John Locke: Of
the Conduct of the Understanding
Edited by F. W. Garforth
FOREWORD by Lawrence A. Cremin
Locke's treatise Of the Conduct of the Understanding differs significantly in style and format from its predecessor, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. The Thoughts took form in a series of letters to Edward Clarke on the rearing of his children, and the work itself bears the characteristic marks of its origin: it is loosely drawn, often repetitive, and generally informal in tone. The Conduct, on the other hand, was initially conceived as an addendum to the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and is in the character of that Essay, although at the same time more systematic and more abstruse. It can be read, as Mr. Garforth points out, both as an extension of the Essay, indicating the practical implications of the doctrines set forth there, and as a complement to the Thoughts, elaborating in particular those principles that apply to the cultivation of the intellect.
Yet the cast of the Thoughts and the Conduct is essentially the same. Taken together, they stand squarely within the tradition of Elyot's Governour, Brathwait's English Gentleman, and Chesterfield's Letters, as courtesy books addressed to the problem of educating a ruling class. They assume, in the fashion of the genre, that the ideal training for leadership takes place, not in schools and universities, but within the family, and they sketch the principles for making that training noble, responsible, and effective.
Twentieth-century Americans, instructed by the histories of Paul Monroe, Frank P. Graves, and others, have tended to view Locke as a "formalist" in education, citing as evidence his assertions in the Conduct regarding the role of particular studies in the training of the mind. But such a reading is oversimplified -- as Stephen Duggan and V. T. Thayer pointed out years ago -- as well as anachronistic, for as it construes a seventeenth-century pedagogical treatise in the terms of nineteenth-century theories of formal discipline. Locke was far too wise a man to argue either that the intellect can be disciplined by concentration on a few well-chosen studies or that there is so little transfer of training as to make all talk of intellectual discipline senseless. He merely assumed, as present-day educators are coming again to recognize, that one crucial element of an education is learning how to learn, and that some approaches to this task are perhaps more valuable than others. It is Locke's formulation of the problem as well as the particular solutions he proposed that make the Conduct contemporary and worthy of the most careful study and consideration.