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John Stuart Mill: On Instruction, Intellectual Development, and Disciplined Learning

John Stuart Mill: On Instruction, Intellectual Development, and Disciplined Learning

A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.
~ John Stuart Mill


John Stuart Mill, born in London in 1806, was educated by his father, James Mill, a leading exponent of radicalism. John Stuart Mill, largely due to the conscientious and attentive instruction of his father, became one of the most widely recognized authorities on utilitarianism.2 His most famous works include On Liberty, Representative Government, Utilitarianism, and The Subjection of Women.

In the mid 1850’s, Mill wrote his Autobiography, and in it we find a remarkable story of a father dedicated to the intellectual development of his son, as is evidenced in the methods he used to instruct, guide, and direct John Stuart Mill to ever deeper levels of understanding, insight and knowledge.

This article details the most prominent instructional methods used by Mill’s father. James Mill carefully crafted a one-on-one tutorial approach, with emphasis on the development of critical thinking abilities, traits and dispositions.

Though much can be learned from the writings of great thinkers, seldom do we find documentation of the methods used to develop the thinker’s mind. And even more rarely do we find the kind of detailed description we find in Mill’s autobiography.

Like the Oxford tutorial method, analysis of James Mill’s tutorial approach can be used to fashion teaching that disciplines and develops the intellect. The methods used by James Mill had a profound and lasting effect on his son. Though we cannot replicate the early 19th century world of John Stuart Mill, though few parents and teachers can dedicate the time and energy to the instruction of one pupil alone, still we can learn a great deal from studying the methods and effects of James Mill’s instruction. In short,
when understood, many insights can be gleaned from such study – for group, individual and self instruction.

We should not view the methods illuminated in Mill’s autobiography as individual cannons to be replicated without change, but as models whose essential components and qualities can be exported and adapted. Because James Mill understood firsthand the character and habits of the disciplined mind, because he thought it critical to instill such disciplined habits of mind in his son, and because he was willing to think and rethink how best to reach his pupil through years of tutelage, he was able, over the long run, to foster remarkably deep learning. James Mill approached the acquisition of knowledge and insight as an unending, often confusing, messy, uncomfortable process. He recognized it as a process that entails grounding one’s thinking in significant ideas, connecting important ideas to other important ideas, a process of discovery and rediscovery, of application and correction. He recognized the difficulties in bringing ideas into thought and taking ownership of them. James Mill constantly guided (if not drove) his pupil to deeper and deeper levels of understanding.

What follows are excerpts from Mill’s Autobiography that exemplify and support these conclusions. As you read through them, you will be best served by developing a bridge between the best in his methods and what we can hope to accomplish in instruction today.
The essence of what we find in James Mill’s methodology is found in the best instruction in all disciplines – students intellectually engaged, learning command of their own minds as they read, write, think their way through important ideas.

One minor point - from this point forward, the name “Mill” will be reserved for John Stuart Mill. When the father is referenced, the name James Mill will be used. Also note that, throughout this article, some commentary is offered. But many of the points made by Mill require not comments.  Read More (Download Full Article in PDF format)


1 All quotes in this article are taken from Autobiography by John Stuart Mill, first published in 1873. The
version used for this article was published by Penguin Books, 1989, London, England.
2 The utilitarian philosophy is grounded in the principle that right actions are to be measured in proportion
to the greatest good they achieve for the greatest number.

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