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How to educate your child in the seventeenth century

The end of summer and beginning of autumn mean that children and young adults worldwide are heading back to school. While much has changed since the time of the seventeenth century, such as which children were allowed to go to school and which weren’t, and what they were taught there – one thing that has not changed is the worry a parent feels about their child getting the best education they can. In these series of excerpts from letters from the seventeenth century, we can see how ideas about education have evolved and changed in the past 300-some years.

John Locke to Mary Clarke [née Jepp] 1685, on teaching dancing at home

“Girls should have a dancing master at home early: it gives them fashion and easy comely motion betimes which is very convenient, and they, usually staying at home with their mothers, do not lose it again, whereas the boys commonly going to school, they lose what they learn of a dancing master at home amongst their illfashioned schoolfellows, which makes it often less necessary because less useful for the boys to learn to dance at home when little: though if they were always to play at home in good company I should advise it for them too. If the girls are also by nature very bashful, it would be good that they should go also to dance publicly in the dancing schools when little till their sheepishness were cured; but too much of the public schools may not perhaps do well, for of the two, too much shamefacedness better becomes a girl than too much confidence, but having more admired than considered your sex I may perhaps be out in these matters, which you must pardon me.”

Instructions for the education of Edward Clarke’s children by John Locke, 1686, on the proper way of teaching Latin

“When your son can read English perfectly, the next thing, of course, to be learnt is Latin, which however necessary I allow it to be, yet the ordinary way of learning it in a grammar school, is that, which having long had thoughts about, I can by no means approve of. The reasons against it are so evident and cogent, that they have prevailed with some intelligent persons you have known to quit the ordinary road, not without success, though the method made use of was not exactly that which I would have proposed. Mine in short is this: to trouble the child with no rules of grammar at all, but to have Latin, as English has been, without the perplexity of rules, talked into him. For if you will consider it, Latin is no more unknowne to a child, when he comes into the world, than English: and yet he learns English without master, rule, or grammar: and so ought he Latin too, if he had somebody always to talk to him in this language. When we so often see a Frenchwoman teach a young girl to speak and read French perfectly, in a year or two, without one rule of grammar, or anything else, but prattling to her; I cannot but wonder how gentlewomen have overseen this way for their sons, and thought them more dull and incapable than their daughters. If therefore a man could be got, who himself speaks good Latin, who would always be about your son, and talk constantly to him, that would be the true and genuine way of teaching him Latin…  ”

Wooden desk with apple by JJ Thompson. CCO Public Domain via Unsplash.

James Tyrrell to John Locke, 1687, on seeing his son off to school safely, and the daughter being sent off to live with a relative instead

“She much desired that Jemmy should be bred under your care; and therefore should be glad to know what encouragement you can give me of puting him to school at Utrecht to learne French and perfect his latine; and greek. if you know of ever a good Master there that takes boarders. I have thoughts of bringing him over the next spring or summer at farthest. and to stay in those parts till winter againe, to see him setled; and to enjoy your good company, one of the greatest satisfactions I propose to my self in the Journey. however whether I bring him over or not I intend to come over to you; and will then be out of your debt before I returne. this winter I shall not dissolve my Family: but intend it next spring and shall then put out my yonger son to school: and my daughter to a relation of my wives to be bred according to her last will.”

William Fitzhugh to Nicholas Hayward, 1690, on his son learning foreign languages

“Sir This year I was designed to have sent home my eldest son to School there & did intend to request of your care of him & kindness to him, but accidentally meeting wt. a french Minister, a sober, learned & discreet Gentleman, whom I persuaded to board & tutor him, which he hath undertaken, in whose family there is nothing but french spoken which by a continuall Converse, will make him perfect in that tongue, & he takes a great deal of pains & care to teach him Latin, both which go on hitherto very well together”

 Featured Image Credit:  Book, read, reading, bookmark, and page by Ben White. CCO Public Domain via  Unsplash.

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