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

XIV. Education

§ 30. Spencer

The decade preceding 1870 was notable by reason of its active interest in public instruction of all grades, and this activity was reflected in certain noteworthy books. Among these the most conspicuous was Herbert Spencer’s Education, Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861), in which the author collected magazine articles published by him between 1854 and 1859. The book completes a series constituted by Montaigne, Locke, Rousseau and Spencer himself, which marks the continued reaction during three centuries of French and English thought upon its special topic. Spencer’s work is largely Rousseau’s Émile in nineteenth-century English guise. Of the four chapters into which it is divided, the second, on intellectual education, is, perhaps, the most valuable; it is the nearest approach to a treatise on educational method which we have from the pen of an English writer of distinction, and much of its teaching has been absorbed into modern practice. The next chapter, on moral education, follows Rousseau, and, like Émile, does nothing to solve its problem. The so-called discipline of consequences as expounded by both writers would train the pupil to be wary in dealing with natural forces; but this is not morality. The fourth chapter, on physical education, has been generally recognised as sound, and as having had a valuable influence upon subsequent practice. The first chapter (“What knowledge is of most worth?”), which is a piece of special pleading for instruction in science, teems with fallacies, some of a very crude kind. Spencer appears to have been by nature unresponsive to art and literature; given this defect, and a good conceit of his own judgment, many of the author’s dicta can be understood. But, after all, a more judicious handling of the theme of his chapter would have been quite ineffective in face of the scandalous neglect of science, as an instrument of general education, which then prevailed in this country. Education had an extraordinary vogue; within less than twenty years it was translated into thirteen foreign languages, including Chinese and Japanese; Spencer’s great repute among the latter is well known.