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

XIV. Education

§ 25. Public School reform

Popular tradition, supported by Stanley’s Life (1844) and Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), regards Thomas Arnold as the universal reformer or re-creator of public schools. But, so far as the purely professional side of school-keeping is concerned, he was anticipated by Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury from 1798 to 1836, of which period only the last eight years fall within Arnold’s tenure of office at Rugby (1828–42). The decline from which public schools had suffered was nowhere more evident than at Shrewsbury, where, in 1798, there were not more than twenty boys. Assisted by a reconstituted governing body, Butler built upon this remnant a flourishing school, whose achievements and organisation became models for Eton and Harrow, as Hawtrey headmaster of Eton from 1834 to 1853, generously acknowledged to Butler himself. Periodical examinations, and a carefully supervised scheme of “marks” assigned for merit and industry, sustained an emulation that gave new life to the studies of Shrewsbury boys, which was manifested in their extraordinary successes in competition for university scholarships. The responsibility thrown upon “preposters”—“the eight boys to whom the master delegates a certain share of authority”—revived an ancient usage whose invention is often ascribed to Arnold alone. The importance which Butler attached to “private work,” study done in the boys’ leisure time and under no supervision, was part of his unwavering policy of training his pupils to initiative and self-reliance. Stanley claimed for Arnold the credit of being the first to introduce modern history, modern languages and mathematics into the regular routine; but, here again, Shrewsbury forstalled Rugby. The truth is, that no public school ventured, of its own motion, to reform curriculum. Even the preparation of Latin and Greek grammars for common use throughout the schools, a project of Arnold in 1835, had to wait till 1866 for partial realisation in The Public School Latin Primer. The admission of mathematics, modern history and geography to full recognition as studies was a surrender to public opinion and a tardy imitation of the custom of commercial or “English” schools, chiefly under private management, which educated the great majority of the middle classes. But not much came of the introduction of these studies into public schools, as the Clarendon commission of 1861–4 complained. Arnold was of opinion that it was “not right” to leave boys and young men “in ignorance of the beginnings of physical science”; nearly thirty years later, this royal commission was saying the same thing. The first steps in a real reform of courses of instruction among schools of this type were taken by the early Victorian foundations, chiefly proprietary, such as Cheltenham, Liverpool, Marlborough, Rossall, Brighton, Radley and Bradfield.

But Arnold’s claim to greatness does not rest upon any purely professional achievement. His moral earnestness and strong religious conviction were naturally reflected in his administration of Rugby, as, also, was his intense belief in the responsibility of his position. His moral fervour, accompanied though it was by much heart-searching and an abiding distrust of the immaturity of boy-nature, worked an extraordinary change in the life of Rugby, and, through Rugby, in public schools and in English education at large. In his view, “the forming of the moral principles and habits” alone constituted education, and, in this country, the process must be based on Christianity. On the latter ground, he desired the admission of all nonconformists, unitarians excepted, to the full membership of Oxford and Cambridge; and he regretfully resigned his seat (1838) in the senate of the newly created university of London because he failed to carry his colleagues with him in an acknowledgment of the paramount claim of religion in public education. He regarded with pity and apprehension the material condition of the working classes during the last years of his life; nor is it possible to measure the influence upon social reform which, at a much later time, he exercised through his pupils and admirers.

Falling trade, poor harvests, dear bread and the shock of a salutary but radical change in poor-law administration brought acute distress upon the working classes, more particularly during the years which immediately followed the passing of the first Reform bill. The consequent unrest was intensified by the feeling that that measure had not gone far enough along the road of reform. While some sought to remove or alleviate the trouble by further political or fiscal changes, others saw in the careful upbringing of the children the promise of permanent improvement.