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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

§ 2. Henry Wotton’s Essay on the Education of Children

Of the trivium, “grammar” meant Latin literature and, more particularly, its necessary preliminary, Latin grammar, the special business of schools. Indeed, the seventeenth century school course may be said to have consisted of Latin, supplemented by Greek; a few schools added Hebrew, fewer still yet another eastern tongue. The underlying theory is thus enunciated by Henry Wotton (An Essay on the Education of Children, 1672): “Observe therefore what faculties are strongest in the child and employ and cherish them; now herein it is agreed that memory and what logicians call simplex apprehensio are strongest of all.” He infers that a child’s instruction should begin with Latin, passing to Greek and Hebrew, since in these three languages are to be found “both the fountain of learning as well philology as philosophy and the principal streams and rivers thereof.” Wotton’s essay is an account of the method which he employed in teaching his son, William (Bentley’s comrade in A Tale of a Tub), a child who learned to read before he was four years old, began Latin without book at that age, and at five had already begun Greek and Hebrew. It is not surprising, therefore, that William Wotton took his B.A. degree when thirteen (1679); the surprising thing is that he lived to become the able, judicious and modest collaborator of Bentley in the controversy of ancients and moderns. But his father had always refrained from overburdening the child, and the reformer’s note is not entirely absent from his severely classical teaching, for the boy read English daily; “the more gracefully he read English, the more delightfully he read the other languages.”

The official round of study and of exercises for degrees remained at both universities what they had been in the later middle ages; this fact reacted upon schools supposed chiefly to prepare for the universities. The medieval conception of the degree was that of a licence to teach; the exercises which led to it were, in effect, trial lessons in disputation or declamation given by novices before other novices and fully accredited teachers, the topics being selected from the Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy, school divinity, or trite literary themes susceptible of rhetorical handling. At Oxford, the Laudian statutes of 1636 had stereotyped these exercises, and had given them an appearance of life which they retained to the close of the commonwealth. Speaking of that period, Anthony à Wood says, “We had then very good exercises in all matters performed in the schools; philosophy disputations in Lent time, frequent in the Greek tongue; coursing very much, ending alwaies in blows.” The training manifested itself in much of the controversial divinity of the time; at the Savoy conference (1661), both sides seemed to enjoy wit combats greatly, whole pages of Reliquiae Baxterianae being filled with arguments and counter-arguments stated syllogistically. But life and reality went out of these medieval exercises at the restoration, and, though they remained part of the apparatus of both universities, they were regarded throughout the eighteenth century as forms more or less empty, to be gone through perfunctorily, mocked or ignored as the fashion of the moment prompted.

During the seventeenth century and long afterwards, neither school nor university, as distinct from the educational system of the colleges, took account of that advance in knowledge which university men were very notably assisting; or attempted to adapt, for disciplinary purposes, science, modern languages, history or geography, and the schools neglected mathematics, teaching arithmetic for purely practical ends. Consequently, educational reformers were many.