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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIX. English Universities, Schools and Scholarship in the Sixteenth Century

§ 12. Richard Mulcaster

It seems that The Scholemaster was, for a time, accepted as the approved manual of method in instruction. The licence of The Positions (1581) of Richard Mulcaster runs thus: “provided always that if this book contain anything prejudicial or hurtful to the Book of Master Ascham.… called The Scholemaster, that then this licence shall be void.” In passing from Ascham to Mulcaster we step into a different world. For Mulcaster, though an Eton boy and a student of Christ Church, spent his life as a master of the two great day schools of the city of London—headmaster of Merchant Taylors’, 1561–86; surmaster and, later, highmaster (1596) of St.Paul’s. The fruit of his experience is embodied in two books, The Positions (1581) and The Elementarie (1582), the latter an instalment of a larger work. Whilst Ascham was concerned with youth of station, destined to become landowners, courtiers or diplomatists, Mulcaster’s subject is the education of the burgher class. Both, again, use English as their instrument; Ascham wrote good Tudor prose, whilst it is no gibe to say that Mulcaster’s own example is enough to imperil his thesis that English speech is as harmonious and as precise as Latinity itself. He had Spenser for his pupil, and has often been identified with the caricature in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Mulcaster is, by training and by interests, a humanist, but of a temper little akin to that a Cheke or Ascham. The hard experience of twenty years had proved to him how different was the training in letters set out by the great writers from the realities of the schoolroom. It is a standing puzzle to us to-day that men of strong intelligence, knowing however little of boys, should assume, as without question, that a rigorous course of grammar, construing, composition and conversation in Latin, and that only, must appeal to youthful minds. They do not seem to have understood that, to win effective attention to arid and meaningless material, nothing less than the most harsh pressure could be expected to succeed with the average boy. Now, Mulcaster is the uncouth prophet of a new order. For he sees the problem in a modern way. He has shaken himself free of traditional platitudes. He is conscious of a new world, and of the need of a new education adapted to it. His two books, written in close succession, exhibit a consistent idea and may be viewed together. He writes in English, wishing to reach the vulgar; no fishmonger or tailor in London could touch it in Latin shape. The time has gone by, as he perceives, for illusions as to the place of Latin speech in Elizabethan England. He will have the elements of education for all; the grammar school and the university will provide for the select few of promising wit. But he boldly states that he sees loss to the community in alluring the unfit to the unpractical training of letters. “I am tooth and nail for womankind” in matters of education, he declares. But their instruction must fit them for their station. Only such as are born to high place or to prospect of coming wealth should, in humanist fashion, be taught the learned tongues or history or logic. Mulcaster has a sound perception of the importance of physical training to mental efficiency, which he partly owes to Girolamo Mercuriale and other Italians. The growing custom of sending boys of every class to school has his goodwill: but, sympathising here with Ascham, he sets himself against the habit of travel for youth as bad for patriotism and religious constancy. He would have a training school for teachers set up in each university; he is the first English master to grasp the significance of what Vives had said on this head long before. Further, he would see with approval the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge specifically allotted to the study of the three subjects of general training, languages, mathematics and philosophy, and to the four professional disciplines of medicine, law, divinity and teaching. He is consistent in objecting to the study of Roman and of canon law for English youth. He sets out in detail his views of the function of English in the new education, advocating, in particular, that scholars should devote themselves to the settling of the orthography, accidence and syntax of the language, that, thereby, English may claim its place side by side with Latin, whose merits of precision and elaboration he is foremost to perceive. For “I love Rome, but London better, I favour Italy, but England more, I honour Latin, but worship English.”