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

XIV. Education

§ 8. Chesterfield’s Letters

The disproportionate attention accorded to some features of Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son, has deprived their author of his undoubted right to be ranked among the educational reformers of his time. He illustrates very fully the aristocratic prejudice against schools and universities in favour of the courtly training given by private tutors and foreign academies. But, in this respect, he is a survival from an earlier generation; boys of Chesterfield’s rank who were intended, like his son, to pursue a public career swelled the revived prosperity of Eton and built up the fortunes of Harrow, in the generation which immediately followed. As an educator, Chesterfield is most emphatically a humanist. The fundamental study recommended to his son is that of his fellow-men, particularly as they exist in courts and capital cities; protracted residence abroad and the knowledge of languages and literatures are merely auxiliary to this study, or to rhetoric, the instrument by which men are to be persuaded or cajoled. But the humanism of Chesterfield is chiefly concerned with the humanity of his own day, with its purposes and institutions of all kinds. It is this which causes him to anticipate the changes which were completed in French and German schools before the century ended. He craves “a pretty large circle of knowledge,” which shall include not only Latin and Greek, but, also, the spoken tongues and some of the classical books of England, France, Italy and Germany, modern history and geography, jurisprudence, with a knowledge of logic, mathematics and experimental science. Much of this learning is to be acquired through intercourse rather than through books; manners, which are of the first importance, can only be learned in the same school, with assistance from those exercises of the academy which train the body to health and grace. Much of this “large circle” is avowedly superficial. Chesterfield feels no scruple on that account, if only his pupil can command the power of the orator to influence men. From the outset of the Letters, the study of rhetoric is insisted upon; style is wellnigh everything, matter is of less importance. The Letters to A. C. Stanhope (which are more instructive and much more entertaining than those to Stanhope’s son, Chesterfield’s successor in the title) drop this insistence upon the cultivation of oratory; but the character of the upbringing there recommended is much the same as that prescribed in the earlier series of letters.

Lord Kames’s Loose Hints upon Education (1781) perfectly justifies its title. Its main topic is “the culture of the heart,” a topic characteristic of its time, treated according to “the system of nature.” But, in spite of the author’s admiration of Émile, this does not mean the system of Rousseau, for its corner-stone is parental authority, and Rousseau’s proposal to employ natural consequences as a moral discipline is dismissed as “smoke.”