Essays on a Liberal Education

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

Chapter 2 – Essays on a Liberal Education

This chapter briefly examines the influence on English studies of Dean Frederic William Ferrar’s 1868 collection, Essays on a Liberal Education.

A pdf of a scan of Essays on a Liberal Education is available at the Internet Archive.

  • Essays on a Liberal Education made “very high” claims about the benefits of studying English Literature though still assume the superiority of the classics – this perpetuated “social divisiveness” up until 1921 Newbolt Committee.
  • Teachers presented as “missionaries of culture”.
  • Although there was some memorisation of literature in second half of nineteenth century, English focused on providing functional skills.
  • Robert Lowe’s Primary and Classical Education (1867) emphasised “practical things” rather than “speculative things” and argued that the study of English should be “peparation for actual life”.
  • Mathieson gives the example of a 1832 advertisement for Billesdon Academy which taught English and gave the impression of English being a “poor man’s Latin”. She gives other examples to show how English was presented as replacing Greek and Latin in schools of lower social status.
  • English seen to humanise and refine boys’ minds.
  • Contributors to Essays on a Liberal Education were looking to English to make good the deficiencies of the classics. They disliked literatures exclusion from recommended subjects, grammar schools neglected English literature entirely and elementary schools taught through mechanical drills. Victorians concerned about a cultural crisis.
  • T.H. Huxley and H. Sedgewick gave strongest emphasis to value of English studies.
  • Quotes Huxley: “‘There is a little more reading and writing of English. But for all that, everyone knows that it is a rare thing to find a boy in the middle and upper classes who can read aloud decently, and who can put his thoughts on paper in clear and grammatical (to say nothing of good and elegant) language…. He might never have heard that there once lived certain notable men called Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Vol­taire, Goethe, Schiller.’
  • Henry Sedgewick’s essay “is probably of greater significance for the growth of English in schools”. Content and tone of Sedgewick’s essay is about the humanising power of literature. (Part of his argument about the failure of the Classics is that children never experience the humanising effects because their minds are exhausted by linguistic struggles. Sedgewick supports literature being taught as character-building.
  • Quotes Sedgewick: “‘Let us demand instead that all boys, whatever their special bent and destination, be really taught literature; so that as far as possible, they may learn to enjoy intelligently poetry and eloquence; that their views and sympathies may be enlarged and expanded by apprehending noble, subtle and profound thoughts, refined and lofty feelings; that some comprehension of the varied development of human nature may ever abide with them, the source and essence of a truly humanising culture.’
  • English regarded as a lower-status subject for students unable or unwilling to study the Classics. When English was introduced at London University it required philological elements (to make it seem respectable).
  • Writing about English in the 1970s, Mathieson observes: “Today, a roughly similar relationship exists between subject specialists and supporters of interdisciplinary work. The supremacy of the classics has finally disappeared—qualifications in Latin are no longer demanded by the ancient universities—and English is widely accepted as their replacement as the humanising centre of the school curriculum. Many teachers are worried, though, about the difficulties faced, by working-class children in particular, when reading major
    texts in English literature, and are adopting thematic approaches in­volving easier and shorter extracts. When English teachers resist these developments, their reluctance for their subject to be dismantled for interdisciplinary projects and themes reflects something of the Vic­torian headmasters’ suspicion of vernacular literature as it previously threatened the classics. There are differences, of course, which illus­trate major changes in the climate of educational discussion. Today, the supporters of English studies, like G. H. Bantock and David Holbrook, want children from all social backgrounds to be able to experience great literature and creative activity, at their own levels, whereas the nineteenth-century headmasters wished to preserve the classics as a liberal education for their upper-class pupils only. They were unconcerned, sometimes enthusiastic, about the introduction of English literature into elementary schools, as long* as this did not interfere with their own curriculum. And today, unlike the Victorian pioneers for English studies, the supporters of interdisciplinary work tend to believe in the value of their innovative curriculum for all pupils, not only the average and less able, and even for university students.”
  • Mathieson argues that supporters of English studies made “major contributions” but their acceptance of the superiority of the classics over English intensified the bitterness of the debate about English in early 20th century.