Education: Locke versus Kant

pencils-150x100The education of children is a highly philosophical enterprise — the project is long-term, of great importance, requires a strategic understanding of human life, and puts our actual values to the test.

In my Philosophy of Education course, we spend much of our time finding where the rubber meets the road — that is, connecting philosophy’s theory to education’s practice.

One pair of contrasts is between John Locke’s and Immanuel Kant’s modern approaches to education. We can see, for example, how their philosophical assumptions about human nature and ethics lead to very different recommendations for education.

kant_50x64Here is Kant, from his lectures on education:

“Above all things, obedience is an essential feature in the character of a child, especially of a school boy or girl” (44).

Note the “above all things.” Obedience is the fundamental for Kant (connecting all the way back to overcoming the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: Disobedience).

How will the students learn obedience? Parents and teachers will impose structure upon them. There must be “a certain plan, and certain rules, in everything, and these must be strictly adhered to. For instance, they must have set times for sleep, for work, and for pleasure, and these times must be neither shortened nor lengthened” (44).

As to the child’s proper motivation: “One often hears is said that we should put everything before children in such a way that they shall do it from inclination. In some cases, it is true, this is all very well, but there is much besides which we must place before them as duty. For in the paying of rates and taxes, in the work of the office, and in many other cases, we must be led, not by inclination, but by duty. Even though a child should not be able to see the reason of a duty, it is nevertheless better that certain things should be prescribed to him in this way …” (45).

Duty is primary: We should do things because we are supposed to, not because we want to. That is the key life lesson.

Of course, kids will be kids and so often disobedient.

“Every transgression in a child is a want of obedience, and this brings punishment with it” (45).

Kant then goes into many paragraphs laying out a taxonomy of disobediences and the corresponding appropriate kinds of punishments.

So we have in Kant’s educational system: Duty, obedience/disobedience, and punishment.

Kant is very much in the Spare the rod and spoil the child tradition that goes back to Plato and much religiously-based education. (On Plato: Consider his allegory of the cave in Book 7 of Republic and note how often he uses the language of compulsion. As for religious education in the West: Recall St. Augustine’s dictum that, given Original Sin, “Per molestias eruditio” [“True education begins with physical abuse.”]) But even Kant recognizes the often harsh strictness of that tradition and, as a modern, softens it:

“Children should sometimes be released from the narrow constraint of school, otherwise their natural joyousness will soon be quenched” (46). Isn’t that a lovely image: School as a place that quenches any joy you might have.

All of this is in marked contrast to the modern Lockean approach

Here is Locke, from his Some Thoughts concerning Education (1692):

“I am very apt to think, that great severity of punishment does but very little good; nay, great harm in education: And I believe it will be found, that, ceteris paribus, those children who have been most chastised, seldom make the best men.”

How then do we teach children appropriate character and behavior?

“Manners, as they call it, about which children are so often perplexed … I think, are rather to be learned 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.”

Children are careful observers of their parents and teachers and want to look up to them and learn from them. Good character is naturally a matter of pride.

“Never trouble yourself about those faults in them, which you know age will cure.” Kids will be kids, so take their unruliness in stride rather than seeing it as the beast of Original Sin that must be beaten down.

And now to motivation in education: “great care is to be taken, that [education] be never made as a business to him, nor he look on it as a task. We naturally, as I said, even from our cradles, love liberty, and have therefore an aversion to many things, for no other reason, but because they are injoined us. I have always had a fancy, that learning might be made a play and recreation to children; and that they might be brought to desire to be taught, if it were proposed to them as a thing of honour, credit, delight, and recreation … .”

So we have in Locke’s education system: Liberty, play, and delight.

In Kant and Locke we have the two poles of modern education on the themes of motivation, discipline, and character.

Education as duty versus as education as delight.
Education for obedience versus education for liberty.
Education via imposed discipline versus education by setting an inspiring example.

kids-and-letters-100x123In the practice of education we make concretely real our abstract commitments.


John Locke, Some Thoughts concerning Education (1692).

Immanuel Kant, On Education. Translated by Annette Churton. University of Michigan Press, 1960. My page references for Kant are to the seventh edition of Ozmon and Craver’s Philosophical Foundations of Education.

3 thoughts on “Education: Locke versus Kant

  • November 8, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    In this context, Kant observes “duty” as something exogenously imposed on the mind (and on physical habits) rather than as “a sense of duty” to be evoked from the deontic – the sense of oughtness – nascent in each individual in some form or degree.

    How consistent is that with Kant’s view of the “finished product?”

  • November 11, 2009 at 7:29 am

    Yes, there is a gap from duty as externally imposed to duty as internalized. For Kant the former is a necessary starting point, and after enough repetition and then maturity the student will be able, if he chooses, to adopt it himself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *