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

XIV. Education

§ 32. Arnold and secondary education

The Newcastle and Taunton commissions are associated with the first steps taken by Matthew Arnold to awaken England to the defective state of such public education as it possessed. Appointed an inspector of schools in 1851, Arnold was despatched to the continent on special missions of observation by the first-named commission in 1859, and by the second in 1865. His reports (The popular education of France with notices of that of Holland and Switzerland, 1861, Schools and Universities on the Continent, 1868) concentrated attention upon the condition of the English middle class, “nearly the worst educated in the world,” served by schools destitute of great traditions and too frequently inspired by narrow or vulgar ideals. Whereas, abroad, the commercial and industrial class participated in the highest culture of the nation, in England that class, notwithstanding its great political power, was isolated from that culture, and, being without a good standard of education in its own experience, was unable to form a just estimate of the country’s needs in that respect. From the first, Arnold was struck by the high level of intellectual attainment promoted by the French lycée and the comparatively large area of its influence. But only the state could meet the expense of a sufficient number of these schools, supply their highly educated trained teachers and maintain a good standard by means of official inspection. The same wide extension of culture attained by similar means was observable in Germany, in Holland and in democratic Switzerland. Though the occasion of his first tour was the primary school, Arnold recognised that the organisation of elementary instruction on a national scale, apart from the consideration of secondary and higher education, would be futile as well as illogical. Hence, his first report admonished the English people to “regard the necessities of a not distant future and organise your secondary instruction.” That admonition he continued to repeat throughout his official career; it concludes the report on German, Swiss and French elementary education which he drew up on his retirement in 1886. In the interval, expostulation, satire, sarcasm, persuasion, exhortation were all employed to urge the English community to assume corporate responsibility for public education as a whole; the voluntary principle was incapable of meeting the absolute needs of a modern state. England could no more do without universal, compulsory instruction than could her neighbours.

Arnold died before the organisation of secondary education was taken in hand; but his teaching did not fail to tell in due course, as the Bryce commission of 1896 proved. In order to fix responsibility (the want of which he regarded as one of the sins of our administration generally), the national system should be presided over by a minister of education, who should be assisted by a consultative body of persons entitled to be heard on questions affecting his duties. The schools should form part of the municipal services, and, as municipal organisation did not yet exist in many parts of the country, it would have to be created. As intermediary between the localities and the ministry, “provincial school boards,” eight or ten for the country, would ensure a national policy, which respected local wishes, while they would render unnecessary an elaborate scheme of inspection such as was employed for existing elementary schools. A school-leaving certificate, open to all secondary school pupils, would also serve as qualification for admission to the university. The universities, by offering facilities for post-graduate study, might compensate for the want of those foreign “institutes” which trained members of the public services scientifically and, at the same time, raised the whole level of national appreciation of knowledge and the value of ideas. A comparison of the foregoing with the subsequent development of educational policy shows what Arnold’s influence in these matters was.

On the long-established controversy about curriculum, Arnold took an equally comprehensive view. “The rejection of the humanities … and the rejection of the study of nature are alike ignorant.” The aim of the pupil is to attain “knowledge of himself and of the world.” Secondary schools, in their lower forms, should, therefore, provide a basis of instruction common to all pupils; above this, there should be a bifurcation, one branch for literary, the other for scientific, education. Following the model of the Prussian Realgymnasium (established in 1859 and since fallen into disfavour), Arnold included the elements of Latin among the common studies of all pupils; in another connection, he suggested that the Latin Vulgate should be studied by the more advanced pupils of elementary schools. But, of course, he was fully alive to the humanist training to be obtained from the study of modern literatures, especially that of the mother-tongue; on the other hand, he thought that instruction in speaking foreign languages was not school business.