The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 13. Thomas Sheridan

Thomas Sheridan, godson of Swift and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, published, in 1756, British Education, a tiresome, long-winded work, stuffed with quotations chiefly from Locke and Milton, in which he called for the standardising of English spelling, pronunciation, diction and idiom, and advocated the study of English rhetoric, the encouragement of public speaking and of the art of reading. He appeared to believe that due attention to these matters would effect the political, religious, moral and aesthetic redemption of society. Yet, in spite of his sympathy with the chief aim of the Académie Française, he would not secure these advantages by means of any academy or society, but trusted to the introduction of rhetoric and elocution into the ordinary school and college course, and, thereafter, to the critical discussion which that introduction would bring about. Sheridan proposed to give effect to his ideas by establishing a school for the post-collegiate instruction of the well-to-do on lines which, to-day, would be termed “vocational”; that is, the studies pursued were to bear directly upon the future occupation of the pupil. In proposing provision upon liberal lines for the education of the future legislator, country gentleman, soldier and merchant, Sheridan was continuing the tradition of that “doctrine of courtesy” which had added a multitude of books to European languages during some two-and-a-half centuries; and these works had always upheld the claims of vernacular languages in schemes of education. A body of very influential persons founded the Hibernian society at Dublin in 1758 with the intention of carrying out Sheridan’s plan; but the project was attacked by private schoolmasters as a mere pretext for bestowing a salaried office upon its originator. Incidentally, these attacks show that there was a great deal of professional as well as public sympathy with the advocates of a modern curriculum, and some success in employing it where schools were unfettered by ancient statute. One of the assailants, the anonymous writer of A letter to a schoolmaster in the country (1758), wields an ironic pen reminiscent of Swift; he doubts the feasibility of giving to those who have passed through the established course of education

  • the air and turn of the high-rank people, as they want for a groundwork the inanity of thought and unconnected succession of ideas which make the specific difference between a gentleman and a pedant.
  • The scheme for a school or college propounded to the Hibernian society in 1758, and similar schemes of 1769 and 1783–4, came to nothing; but Sheridan, till the last, continued to plead for the study of rhetoric and the practice of elocution. He was one of the earliest students of English prosody, phonetics and spelling-reform; by insisting that language is primarily and essentially a thing spoken, not written, he anticipated the principle underlying recent changes in language-teaching.