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John Locke of Poor Reform and Workhouses Essay

The reading for this week addresses Locke’s understanding of the relationship between the poor and the capable citizens in society. He stated explicitly in his second treatise on government, the importance of work and labor in order to assess a person’s worth. Locke believes that man is not meant to be idle and that the purpose of existence is to live in the image of God and work towards a life of moral bounds and labor upon the earth making it more beneficial to all those who enjoy its benefits.

During the century that Locke is writing, about 50-70% of the population is extremely poor. There seemed to be no freedoms unless the institution of waged labor came into question. Waged labor during this time was not much better than being a slave and in many ways is just an extension of slavery. In order to combat the growing problem of the poor in the England cities, Locke proposes the idea of workhouses which would be the equivalent of reform schools.

In these institutions, young people of the poor or incapacitated nature would learn tangible skills that they can then use in their homes or that they could use in order to attain a job. Education is very important to Locke because it is one of the main differences between rich/ able bodied and the poor. In my opinion, it is because of the lack of extensive education that the numbers of poor during this century in English history skyrocketed instead of declining as more jobs and resources became available.

According to Locke, a major factor in the high numbers of poor is the fact that they are simply idle or lazy and do not want to work hard in order to attain money or land. For some citizens, things of this nature come automatically due to inheritances and things of that nature and presents Locke with a parallel of poor with no means of moving up and the rich with any intent of sharing the wealth and / or knowledge. Rather than poor people, idleness seems to be the root of all evil and the proposal of the English workhouses serve as a remedy to that problem.

The sort of public school training that they would provide would give them the opportunity to learn skills that would be used in waged labor so that the poor could be re-entered into society. When referring to the issue of how to address the poor, Locke states that at some point everyone must be trusted to govern themselves and that all able-bodied men are made so by being able to be taught to be good, virtuous, and hard working.

Other than spinning and knitting and things of that nature the papers of the purpose, structure, and ends of the development of workhouses does not discuss the formal education of the subjects with regards to curriculum. Because there cannot be accommodations made for any member of society all people should be treated on relatively equal bounds and all should have the opportunity to labor and work in order to combat idleness which is the devil’s playground.

I think an important aspect of Locke’s philosophy is the idea that children are property of the public and it is the public’s responsibility to make sure that they have the means to train and educate them so that they will grow up to be able-bodied virtuous citizens. This concept holds true today in that in the United States children are required to go through school until a certain age in order to ensure that they will be able to contribute to society at large.


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