This afternoon I went into the classroom prepared (relatively speaking) to lead a discussion on the second chapter of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. For the past month, they had been reading Hobbes and Machiavelli; now we were going on to Locke, Mill, and Paine. Today I wanted my students to consider why Locke expected objections to his argument (regarding “man in the state of nature”), and how he responded to them. Things did not go as I planned.
Some students were talking persistently. Only a few had done the reading. So I stopped, as I have done before, and said that we had to address what was going on.
Students had different insights into the problem. One student said I was too gentle in my manner and that students took this as permission to keep on disrupting class. Another said that it wasn’t my fault–that the students tended to follow each other and needed to take responsibility instead. Still another said that they were teenagers and that teenagers naturally tended to rebel. I disputed the last claim, pointing out that the majority of students in the room were consistently participating thoughtfully, and that others were choosing whether or not to do so. I suggested that the reading might have a lot to say about this. Locke, I told them, made an important distinction between liberty and license–and this distinction applied in the classroom as well.
While I was speaking, I heard a clatter. A student cried out. A dark brown bead from my own necklace–my favorite necklace–had fallen to the floor. More beads followed. All the students in the front row (of the large two-row semicircle) immediately helped me gather the beads. Every time they spotted another one, they pointed it out or picked it up for me. Within minutes, we had collected them all. One or two were broken, but those were the large ones, which I could glue together later.
It was mid-afternoon, and while all this was going on, the sun was streaming in and making some of the beads glitter–the faceted ones.
I told my students why it was my favorite necklace. It had been given to me by the teachers attending the 2012 Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; they had presented it to me in the ceremony at the end of the course. Then I told them what was already obvious: what they had shown in gathering the beads, they could show in class in general. While telling them this, I too was learning: these students have goodwill and a desire to learn but get sidetracked by various things. What’s more, many of them have been dedicated to this class all along.
We turned our attention to Locke. I asked them to consider the meaning of the sentence at the start of Section 6, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”
These words became a necklace reassembled; for a minute or two, the class held still and considered what they meant.