Matthew Arnold

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

Chapter 3 – Matthew Arnold

This chapter presents the influence of Matthew Arnold upon English.

  • Matthew Arnold was committed to the idea of a central educative subject that would “form the soul and character”.
  • Arnold expressed views about education “in tones of religious intensity” and passionate conviction.
  • Arnold saw social unrest of 1860s-1870s as a product of cultural crisis that required a literary culture in schools. He was troubled by the “external” nature of Victorian society: competitive, materialistic, practical, complacent. Worship of scientific progress threatened religion. Saw a wave of American vulgar culture threatening.
  • Argued for “apostles of equality” among middle and working classes. He wanted reform of classics teaching in public schools and literature taught elsewhere.
  • In Literature and Science, Arnold argued he would prefer young people to be ignorant of facts of science and enable them to “live more” through Literature.
  • Arnold argued in his General Report for 1876 that people needed to be “moralised” before using the data of natural science (through “letters, poetry and religion”).
  • His father was a school headmaster and influenced by the moral idealism of German education and a distrust of a godless, mechanical society produced by Benthamite rationalism. Both Arnold his father had a missionary zeal about transforming society.
  • Society needed the “beneficent function” of Literature.
  • Arnold saw poetry as replacing religion and philosophy: “We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it.. .. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us to con­ sole us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear in­ complete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy, will be replaced by poetry.
  • Raymond Williams in the first chapter of Culture and Society suggests that the Romantics equated art with what was superior in experience, promoting Literature to the level of life and poetry to the level of experience. Art offered a different set of values in distinction from those of utility and acquisitiveness.
  • Arnold’s response to “external” society had “far-reaching effects” on the study of English in schools.
  • Arnold saw the study of culture as a “moral and social passion for doing good”.
  • He suggested that elementary school children should study the best models of English poetry. “Indeed, the introduction of learning poetry by heart by children and pupil teachers was Arnold’s contribution to the advancement of English in schools.
  • Through “sweetness and light” (his view of culture), Arnold believed divisions in social classes could be bound. Saw culture as doing away with classes. The “apostles of equality” would carry the best knowledge and ideas of their time throughout society.
  • Ambivalence between Arnold’s egalitarianism and his contemptuous attitude towards the masses.
  • Further element in Arnold’s influence on English in schools is the despair with what is seen as threats represented by the mass media and frustration with education’s apparent failure to equip the masses to resist.
  • Mathieson argues that he was (along with other contributors to Essays on a Liberal Education) responsible for the perpetuation of class differences: classics for public schools and English for the lower middle class and elementary school pupils.
  • Mathieson: “A common culture was unlikely to be achieved by retention of traditional teaching methods transferred, for working-class pupils, to models of the English classics. His recommendations, however, caused English to be given greater time and attention in the schools.
  • As a result of Arnold’s efforts in 1871 English Literature and grammar was made a “specific subject” to be taught to individual pupils in Standards IV, V and VI.
  • Arnold felt that the passages for recitation were frequently unsuitable for children who recited them without understanding.
  • By 1882 English moved from being an optional to a compulsory “class” subject.
  • Arnold on poetry: it “undoubtedly tends to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty, of truth, in alliance together; it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles in action . . . hence its extreme importance to all of us, but in our elementary schools, its importance seems to me at present, quite extraordinary.
  • The 1921 government report on the Teaching of English in England shared many of Arnold’s beliefs in role of Literature (they “envisaged something like a crusade of English teachers working in the schools to promote society’s unity and salvation”).
  • Mathieson notes the strong influence of Arnold on 20th century educators (Leavis, G.H. Bantock).
  • Quotes Basil Willey: “Instead, in Arnold, we encounter a new phenomenon, intelligence playing freely upon the great concerns of human life. He was the first to see and to proclaim the importance, for the modern world, of the qualities of mind and spirit which literary culture can give …. He knew, and had ‘felt along the heart’ , the deep malady of his time, and for that very reason could diagnose it and spend the greater part of his life in trying to cure it.