Critical Thinking with John Locke and Unflattening

Kenneth Pichler, Jr.

John Locke was a famous philosopher and political theorist who lived during the 17th century. He is often regarded as the founder of a school of thought known as British Empiricism and he made foundational contributions to modern theories. According to Patrick J. Connolly, "He was also influential in the areas of theology, religious toleration, and educational theory. In his most important work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke set out to offer an analysis of the human mind and its acquisition of knowledge."

John Locke did not believe in innate ideas; those which you are essentially born with. Instead he fostered the idea that our mind was more like a blank slate. Experiences gained through senses and reflection filled this slate. He believed that, instead of actually experiencing the world first hand, we indirectly experience it through representations or other people.

We are brought into this world and not allowed to form our own ideas, but instead to conform to society and given our way of thinking from a blank slate. Locke believed everyone sees the world differently but, through one's own experiences, were able to form images and our own point of view. Therefore, we are able to associate or relate to one another. As Dr. Sousanis points out in Unflattening1 that we are born into society or a system that we are expected to go through life a certain distinct way without making our own impression a "flatness." An example of this in Unflattening is in the pictures of how we're like robots going through the motions of life without our own way of thinking.

John Locke would agree. In his essay Concerning Human Understanding, we are taught how and what to think from an early age; the "blank slate." There is a perfect example of this on page 10 of Unflattening. Students are sitting at a desk and the teacher is shooting tentacles of information out of his mouth into the students' heads. The teacher is telling them what to know and what is expected of them in order for them to be successful.

There is also assigned seating in the educational system which we are taught at a very early age. It's as if we are puppets going through the motion of life as described in chapter 7 of Unflattening. Is it wrong, though, to go through life in a certain way like assigned seating? A study done by Angela Hammang at Montana State University found that when carefully crafted seating charts were in effect, teachers were twice as successful reaching students and that the attainment of lower ability students was doubled.

My questions are:

  1. Is learning a certain way wrong?

  2. Does the child who solves the math problem without following the teacher's specific steps wrong?

  3. Are there endless possibilities of learning or gaining knowledge?

  4. Is there a right or wrong way learning?

  5. Are people only susceptible to gain knowledge through experiences?

  6. Are we trained or taught how or what to think like in the military?

    1Chapters one and two; specifically pages 3-10.

For Further Reading

    Aaron, Richard. John Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955. Print.

    Connolly, Patrick J. "John Locke (1632-1704)." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Nd. Web.

    Dunn, John. John Locke: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U, 1984. Print.

    Fritsch, Christopher N. "A review of John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture by John Marshall." Seventeenth-Century News. 65.1-2 (2007). Print.

    Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1947. Print.

    Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard Univerity Press, 2015. Print.





Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait of John Locke, 1697.