The Newbolt Report and English for the English

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

Chapter 6 – The Newbolt Report and English for the English

This Chapter presents the 1921 Newbolt Report‘s dissatisfaction with the classical curriculum and its failure to “humanise” more than a privileged few. The Report and George Sampson’s English for the English strengthened the idea that English in schools had the unique power to improve character and change society. Both the Newbolt committee and Sampson saw liberal culture, self-development through art and the native language as being provided for the whole nation through English. It was made clear that English was defined as the curriculum’s centrally humanising element and its teachers as cultural missionaries.

  • The Newbolt Report and George Sampson’s English for the English are “landmarks” on any survey of the subjects development over last 150 years.
    • Both express anxieties about treatment of it as a subject and certainties about its value.
    • Both influenced later development of English as a subject.
    • Mathieson: “Most of all, they anticipate future prescriptions about the qualities which seem desirable in the subject s teachers.
    • Repeated the Victorian demands for “apostles” and “missionaries” which required special people as its teachers.
  • Mathieson places the Newbolt Report and Sampson in historical context: desire for improvements in living conditions, post-WW1 appreciation of the general low level of standard education.
  • H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, expressed his unease about the division between public and elementary schools’ curricula (between humanising subjects and severely practical).
  • Fisher (in 1921): “The proposition for which I am contending is that youth is the period of life specially set apart for education. I venture to plead for a state of society in which learning comes first and earning comes second among the obligations of youth, not for one class only, but for all young people. At present the rich learn and the poor earn.
  • Background to the 1921 Report:
    • A national sense of inferiority to Europe in education.
    • Rising demand for secondary school places.
    • General feeling reform was necessary.
  • Between 1918-19 four committees set up to report on teaching of science, modern languages, classics and English.
  • The English committee was chaired by Sir Henry Newbolt and included: Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, J.H. Fowler and Caroline Spurgeon as well as inspectors, principals and heads of schools.
  • The 1921 Report:
    • In its opening pages: “The inadequate conception of the teaching of English in this country is not a separate defect which can be separately remedied It is due to a more far-reaching failure—the failure to conceive the full mean­ ing and possibilities of national education as a whole, and that failure again is due to a misunderstanding of the educational values to be found in the different regions of mental activity, and especially to an underestimate of the importance of English language and literature.
    • The Report drew attention to the social division in education: that there were two different kinds of education (for rich and poor) – this “widened the mental distances between classes in England”.
    • One of the main goals was the achievement of greater social unity. Improved teaching of English in all schools is the means of doing this. Mathieson: “it is not surprising that the Report has made an important contribution to the subject’s ideology of social and individual improvement”.
    • The committee did not want to undervalue the study of the classics and admitted that the study of the classics offered finest education but did not provide a means of bridging the gulfs between classes.
    • The transfer of classical curriculum’s teaching methods had already had disastrous effects on English and had actually held back liberal education.
    • They saw the teaching of English literature as a means of creating a “bond of sympathy between the members of a human society” more successfully than the classics had done.
    • Mathieson: “Literature in schools could, more than any other study, achieve the education of the whole child because of its deliberate and beneficial irrelevance to him as a future wage-earner. ‘The literature lesson’, the Committee says, ‘is no mechanical matter’; it consists ‘not in the imparting of in­ formation, but in the introduction of the student to great minds and new forms of experience.
    • Committee expected “a general raising” of society’s cultural level and its capacity to respond to great works of art. It reported that it had uncovered national philistinism and distrust of art. Children’s experience of literature might do much to raise country’s level of cultural appreciation.
    • Teaching of literature often referred to as “missionary work” (19th century mood of moral earnestness).
    • Mathieson: “The Report states that the teachers of English should have the kind of qualities which are more usually found in the charismatic preacher.
    • The Report asserts that: “The ambassadors of poetry must be humble, they must learn to call nothing common or unclean—not even the local dialect, the clatter of the factory, or the smoky pall of industrial centres.
    • The Report also identified the distrust with which working class people treated literature (“merely as an ornament, a polite accomplishment, a subject to be despised by really virile men”). The report identified this as a “morbid condition of the body politic”.
  • George Sampson (1925?): “I am prepared to maintain, and indeed, do maintain, without reserva­tion and perhapses, that it is the purpose of education, not to prepare children for their occupations, but to prepare children against their occupations.
  • Sampson (agreeing with Newbolt Report) that the goal was “to develop the mind and soul of the children and not merely to provide tame and acquiescent labour fodder.
  • powerfully emotional language” of Report and English for the English and stressed the urgency of the need to implement change. Sampson uses a combative language. Both use religious imagery. Mathieson also notes a “tone of desperation” (she links this later to Leavis and Cambridge School of English in 1930s-40s where teachers are called “warriors”).
  • Mathieson: “The language of the Newbolt Report and English for the English certainly suggests that the responsibility for ‘uplifting’ – the traditional function of the classics and the Church – was, in time of crisis, being transferred to English.
  • Mathieson (on the Report): “If the goals of the schools were changed and the teachers could be educated to do more than just impart useful knowledge to their pupils, society, it was suggested, would inevitably improve. Hearts and minds would be changed because of the nature of the literary experience, the power of which was to satisfy ‘the love of truth, the love of beauty and the love of righteousness’.
  • Newsom Report (1963) made similar assertions: “we state what appears to us to be an incontrovertible primary fact, that for English children no form of knowledge of English, no form of literature can take precedence of English literature: and that the two are so inextricably connected as to form the only basis possible for a national education.
  • By the time of Newbolt Report English teachers were being equated with Arnold’s “preachers of culture”.
  • Sampson: “I am thinking of… the class of young barbarians whose souls are to be touched by the magic of poetry and whose souls will certainly not be touched unless there is first a soul to teach them.