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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

§ 21. Subjects of Teaching

So far as the systematic and recognised studies of the schools were concerned, Latin and Greek were the only educational instruments of which every boy could avail himself; presence in “school” meant attendance at a lesson in one of these languages. The spectre schoolmaster of The Dunciad declares,

  • Whate’er the talents or howe’er designed,
  • We hang one jingling padlock on the mind.
  • But it must not be forgotten that, for boys who passed through the entire school course, Latin and Greek were literatures, not “subjects” comparable with one of the studies in a modern school time-table. Further, much of the time devoted to classical languages was spent in the active study and exercise of composition; the old rhetorical training survived from the sixteenth century and, in spite of its manifest faults, that training required boys to think about a great variety of topics of the first importance. Of course, no attempt was made to teach natural science at any English public school during the period under review; writing, arithmetic and, at a much later period, some algebra and geometry received the partial recognition implied in their being taught on half-holidays by teachers of inferior standing. Modern literature, English and French, together with accomplishments like drawing, dancing and fencing, were regarded at Eton, and elsewhere, as occupations for leisure hours only. Boys were expected to give some of their leisure to private reading, the absence of the highly organised athleticism of to-day leaving a broad margin of time for the purpose. Cowper at Westminster (1741–9), in this way, read with a schoolfellow all the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, and some of Milton’s English poems. Peregrine Pickle is represented as learning at Winchester four books of Euclid, some algebra, trigonometry and surveying, but he learned these from Jolter, his tutor, and, therefore, apart from the school studies. The rigour of the classical curriculum was a little relaxed, but only a little, in the preparatory schools of the London suburbs through which “Westminsters” sometimes passed to their school.