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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

§ 17. Elementary Education

The beginning of popular education is an obscure subject, as to which we can with safety make only such general assertions as that rudimentary instruction in the vernacular was first given in response to a commercial, industrial or other distinctly utilitarian demand, and that teachers were private adventurers, frequently women, who carried on their small schools unlicensed. Long before the period under review, children of all ranks but the highest received their earliest schooling in dames’ schools. Brinsley (1612) speaks of poor men and women who, by teaching, “make an honest poor living of it, or get somewhat towards helping the same”; at the close of the century, Stephen Penton refers to “the horn book … which brings in the country school dames so many groats a week.” Francis Brokesby writes:

  • There are few country villages where some or other do not get a livelihood by teaching school, so that there are now not many but can write and read unless it have been their own or their parents’ fault.
  • The writer has a doubtful thesis to support, and therefore must not be taken too literally. Shenstone had a much better right to assume the presence of a dame school “in every village mark’d with little spire”; but he wrote a whole generation later. In spite of its banter and the prominence assigned to the rod, this burlesque idyll is a tribute of respect to school dames and to the value of their work amidst very unscholastic surroundings. The instruction was usually confined to reading and the memorising of catechism, psalms and scriptural texts; writing was an occasional “extra.” Fielding and Smollett throw some light on the country schools of their time.

    Schools above this grade taught, or professed to teach, arithmetic, history, geography and, sometimes, the rudiments of Latin; others, of a grade still higher, prepared for Eton and Westminster. Smollett makes Peregrine Pickle (1751) attend a boarding-school kept by a German charlatan who undertook to teach French and Latin and to prepare for these two schools, though, in the end, “Perry” was sent to Winchester.