The Curriculum Debate

Notes from The Preachers of Culture by Margaret Mathieson (1975)

Chapter 1 – The Curriculum Debate

This chapter presents the central issues of the nineteenth-century debate between supporters of classical and scientific studies and argues that the underlying assumptions and manner in which the debate was conducted affected the way in which English studies was first advocated.

  • Mathieson sums up the debate: “For a century and a half then, from the dissatisfied middle class who wished to enter public schools and universities and transform them to accommodate their needs, from the radicals who insisted upon the inclusion of useful knowledge, from the progressives who followed Rousseau in their emphasis upon learning through things rather than words, critics attacked a curriculum limited to the study of classical texts. The universities and public schools, however, stubbornly resisted successive series of critical articles and recommendations of commissions and scientists. They maintained their unshaken confidence in what they believed to be he superior humanism of the classics and the truth of the faculty theory Public school headmasters, distrusting the notion of progress through scien­tific discovery and application, were unimpressed by references to foreign competition, suspicious of the anti-religious associations with the scientific cause, and untroubled by any need to provide their pupils with the means of earning their living.
  • English first existed as instruction in basic reading and writing.
  • Nineteenth century universities, public schools and grammar schools ignored English due to confidence in “superior humanism of the classics” and link with utilitarianism of working class schools.
  • Mechanics Institutes and London University insisted on English’s morally educative value.
  • Proponents of a “liberalising core to the curriculum” shared a belief that the curriculum should include morally educative subjects. This moral aspect (“high ideals and impassioned tones”) was inherited by the subject.
  • Radical education reformers, leading scientists and nineteeth-century progressives insisted that the classics were failing to provide a liberal education.
  • Essays on a Liberal Education (1868) accused universities of failing to reconsider meaning of a liberal education in the light of changing knowledge.
  • Quotes John Seeley: “‘Education, in fact, in England, is what the universities choose to make it’”.
  • Mathieson explains that “The accusation that dominated the criticism directed at universities and schools was that a liberal education had degenerated into the sterile routine of grammar drill and exercise of mere memory. Few pupils, critics argued, reached those heights where their characters would be trained through encounters with the great minds of the past.
  • Quotes Thomas Huxley that a classical education: “. . means getting up endless forms and rules by heart. It means turning Latin and Greek into English for the mere sake of being able to do it, and without the smallest regard to the worth or worthlessness of the author read.’”
  • Quotes Darwin that his experience was that: “‘far too many boys emerged from the public schools with little knowledge even of the classics, with less of modern subjects, and with no mental cultivation or interest in study’
  • Greatest criticism was from middle-class dissatisfaction from the exclusiveness of university. Both the Westminster Review and the Edinburgh Review argued against the narrowness and inappropriateness of the classical curriculum in first quarter of nineteenth century. Also dissatisfaction with lack of Science taught at universities. Universities seen as establishments for training gentlemen of leisure.
  • Mathieson argues that the most significant criticism was that upper-class educational establishments were failing to provide a liberal education because of dull teaching routines or failure to include modern knowledge. The presumption is that the provision of a liberal education mattered most of all.
  • University tutors and public school headmasters resisted studies associated with Science as they were associated with working class education, industrialism and manual labour. Mathieson gives examples of resistance to the study of Science. Headmasters saw the classics as embodying tradition, authority and wisdom through which character could be best developed. The classics conveyed superior social status on students and were influenced by German idealism and theories of mental training.
  • In late nineteenth century when modern languages and science were introduced in public schools they were limited to timetables of less-able pupils (the “modern side”).
  • Supporters of scientific studies also adopted idealistic terms. Thomas Huxley in Science and Culture (1887) argued that “‘for the pur­pose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education’”. Others – eg. Faraday – argued for the moral value of engaging in scientific activity.
  • Mathieson notes that those involved in the curriculum debate felt their views had urgency because they were living in a time of crisis.
  • The curriculum debate of nineteenth century had far-reaching effects on English studies. All assumed that there must be a humanising, morally improving subject at the heart of “sound education”. The supporters of English studies shared these assumptions.
  • Mathieson ends the chapter: “Much of the support given to English in the school curriculum has come from educators holding gloomy views of modern urban society and repeatedly reminding the teachers of its state of cultural crisis. And unlike the nineteenth century’s unified view of the character-­building demanded of the classical curriculum, today’s highly diversified society provides its English teachers with no single sense of purpose.