Susan Gilliam - Present

Mr. Locke, Mr. Wythe, Homeschooling and Colonial Williamsburg

This is a guest blog post from Colonial Williamsburg


John Locke, a contemporary political philosopher of the 17th century, who influenced such writings as the Declaration of Independence, also had many strong thoughts on the education of children. In particular he emphasized using play as a way to educate and using one’s senses to explore and investigate the world, thinking for oneself, with careful observation and inquiry.

 “§ 69…They must not be hinder’d from being children, or from playing, or doing as children, but from doing ill; all other liberty is to be allow’d them.”

  § 181that children may be taught anything that falls under their senses, especially their sight, as far as their memories only are exercised: and thus a child very young may learn…”   [From Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693]

Mr. Wythe, like Locke, was a man of revolutionary thought and supported Locke in many of his ideas especially when it came to the instruction of young minds. With Locke philosophy in hand Mr. Wythe conducted classes on the Palace Green at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia and utilized his extensive library, crossed disciplines, and employed “hands-on” learning.

I can only imagine what it might have been like to have been “homeschooled” under the instruction of Mr. Wythe, one who inspired others, was always the perpetual student himself, and acted on what he discovered by serving as a burgess, mayor, and judge to name a few. Using the ideas of John Locke he had his students diligently observe the world through careful experimentation. His students formulated questions, examined the world, and collected evidence, and took action. By taking action one may change the world for the better. This is what Mr. Wythe demanded of all his students whether the young mind he was helping to shape was Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, or Henry Clay.

Today at Colonial Williamsburg every day I see students young and old, many of them educated by their parents, and using the same strategies as Mr. Locke and Mr. Wythe, using play, the world around them, and the many resources the Revolutionary City has to offer. Through play they roll a hoop with a stick, or hit a leather ball with a wooden mallet and discover the ideas of motion. Using their senses they smell the roasted cocoa beans at the Palace, hear the blacksmith hammer a piece or iron so piercing that it is heard down Duke of Gloucester Street, feel the tacky wool from the sheared sheep, or see the flame fly from the barrel of the cannon receiving an education that no book can convey. They take in the past not only with their senses, but with their hands from pulling water from the well, drilling with the militia, dancing, or assisting with a bucket brigade. They read the actual words and discover images of the past from the Frenchman’s Map, to the Virginia Gazette, to Dunmore’s Proclamation, giving freedom to slaves of rebels. They hear the stirring words of men, women, free and enslaved throughout the capital city from Gowan Pamphlet, to Lafayette, to Edith Cumbo, to Martha Washington. And they can do this year round! In addition in the spring and the fall there are special weeks set aside just for the Homeschool audience to really investigate the “living” classroom, opportunities just for homeschoolers to take a journey into the past!

I often wonder when they return from their journeys and to their communities and “home classrooms” how has their time journey into the “past” at Colonial Williamsburg altered how they will interact with the world of today? Has time in the 1770’s transformed their minds, will they take action and change the world for the better? I believe both Mr. Locke and Mr. Wythe would be proud of every homeschooler and what they can accomplish with self-study and guidance from their home educator. The Palace Green (just like for Wythe’s students under the Locke philosophy) and Colonial Williamsburg can provide endless resources for reflection, discovery, and examination. It is a place where I first investigated the world as a kindergartner placing my small head through the pillories, that was an experience that was captivating, and now I enjoy a career at Colonial Williamsburg in the Division of Education, Research and Historical Interpretation.  My hope is that others too will discover the magic of the past in this colonial town.

For more information on the September 10- 25 Homeschool Days at Colonial Williamsburg, visit, contact 1-800-228-8878 or [email protected]

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