conduct. He would have them learn “to love what they ought to love and hate what they ought to hate” as a matter first of habit, to be approved by reason only as they mature: but from the beginning he would have children act not in mere conformity to external requirements, but with a willing adoption of standards always clearly revealed and, as time goes on, properly explained. He would use authority as a moral agent to induce purpose.  12
  There is wisdom in Locke’s words. Even under more modern conceptions of child nature, parents can hardly find general principles better than those he gives for guidance in the concrete exigencies of moral training in the home. All moral training is difficult, because it demands character and judgment: it is truly as much a “training of parents” as of children. But although there is much to be learned from modern writing on many an aspect of child life of which John Locke was wholly ignorant, he put in his way certain essential truths which have often been put since in different terms but to the same effect.  13
  As to learning, Locke agrees with the fundamental point in Milton’s “Tractate.” In Latin, he decries overemphasis on grammar and would substitute for it extended reading. He would also combine with literary study a training in handicraft, which parallels Milton’s scheme of learning from workers in the various fields of practical activity. But the contrast between Locke’s point of view, which is individualistic, and Milton’s, which is national, is brought out by the fact that Milton would have practical men teach his young academicians with a view to the serious use of their knowledge and skill in public affairs, whereas Locke looks upon a handicraft chiefly as a good gentlemanly avocation.  14
  On one point Locke has been generally misinterpreted. He has been held to be a typical advocate of the “doctrine of formal discipline”—the doctrine which asserts that studies are to be chosen not because of their objective usefulness but because of their supposed efficacy in the training of some intellectual “faculty” or in the production of an obscurely defined (and in reality wholly mythical) “general power.” The passage on the training of memory, § 176, is clear proof that Locke held no such views as have been imputed to him. He did insist, to be sure, on the necessity of intellectual and moral discipline, but only on such discipline of specific habits of mind and will as is generally admitted to be possible and desirable.  15
  These two essays were written some three hundred years ago. They reflect many customs, standards, and traditions foreign to modern thought. They name men and books most modern readers never heard of. Their authors were not even imbued with some of the most forward-looking conceptions and ideals of their own day. But, these things admitted, we must also admit that the essays are essentially fresh and valuable still—and profit by their wisdom if we can. 3  16
Note 1. Harvard Classics, iii, 233ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xxxvii, 9ff. [back]
Note 3. The best single book on education in the seventeenth century is Adamson’s “Pioneers of Modern Education,” Cambridge University Press. [back]

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