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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 13. Cavils of Swift and Defoe

The miscellany of schemes which Defoe styled An Essay upon Projects (1697) includes one for an English academy to “darken the glory” of the Académie Française and “to polish and refine the English tongue,” “the noblest and most comprehensive of all the vulgar languages in the world.” A second scheme proposes a royal academy for military exercises, which should provide a scientific education for soldiers, and, incidentally, encourage “shooting with a firelock” as a national pastime in the place of “cocking, cricketing and tippling.”

The species of academy on the French model, giving instruction in military exercises and in the whole range of modern studies, did not secure a footing amongst English institutions, in spite of numerous attempts to found one in this country. Lewis Maidwell approached parliament, or the government, on four several occasions between 1700 and 1704, with the purpose of obtaining official sanction, a public standing and a state subsidy for such an academy, to be established in his house at Westminster. The details of the project took different shapes at different times, but instruction in navigation was put forward as an aim in all of them. Though nothing came of Maidwell’s plan, it aroused opposition from the universities; its absurd scheme of raising funds by a registration fee imposed upon all printed matter showed the author to be no man of business.

During the latter half of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, it became the fashion among wealthy country gentlemen and their imitators to substitute for the school private tuition at home, more especially in the case of eldest sons. As this fashion spread, less care was bestowed on the choice of a tutor, who sometimes became the tool of a too indulgent mother bent upon playing special providence. Swift (Essay on Modern Education, c. 1723) makes this charge; Defoe (Compleat English Gentleman, c. 1728–9) denies its justice; but it is frequently brought at this time against those who were in well-to-do circumstances. Swift supports the classics, the birch, schools and universities, against private education, coddling and the modern studies. He thinks that the popularity of the army has given the latter their vogue, and that education grew corrupt at the restoration. But, in truth this particular “corruption” was of much earlier growth, and its cause is to be sought in the defects of that mode of education which Swift championed. Defoe represents the eldest sons of wealthy landowners who lived on their estates as growing up in gross ignorance, the learning of schools and universities being regarded as a trade suitable for clergy and others who had to earn an income, but quite unnecessary for gentlemen. Swift (On the Education of Ladies) speaks of “the shameful and almost universal neglect of good education among our nobility, gentry and indeed among all others who are born to good estates.” The statement is, in effect, reiterated by novelists as well as by professed writers on education. The well-known decline in the number of boys at public schools during the greater part of the eighteenth century to some extent confirms Defoe. In the public mind, the distinction between learning and education was becoming more appreciated, and schools were identified with learning chiefly. “A great part of the learning now in fashion in the schools of Europe … a gentleman may in a good measure be unfurnish’d with, without any great disparagement to himself or prejudice to his affairs.”