Locke, John (1632–1704)

English thinker John Locke insisted both that children are potentially free and rational beings, and that the realization of these crucial human qualities tends to be thwarted through imposition of the sort of prejudice that perpetuates oppression and superstition. It was, Locke believed, upbringing and education that stymied development of children's humanity when the older generation, itself enmeshed in prejudice, preferred to maintain the status quo rather than to examine whether their lives qualified as truly human through the rational and free action characteristic of autonomous individuals. Locke argued that when an older generation imposes unquestioned beliefs and ways of action on its youth, the outcome is bondage rather than actualization of freedom.

The problem of the actualization and preservation of human freedom and rationality occupied Locke in all of his major works, from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and the Two Treatises of Government (1690), through his four letters Concerning Toleration (1689, 1690, 1692, 1704), The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), and the posthumous Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706). Both the promise of and danger to childhood emerged in each of these influential writings on philosophy, politics, religion, and education.

The Tabula Rasa

Locke characterized a newborn child's mind as a blank sheet of paper, a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Implicit is a doctrine of egalitarianism, well-known from the fourth paragraph of the Second Treatise of Government: There is "nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species…born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal amongst one another without Subordination or Subjection…. " This egalitarianism isone of the aspects of the modern view of human nature, so different from the Platonic or medieval outlooks with their inborn inequalities foundational to nature-or God-ordained hierarchies in society, church, and state. For Locke, there are no natural obstructions that would block development of children's native potential for acting freely and rationally. True, some possess more agile intellects or stronger wills than others; but all are innately equipped to become persons capable of freely following their own reason's pronouncements, that is, to become autonomous beings.

Egalitarianism is one of two consequences of the doctrine of the tabula rasa. The second is vulnerability. Young children are at risk because through their senses their environment inscribes on their minds all sorts of beliefs and practices. Reason would disapprove of most of these. But even if the inscriptions are rational, the young child's mind is still incapable of discerning them to be so; for all the child knows these so-called truths may be falsehoods. Hence their presence saddles the child with prejudice, and action based on prejudice will tend to be confining instead of liberating. So when he proclaimed all human beings equal from birth, Locke also had in mind the precarious position of children, their equal vulnerability to being habituated to wrong patterns of thought and behavior. Locke viewed prejudice as the root of evil. It is contracted especially through children's forced exposure to myopic parents or teachers and the self-serving powers of church and state. Thus early upbringing and education, guided by prevailing custom rather than by reason, can be disastrous as it rivets to the mind that which has the appearance of truth or goodness but which, once believed or enacted, blocks development of one's humanity.

For Locke, the only natural disposition all children and adults share is that which makes them pursue pleasure and avoid pain. In this pursuit or avoidance they are not naturally inclined to either good or evil. Originally, human beings occupy a position of neutrality: Children are born neither "trailing clouds of glory" (as Wordsworth would have it a century later) nor burdened with original sin (as Augustine proclaimed before the dawn of medieval times). To be human, children must acquire the inclination to act on what is true and good, and each must acquire it for herself or himself. Because there is neither original depravity nor original inclination to knowledge or goodness, the egalitarianism of the tabula rasa has moral import: to be human, each must personally stake her or his claim to truth and goodness. But because they cannot do so during the years of early childhood, this thorough egalitarianism remains coupled with thorough vulnerability. Each generation, itself imposed upon by the one that preceded it, tends to be more than willing to impose on children such principles and practices as will enhance their own power. And so each new generation is vulnerable to the bondage of prejudice, as custom habituates children into compliance with prevailing beliefs and practices.

The Role of Mathematics

How to escape the bondage of prejudice and develop childhood potential? Though central to these acts, children depend for their instigation on sensitive adults for whom life itself militates against prejudice. Oppressive social, religious, and political structures chafe and irritate these adults, forcing them to examine their legitimacy, which in turn reveals their irrational and hence immoral principles. During such examinations, sensitive persons will introspect and become aware of the workings of their rational minds and recognize that rational procedures are most clearly revealed in mathematics where prejudice–unlike in religion or politics–has no purchase. When such enlightened persons guide children, actualization of childhood potential becomes possible. As Locke writes in the sixth and seventh paragraphs of the Conduct of the Understanding, "mathematics …should be taught …not so much to make them mathematicians, as to make them reasonable creatures," for "having got the way of reasoning, which that study necessarily brings the mind to, they might be able to transfer it to other parts of knowledge."

Early upbringing guided by the prevailing custom of overprotecting and spoiling children will not equip them with the habit of self-discipline needed to give mathematical studies the focused attention they demand. Hence, in the early parts of Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke propounds a regimen that will make for strong and disciplined children. His instructions are very specific: children's winter clothes should be as light as their summer clothes; their shoes should be thin to let in water, and their feet should be washed daily in cold water; they must spend much time in the open air without a hat whether in wind, sun, or rain and little time by the heat of the hearth; they must not overeat, and their diet should be very plain with little sugar, salt, or spices, no wine, and lots of dry brown bread; they should get plenty of sleep on a hard bed, but rise early. With this routine "there will not be so much need of beating children as is generally made use of"; their growing self-discipline will tend to make the rod superfluous. For "the principle of all virtue and excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires where reason does not authorize them," a power "to be got and improved by custom, made easy and familiar by an early practice" (para. 38).

Mastery in mathematics allows children to recognize and use the procedures of reason, to discern and reject prejudice where it occurs (so cleaning the slate of its irrational inscriptions), and to develop a life in which their own will and reason begin to determine them. It allows children to develop into autonomous, useful individuals who will understand "the natural rights of man," "will seek the true measures of right and wrong," and will apply themselves "to that wherein [they] may be serviceable to [their] country" (para. 186–187).

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, Europe; Enlightenment, The.


Gutman, Amy. 1987. Democratic Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Locke, John. 1960 [1690]. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 1975 [1690]. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Locke, John. 1989 [1693]. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. John W. Yolton and Jean S. Yolton. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John. 1996. Some Thoughts Concerning Education; and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company.

Schouls, Peter A. 1992. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.