chapter  14
LOCKE ON THE EDUCATION OF PAUPERS
ByPeter Gay
Pages 2

Locke addressed his little book on education to a gentleman, on the subject of the education of that gentleman’s son and in the hope that other gentlemen would read it. It never occurred to him that every child should be educated or that all those to be educated should be educated alike. Locke believed that until the school system was reformed, a gentleman ought to have his son trained at home by a tutor, and he devoted some lengthy paragraphs of his Some Thoughts Concerning Education to the proper qualifications of such a tutor. As for the poor, they do not appear in Locke’s little book at all, and we have to gather his ideas from a document he wrote in 1697. In his capacity as a commissioner of trade and plantations, Locke drafted a plan for the revision of the Elizabethan Poor Law in light of the almost overwhelming problem of pauperism in England.1 The increase of the poor, he wrote, meant an increase in the burden of local taxation designed to provide for them. One way out was to prevent their debauchery by closing down taverns; another was to compel beggars to do hard labor at soldier’s pay. But the most burdensome question was the children. Here Locke suggested some drastic remedies, remedies which seem oddly out of place with his general humanitarianism and which demonstrate that to seventeenth-century thinkers, even to radicals, the poor were barely human: “If any boy or girl, under fourteen years of age, shall be found begging out of the parish where they dwell…they shall be sent to the next working school, there to be soundly whipped and kept at work till evening, so that they may be dismissed time enough to get to their place of abode that night.”2 Since most of the children of the poor lived in vicious idleness, Locke proposed that “working schools be set up in every parish, to which the children of all such as demand relief of the parish, above three and under fourteen years of age, whilst they live at home with their parents, and are not otherwise employed for their livelihood by the allowance of the overseers of the poor, shall be obliged to come.”3 This would give the mothers liberty to work and the children better food than they would obtain at home: “If…care be taken that they have each of them their belly-full of bread daily at school, they will be in no danger of famishing, but, on the contrary, they will be healthier and stronger than those who are bred otherwise.”4 This diet, Locke thought, should be supplemented “in cold weather, if it be thought needful,” with “a little warm water gruel.”5 Since the children would be earning their way with

what they produced, Locke added thoughtfully, the education of paupers would cost the parish nothing. I need hardly point out that these working schools did not offer such subjects as French or Latin, but confined themselves to teaching the little paupers such manual skills as “spinning or knitting, or some other part of woollen manufacture” and such edifying matters as “some sense of religion.”6 That was all; those who counted needed a knowledge of geography and French, some dancing ability, and much skill in conversation, but the poor did not count-not yet.