Locke, Rousseau, and the Modern Education System

Locke, Rousseau, and the Modern Education System

The Foundations of Public Education

Locke and Rousseau are widely known for their philosophic discourses concerning government and the rights of individuals. Because the ability to understand these philosophic musings is central to creating proper government and social processes, education becomes a central discussion. Within this context, both Locke and Rousseau provide discourse on education that has become an important foundation on which public education is designed today.

John Locke

Locke, Rousseau, and the Modern Education System
By Godfrey Kneller — 1. Unknown source2. derivate work of File:Godfrey Kneller — Portrait of John Locke (Hermitage).jpg (from, Public Domain,

In Locke, one can see the evolution of philosophy from the ancient Greeks as Locke builds his educational philosophy on the concept of virtue. According to Locke, the focus of education needs to be on the construction of virtuous men. This concept is the offspring of Plato and Aristotle as they both defined the goal of a person is to be virtuous. In the case of Locke, the morphology of virtue becomes the “Principle of Virtue” that Locke explains as:

…without showing a law that commands or forbids [people], moral goodness will be but an empty sound, and those actions which the schools here call virtues or vices may by the same authority be called by contrary names in another country; and if there be nothing more than their decisions and determinations in the case, they will be still nevertheless indifferent as to any man’s practice, which will by such kind of determinations be under no obligation to observe them (Gianoutsos, 2015).

Within this context Locke is defining virtue as the adherence to sets of rule that are the refection of a superior authority. This teleological argument is based from Locke’s conceptual reasoning of what is “natural law” and within this reasoning Locke proposes that education must serve the function of creating virtuous man not a scholar. In accordance with Locke’s concept of the natural law, in order for humans to function properly they must embrace reason over passions which becomes the fundamental basis for education. Locke states this idea succinctly:

It seems plain to me, that the principle of all virtue and excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires when reason does not authorize them. I would advise to the ordinary way, children should be used to submit their desires, and go without their longings, even from their very cradles (Cahn, 2012).

Despite this strong belief that education is designed to create men who are reasonable and in control of their passions, Lock argues some paradoxical ideas in terms of how education should be instilled in the student. While Locke is attempting to create a system of education that produces rational and self-controlled individuals, he advocates a middle of the road approach to teaching in which children are given a large autonomy for learning which is provided by restraint with punishment and reward within his learning institution. This idea at first seems to contradict the intended product but Locke is proposing that the student come to embrace the learning experience of his own accord. These attributes for education that Locke provides have profound meaning in the context of modern education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Locke, Rousseau, and the Modern Education System

By Maurice Quentin de La Tour — Unknown source, Public Domain

Rousseau’s concept of education is presented in Èmile. Èmile is described in terms of his education and development in the manner in which Rousseau would prescribe. The foundation on which Rousseau’s education is the “natural man”. This a person uncorrupted by the thinking of society which involves specific educational system for each stage of life. Rousseau stresses a system of education that is based on natural world with concepts such as physical education and even the need for breast feeding. He stresses these ideas because he believes that by developing the natural and physical elements of a person, they will have better senses through which to acquire knowledge. His philosophy on education is detailed as it presents concepts such as developing trade and skill knowledge which develops eye hand coordination as well as other physical skills that interlace with the senses.

In teenage years, Rousseau advocates the use of private tutors for formal education. Like Locke, Rousseau believes that students in this stage should only study those things with he or she finds of interest. Reason is also only possible in this stage because prior to puberty children are not able to reason beyond their passions. It is also in this stage that students should begin formal religious study. This form of study should be approached with open discourse as this will allow students to discover and appreciate God in their own way. Throughout Èmile’s education, he is sheltered and it is no until the end of the education process that Èmile can enter the world without fear of being corrupted by the many vices and irrationalities that exist.

Impact of Locke and Rousseau

Both Locke and Rousseau are primarily concerned with education from a value point rather than a curriculum. The impact of this thinking is apparent in all levels of education as most education institutions teacher specific values such as honesty, honor, proper conduct, etc. The instilling of values through education was however, tempered by the need to achieve this through critical thought. Both Locke and Rousseau provide a basis for education and discovery based on their empiricism. Unlike prior philosophers, Locke and Rousseau do not discuss principles and knowledge in terms of innate qualities but rather are learned through sensory perception. This is a fundamental shift in how people conceptualized themselves in terms of knowledge. This thinking was in direct violation of the existing education system which favored a more dogmatic approach.

In the US and Europe empiricism had a dramatic impact on education as it advocated for a different form of treatment based on the age and reasoning abilities of children. For instance, both Locke and Rousseau advocate teaching children in different ways than adults. This difference is profound in the area of early childhood education which advocates teaching children in relation to their specific abilities. The direct reflection of their philosophies are present in education in the manner in which children are viewed through their age related cognitive and physical attributes.

