36 The Equalizer and Motivator, John Locke’s “Tabula Rasa”

Jack Talton

I would first like to thank my mom. A kindergarten teacher, an educator, one of my best friends. The ideas that I present in this chapter come from years of motivation from her regarding my aspirations and knowing her as both a mother and a kindergarten teacher I have seen how important it is to be given the support and foundation to follow what makes you happy and to never let that inner child in you die. The second person I would like to thank is my dear friend Ryan Smith. Ryan embodies the ideas I present in this chapter, and as one of my dearest friends I truly aspire to be like him as his experiences in his life have always been his greatest motivator.



Keywords: Blank Slate, Nature, Nurture, Development


         Have you ever wondered about why you make decisions the way you do, why you like bacon on your cheeseburger, or how you will decide which career path is right for you? So did the philosopher John Locke, who coined the term and the concept of tabula rasa, more commonly referred to as the blank slate theory. As you are growing up this concept has implications that can help you develop as an academic, a creative thinker, and keep you more in tune with who you are as a person. Through this chapter I will attack the meaning of tabula rasa and its origins, those who will benefit from it being taught, the motivation and equalizing power that will equate from the teaching of this concept, and a possible method of teaching tabula rasa. The idea of the mind as a blank slate, being a neutral starting point for everyone, I believe, can benefit generations of youth to come within different stages of their own personal development.


            John Locke initially coined this theory in his article “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” where he defined it as – the mind is a blank slate at birth and is shaped purely by sensory perceptions and experiences – (Locke 1690). At the time when Locke was writing these ideas, they gained ground because people were “so entrenched in the norms and values of a feudal society” and Locke’s idea was a way out of that, with the Catholic’s views of “original sin,” Catholic belief that you are born with sin, which did nothing but help the tabula rasa cause (Rekret 2018). However, Duchinski states that the literal translation does not even mean “blank slate” which is how many people define the term, but actually means slate wiped blank which might be under interpretation to what it really means but it had more implications of being brainwashed than anything positive (Duchinsky 2012). Through the concept of tabula rasa, Locke implies that in the nature vs. nurture debate, instead of there being a split between the two and the amounts that have made humans the way they are, which is the common argument and discussion topic in Orian’s “Nature and Human Nature,” Locke implies that our minds are only formed through nurture (Orians 2008).


Objectively, the concept of tabula rasa, that is the mind being a blank slate at birth, malleable, shaped solely by sensory experiences, is found to be untrue biologically. However, in this chapter, I will attempt to elaborate on the idea of the mind as a blank slate, being a neutral starting point for everyone, and how I believe this idea can benefit children and young adults throughout their developmental years. This idea can have a multitude of positive implications, for which I will now give several examples. When teaching younger children about the concept one possible way to implement this in a teacher-student setting might be to use the metaphor of a mind being like a blank sheet of paper, going through life and experiencing different things are like writing on this paper, and this is what makes up your mind. Another example of when children or young teens begin to notice different socioeconomic differences between themselves and their friends, this concept can help them know that no matter where they come from their mind has just as much potential as the person next to them. While the concept of the blank slate may not be completely true, this is one white lie that parents and teachers could tell that could seriously impact the development of children. Instead, they are told tales of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I am not saying that these cannot coexist as these things bring them so much joy, but if parents and teachers are able to lie about this, why not lie about something that can benefit these children in the long run, filling children with ideas of how far they can go and motivate them to fulfill their potential, which like their experiences, are endless. As they grow older, this concept will continue to be helpful as teens and young adults look to their own future and make decisions when they grow older, they can use this concept as a way to reminisce on their experiences drawing from what they liked and disliked helping to form a comprehensive framework of their own being, which they might then use to find a career that gives them the satisfaction they so crave.


Parents and lower-school teachers already try and broaden children’s imaginations but imagine if they did it in the way that as these children grew older, they were instructed to write down their experiences and how they felt about them, almost like a journal. Over time as they continue to experience things and give their feedback, they will be able to look back and find what they enjoy so when building and crafting their career path they will have a tool readily at their disposal, while simultaneously being able to remember where they came from and the things that are important to them.


Robert Duchinsky in his essay “Tabula Rasa & Human Nature” argues that this concept is a “rhetorical extreme” and a “false analogy of the human mind” (Duchinsky 2012). I can see where he is coming from, because there are so many flaws with Locke’s original meaning for tabula rasa. However, there is a beauty in giving reassurance, hope, and confidence to developing youth through the blank slate hypothesis, and through teaching this, they are learning to use their experiences and reflect on them in order to find out who they are and where they want to go.


There is now a great opportunity to learn from John Locke’s timely discovery of the tabula rasa hypothesis. The most pressing of these benefits applies to the creativity and wellbeing of those who will lead our generation and the next, the youth. Through applying this concept to better the development of our youth’s imagination, mental, and economic wellbeing, it allows them not only to survive but to wake up happy to live in a world with more opportunity than they could ever imagine. Dr. Seuss wrote a book about “all the places they’ll go.” Teaching tabula rasa and how to use it while developing as young adults may give them tools to get there.


 Works Cited


Duschinsky, Robert. “”Tabula Rasa” and Human Nature.” Philosophy (2012): 509-529.

Karnes, Kevin C. Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690.

Orians, Gordon H. “Nature & Human Nature.” Daedalus 137.2 (2008): 39-48.

Rekret, Paul. “The Posthumanist Tabula Rasa.” Research in Education 101.1 (2018): 25-29.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Jack Talton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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