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

XIV. Education

§ 17. Bell and Lancaster

The main issue thus raised took the discussion at once into the wider arena of political questions, where it secured considerable attention. Lancaster’s “undenominational” system was regarded by tories and churchmen as a deliberate attack upon the establishment; whigs and dissenters cherished it as a guarantee of religious liberty. The essential weakness of the method of instruction advocated by Bell and Lancaster, in which pupils were entirely taught by fellow-pupils, was forgotten by the critics in their anxiety to deal with an accident of “the Mutual System,” namely, the character of the religious instruction to be imparted. Wordsworth (The Prelude, 1799–1805) and Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, 1815–17) had ridiculed methodisers and mechanical forms of teaching; but both were warm adherents of Bell. Pamphlets, reviews and sermons urged the respective merits of the “Madras” and “Lancasterian” “systems,” or the claim of their respective authors to rank as “discoverers.” Sydney Smith, Robert Owen, Henry Brougham, William Wilberforce, Romilly, Samuel Rogers and James Mill were sympathisers with, or active supporters of, Lancaster. Southey, in a Quarterly Review article (October, 1811), vindicated against The Edinburgh Review (November, 1810) Bell’s right to be considered Lancaster’s forerunner, and exposed the evils and absurdities which he held to mark Lancaster’s mode of school management. The climax of the dispute was reached in a sermon preached at St. Paul’s in June, 1811, by the Cambridge lady Margaret professor, Herbert Marsh, in which he repeated Mrs. Trimmer’s arguments on national education, the church and undenominationalism. The sermon was followed immediately by the formation of a committee whose labours took effect, in October, 1811, in the institution of “the National Society for promoting the education of the Poor in the principles of the Established Church.” The rival organisation was “the British and Foreign School Society” (1814), the successor of the Royal Lancasterian institute and Lancaster’s committee founded in 1808. Thus, “the voluntary system” of English elementary schools was begun, and a compromise between state interference and individualism was effected, which lasted till 1870. The desire, fervently expressed in The Excursion, for a state-controlled education based on the Madras system was not realised; although many Englishmen were willing to extend a modicum of instruction to the poor as an act of grace, very few agreed with Wordsworth, Pestalozzi and Kant in regarding education as “a sacred right” inherent in human nature.

The faults of the mutual or monitorial system are obvious; yet, contemporary opinion ranked it as a great discovery or invention, a nostrum for all the ills of education. Bell honestly believed that he was introducing no mere expedient for making a minimum of mechanical instruction accessible to large numbers, but a true educational organon capable of changing the whole aspect of society and applicable to all grades of instruction. Lancaster’s claims were not a whit more restricted. Mutual instruction was introduced into Charterhouse (1813) where it survived in favour for at least five years; a few grammar schools and some private boarding schools followed the example. Families of wealth and position in London combined to form their own little Madras school, with “a most charming monitor boy” from the Central school in Baldwin’s Gardens to act as master. Pillans employed the plan in the High School of Edinburgh. Measures were taken to make the system known on the continent, particularly in France; and it attained a new distinction from the genius and devotion which father Girard displayed in the elementary schools of Fribourg. Jeremy Bentham (Chrestomathia, 1816) identified himself with an abortive scheme for founding “The Chrestomathic [i. e. Useful Knowledge] Day school,” to teach a thousand boys and girls the circle of the sciences on the lines of “the New Instruction System.”

At first, the National and British societies had no association with the state; but their contributions to national education were so many and so important that when, in 1833, parliament agreed to an annual grant of £20,000 “to be issued in aid of private subscriptions for the erection of school houses for the education of the children of the poorer classes in Great Britain,” the money was handed to the societies for allocation, on condition that at least an equal sum was privately subscribed.