Week Ten: Locke
By Lee Trepanier, March 14, 2012 in Pedagogy and Teaching

This week we went over Locke’s social contract theory. I always have found students instinctively agree with Locke’s ideas and arguments, which comes to no surprise given his influence on the American character. The challenge I find in teaching Locke to American students is to make them understand how new his ideas were during his times. Students take them for granted – it was always like this and always will be – an attitude that they shouldn’t assume given the difficulty of sustaining self-governance.

Image credit: John Locke by moto browniano, on Flickr

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Khalil Habib on Mar 14, 2012 at 10:43 am

That's a great point, Lee. I run into the same issue as well. Sometimes these great thinkers are too successful in transforming minds and create an atmosphere were their thought seems second nature to us later.

Patrick Peel on Mar 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Khalil and Lee - I agree with both of you; as Khalil says, Locke's "language of politics" has so infused ours that it's sometimes difficult for our students to see that the concepts they use were shaped by Locke, and thus that's why it seems so natural.

There is a good essay I assign to my students on the historical context of Locke - Mark Goldie's essay, "The English Spirit of Liberty," in The Cambridge History of the Eighteenth Century Political Thought - that I think helps then see the radicalness of Locke's views.

In addition, I tend to highlight the dis-similarities too: the omnipotence of the legislative branch (contra our separation of powers idea); the Hobbesian notion in Locke that there must be in every political system some, as Blackstone says, absolute uncontrollable, political authority (a view that Americans basically rejected via the separation of powers, federalism, and the idea of popular sovereignty); the lack of a judiciary power to review the constitutionality of decisions made by the legislative branch (Locke only has the idea of a right to revolution in the case of such conflicts - as Gordon Wood and others have pointed out, the power of judicial review is to some extent the Americanization of this Lockean right to revolution); and finally, the idea that once the people put in place the legislature, they are, so to speak, political dead (in America, of course, following the lead of James Wilson's arguments against the anti-federalists, the people are always political alive; they never leave the political stage so to speak...But for Locke, of course, they only retain the right to revolution once they put into place the absolutely powerful legislative branch. Once the legislative branch in put into place, the people are politically off the stage...)

At any rate, once I start pointing out these differences I find that Locke begins to seem more strange and foreign to them than they originally thought... Best of wishes to everyone! Patrick

Lee Trepanier on Mar 15, 2012 at 3:12 am

Thanks for the reference to the essay! I'll be sure to take a look at it.

John D. Mueller on Mar 15, 2012 at 7:21 am

A good posting, Lee, as evidenced by the discussion it triggered. I wonder if perhaps another difficulty for students is their lack of familiarity, and thus difficulty in recognizing the similarities and differences with, the scholastic tradition from which Locke started--a point I tried to make recently before the John Locke Foundation: http://www.eppc.org/publications/pubID.4638/pub_detail.asp

Lee Trepanier on Mar 17, 2012 at 4:25 am

Thanks for the refernce to your article. I look forward to reading it!

about the author

Lee Trepanier
Lee Trepanier

I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. I teach courses in political philosophy as well as the Introduction to Political Science course. I received my B.A. in Political Science and English Literature with a Minor in Russian Studies at Marquette University and my M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Louisiana State University. My research interests are in Russian politics; politics and religion; politics, literature, and film; and political philosophy with a focus on the works of Eric Voegelin.