“As on the one hand it should ever be remembered that we are boys, and boys at school, so on the other hand we must bear in mind that we form a complete social body… a society, in which, by the nature of the case, we must not only learn, but act and live; and act and live not only as boys, but as boys who will be men”.1
Every school in the early nineteenth century led a precarious existence, whether it catered for rich or poor. The English had been losing interest in secondary education for decades as the opportunities for youngsters with energy and gumption simply to get out of school and make their fortunes proliferated. By the 1780’s there were some 800 grammar schools2, a few of which took in boarders who lived beyond walking distance of the school, but most of which ─ with their unreformed classical curriculum ─ were little more than pathetic shadows of their founders’ instructions. Academic standards were falling badly; sixty years later it was discovered that only seventy of these grammar schools were sending even one pupil a year to university. Across the country as a whole perhaps one boy in ten were still in school at the age of twelve in the 1840s, and hardly a single girl.3
A few of these old grammar schools ─ ten at the most ─ were recognised as having once been significant, and were still called “the great schools”4. Even these schools seemed to be in near-terminal decline ─ Winchester had lost numbers and so had Eton, while Shrewsbury was reduced to a mere handful of boys, and Charterhouse was so short of pupils that it even adopted the monitorial system to boost its numbers. Only Rugby, on the outskirts of the emerging industrial Midlands, showed much sign of life. Adolescents just didn’t want to be in school, and most adults thought school was a waste of time.
Then, in 1827, Dr. Thomas Arnold5 effectively created a new form of school. appointed Headmaster of Rugby at the age of thirty-two, in a remarkable fifteen years Arnold created what the Victorians called the Public Schools (in contrast to private, often commercial, schools set up by individuals without any endowments). Arnold took the rough and tumble of a largely unreformed Georgian boarding school and infused it with a fresh sense of purpose. “What we must look for here”, in this school, he told the assembled pupils on his arrival, “is firstly religious and moral principles, secondly gentlemanly conduct, and thirdly intellectual ability”6. If that sounded like a recipe for ‘muscular Christianity”, that is to trivialise (as some did) what Arnold was all about. Manliness, to Arnold, meant the ability to conquer moral weakness ─ not simply physical prowess on the games field, which simply didn’t interest him ─ but the mental and spiritual determination to find responsible self-fulfilment. “there is no earthly thing more mean and despicable in my mind than an English gentleman destitute of all sense of his responsibilities and opportunities”, Arnold wrote in 1841, “only revelling in the luxury of our high civilisation, and thinking himself a great man”7.
Arnold was determined to convert the emerging upper middle-classes to his vision of an England led by Christian gentlemen. However, he was interested solely in the rich child, not the local boy8. In the 1830’s Rugby had an income of six thousand pounds from its endowments, enough, the citizens of Rugby said, to produce a good quality education free for five hundred boys. (Twelve pounds a boy in comparison to thirty-five pence a year at a monitorial school). With remarkable, but remorseless, sleight-of-hand Arnold totally overthrew the town’s local ambitions and progressively filled Rugby with fee-paying pupils from a distance (in the mid 1830s, of the hundred and eighty-three pupils he admitted, only fifty-two came from even within fifty miles of Rugby). Progressively Arnold defined the Victorian public school as an elite, fee-paying, boarding school (with no connection to its local community) for the sons of emerging gentlemen, with a passionate commitment to Christian beliefs and ethics9. He gave fresh life to the classical curriculum, but he virtually banned the teaching of science; “rather than have it (science) the principle thing in my son’s mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went around the earth, and that the stars were so many bangles in the bright firmament”10.
Arnold was enormously successful in creating a sense of righteous purpose and practical idealism for a form of schooling which suddenly the new wealth of the Victorian middle-classes desperately sought. Within fifty years there were to be ten times as many public schools as there had earlier been ‘great schools’11. The provision of quality education, which the founders of Elizabethan grammar schools had seen as being the right of every boy bright enough to benefit from it, was now high-jacked and became available only to those who could pay for it. This was to change the face of English education and social values forever.
Thesis 42: 24th August 2006