Early childhood psychologists and academics recognize that beginning in infancy there are a variety of cognitive changes in development. From infancy (birth to 2 years) is a time when children develop cognitively, which is dependent on their interactions with other people. Children start to develop basic “human trait-emotional bonds to other human beings, nonverbal communication and language expression, motor exploration of the physical environment, and systematic approaches to learning about people, places, and things” (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). Infants will proceed through numerous physical changes such as being able to reach, crawl, and climb (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). As such physical activity and freedom to explore their physical attributes is necessary for proper development (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This early development is discussed at length by Locke and Rousseau. Locke views play as an essential ingredient for molding children properly because it reinforces freedom of thought as well as developing the child towards adulthood. Similarly, Rousseau, views play as an essential part of development:

Your first duty is to be humane. Love childhood. Look with friendly eyes on its games, its pleasures, its amiable dispositions. Which of you does not sometimes look back regretfully on the age when laughter was ever on the lips and the heart free of care? (Cahn, 2012, p. 137)

Rousseau outlines this idea as an attempt to create a civilized child while attempting to maintain the natural qualities such as inquisitiveness and reason. Because both Rousseau and Locke have based their concepts on the tabula rasa, they are inclined to see the child as needing play to reinforce rational thinking which ultimately leads to virtuous people. This extends into cognitive functions modern educators and psychologists recognize as being formed in dependency to parents and guardians.

Researchers recognize that the physical and cognitive development of a child is dependent on a secure attachment bond between parent and child (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This is described in terms of the family environment that provides the setting that the child feels secure within and thereby allowing the child to feel comfortable enough to experience his or her environment fully and are able to develop without restriction. “Feeling secure enhances the ability of the child to learn and develop healthy self-awareness, trust, and empathy” (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). This security allows not just for better learning but for better development. Children develop cognitively through their dependency on parents and other people they may have a dependency. Through this process of dependency children develop:

…basic human traits-emotional bonds to other human beings, nonverbal communication and language expression, motor exploration of the physical environment, and systematic approaches to learning about people, places, and things (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004, p. 18).

The next stage of development is the early childhood period which is from age 2 to 6. This period is characterized by cognitive developments including increased communication and language skills (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004). “Early childhood is a period of incredible creativity, fantasy, wonder, and play” and “more prone to “self-centered impulses” (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2004, p. 19). This research is an echo from Rousseau and Locke who express these ideas specifically. Locke states that parents should observe their children in an attempt to understand the impulses, “in those seasons of perfect freedom” and how the child uses his or her time (Gianoutsos, 2015). This observation is used to guide the child to correct behavior and to the proper methods of education. The dependency of the child ultimately provides the means for helping the child develop the greatest state of virtue and independence. Unlike Locke, Rousseau, sees this as necessary because the parent is attempting to raise the child in the most natural state possible. Rousseau sees this as being an essential ingredient to developing a free thinker.


While both Rousseau and Locke advocate education which is based on the development of values as well as knowledge, their philosophies are based on religious concepts. Ultimately, no matter how skeptically one arrives at belief in God and scripture these ideas are fundamental in their education process. Neither philosopher would take issue with religion and academics being taught together but this understanding was based on their Christian worldview which dominated society. This context no longer applies in education today because of the doctrine of separation of church and state. However, the controversy surrounding religion in public education continues.

Religion is an intrinsic part of history and social studies because of its history of being interconnected with law and government. This is problematic in a secular academic environment because when topics of religion inevitably occur, teachers must deal with the topics in a manner which is academic which often cuts against religious belief. For example, discussions of evolution continue to create controversy because there are many Christians who believe that intelligent design or creationism is how life was created.

Locke and Rousseau would likely see this problem in terms of the method of education being incorrect or that it is being polluted by the vices of society. There may yet be merit to this thinking. If the concept of religion is so intrinsic that people feel that it must be included in education than perhaps it should be in terms of history and social studies. Locke and Rousseau would likely agree but even to have subjects such as intelligent design to be discussed in biology, providing that an educator in this subject could show factual evidence to overcome natural skepticism.


Cahn, S. M. (2012). Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gianoutsos, J. (2015). LOCKE AND ROUSSEAU: EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. Journal of Baylor University, 4(1).

McDevitt, T., & Ormrod, J. (2004). Child Development: Educating and Working with Children and Adolescents (2 ed.). Princton , NJ: Prentice Hall.


Triola Vincent. Tue, Mar 02, 2021. Locke, Rousseau, and the Modern Education System Retrieved from

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