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"Who Is John Locke? - Commentary by Joseph C. Phillips"
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I am willing to wager my house that not one of my son’s seventh-grade classmates could identify John Locke in a photo. I am then willing to let that wager ride on another gamble that less than one percent of the seventh or eighth-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District would be able to identify Locke in a photo array of historical figures. Double or nothing that not only would they not know who he is, but they would also have no idea of why he is important. I would then bet my entire stack of chips that a substantially higher number of middle-school students could identify Karl Marx. I anticipate being a very wealthy man.
This venture came to my mind following an end of the year visit to my son’s middle-school.
My wife and I attended a parents’ night at our son’s school. As we entered his English classroom, I noticed that the walls of the classroom were covered with photos of Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, and Vladimir Lenin. The eighth-grade students had been studying George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” On every wall was a hand-made poster featuring a photo of Karl Marx, some biographical information, along with some pithy bit of wisdom attributed to him. As we left the room, I whispered to my son, “Tell your teacher that your father wants to know when she will teach the work of John Locke.” My son responded, “Who is John Locke?”
Written by George Orwell in 1945, “Animal Farm” is the allegorical tale of the wickedness and terror of Stalinist Russia. Significantly, the book is not a condemnation of Marxism. Rather it is a cautionary tale about Stalinism. “Animal Farm” is really a commentary on how Russian apathy and political corruption derailed the Marxist utopia. It’s also a rather cynical tale of the inevitability of totalitarianism.
Orwell’s novel also happens to be a fine piece of literature and one that I believe has a proper place in our children’s literary curriculum.
But was the problem with Stalinism only that it corrupted the Marxist ideal? Is totalitarianism the natural end of all forms of government, or are men capable of ruling themselves? Without the foundation of Locke, do American children have the philosophical foundation necessary to understand what is truly evil about Stalin and Marx and conversely, what is good and unique about America? I am concerned when young students can’t identify the source of the ideas upon which their nation was founded, but can easily identify men whose political beliefs are in direct opposition to those ideas.
Locke was a 17th century physician and philosopher and is also known as the father of empiricism—the theory that knowledge is gained through evidence acquired through experience. Locke developed his ideas in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” However, it is the publication of two books--“The First Treatise on Government,” and “The Second Treatise on Government,”--that makes Locke important to the study of political philosophy in general and the American founding in particular. In these great works, Locke refutes the divine right of kings and sets forth the nature of legitimate civil government, based on (what was at the time) the radical idea of natural rights and the social compact. It was the revolutionary ideas of natural rights and government limited to the occupation of securing those rights that influenced America’s founding fathers. Locke is quoted and paraphrased throughout much of America’s founding documents.
Over the years, there has been increasing pressure on America’s public schools to increase the level of math and English education. There has also been a corresponding decrease in the emphasis on teaching American history and civics. For instance, here in California, entrance requirements into the public university system call for only two years of history and government, as opposed to four in English and math.
But civic education is at least as important.
According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, civic knowledge not only “exerts a broader and more diverse influence on the American mind, but it also “increases a person’s regard for America’s ideals and free institutions.” In other words, the health of our republic depends on a citizenry educated in the history and source of its political ideals and the institutions those ideals produced. Certainly, that is as important as geometry. And if students must study literature, which they certainly should, why not read works that also have the benefit of teaching the source of the ideas of the American Revolution?
Between Karl Marx and John Locke, who is more important to our national political identity? So why are our children hanging posters of Marx on their classroom walls instead of Locke? I am not claiming that there is a Marxist conspiracy to indoctrinate our children. However, I do know that if we continue to neglect educating our children about the men on whose ideas this nation was built, this nation will not stand. The borders may remain the same, but the character of this nation will be lost forever.