A remark on Dr Thomas Arnold and Rugby School after reading Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Old school and new school

Someone very dear to me recently told me during an argument about religion, that, if there were an afterlife, and she were faced with God, she would try to grab hold of him and spit in his face. It is true that this remark was perhaps provoked by me. Impatience can be expected between two people who know each other well, and who can forgive remarks of an extreme kind, and who passionate want to change the mind of the other. We are, in the course of such an exchange, likely to say things we don’t really mean, in order to make a strong effect. It may be well in cases like this to follow St Paul’s advice about avoiding talking to such people about this matter, and not provoke them into saying things they might later regret.

And I know what she meant in saying this, because I too live today, and know the kind of education which we have received, whether as children, or as young adults searching for some kind of place in ‘society’. The smartest people of our time are often campaigning atheists; their importance in society has been accrued by displays of their great intellect; and by their insistence on freedom of behaviour. Many people in an age of media power have a place of celebrity because they express the value of complete liberty and great intellectual achievement in a striking way; and young adults take notice of them and their arrogant atheism.

A modern intellectual (let us point to the Bloomsbury group as an early example of this) values Science, Democracy, and Liberalism. For such as Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, or Virginia Wolf (see the first paragraph of Eminent Victorians, in the essay on Cardinal Manning, for Strachey’s view), the idea of life as having been given to human beings by God makes no sense. This is because, in the view of the modern man, liberty of choice, and great intellect are items which we hold onto with individual pride.

In Strachey’s essay on Dr Arnold (sarcastic in a way which is so gently sarcastic by today’s standards, that it hardly registers) he points out that, when Arnold had the opportunity to give a curriculum to Rugby School, in an age when Liberalism, science, and democracy were first gaining momentum, he chose rather to establish his school along almost diametrically opposed lines. Now, I thank Strachey for having written about Dr Arnold; to learn something more about Victorian personalities was my aim in reading the book. And his picture of the headmaster is so gently comic that the author’s sarcastic attitude does not spoil the portrait. So, it has been for me worthwhile to remind the reader that Arnold set up his school (which became the model for other public, and eventually state schools) along some very simple principles.

1. That the children (aged around 10 to 18), should learn only Latin and Greek as part of their formal studies;

2. That the part of the curriculum with which he was most concerned was the period of prayers and church liturgy – carried out with himself as the priest;

3. and that school discipline would be administered and overseen by the prefects, or the sixth form.

The ultimate aim was to reform the then aimless school system, and produce adults who were Christians, Englishmen, and people who were able to learn anything, having learned the skill of self-education. But the emphasis was upon the Christianity, and producing ethical young people who were ready for a relationship with God. Of course, it is understood that Arnold’s simple and powerful method had a great impact on his pupils; and that they themselves spread the word and the method to every part of the education system in England in ensuing decades. It is particularly revealing and, to me, moving, that Arnold had the whole school attending during liturgy, and insisted that the most important parts of it, such as the Creed, were sung by the children; he himself had no musical ability save in these parts of the service. His idea of the prefect system derived from his reading of the Old Testament, where it is shown that in the ‘infancy’ of the human race, the tribes of Israel were ruled by members of their own, by judges.

I have this picture of a lone teacher, in command of three hundred unruly boys, possessed of the idea of making them Christians and Englishmen, and believing that they only need be taught how to enjoy the liturgy, and how to solve complex puzzles in ancient texts, and that this was enough to make them masters of any situation in life, and ready for greater things.

There are objections to this method of education, and contemporary education embodies those objections. Perhaps our whole society is a rejection of Christianity, England, and knowing how to deal with any situation on your own initiative. Note that Arnold wanted to write a work applying the same kind of simple vision to the whole of England itself, and he meditated on a work to be entitled ‘Church and State’. I suppose there are those of us who, like me, dimly see some kind of way forward when thinking of the present world in this light. But, let us face it, the majority of people would insist on dismissing the idea of a ‘theocracy’ as absurd. If Strachey were writing today, no doubt he would not be in a position to write of Eminent Elizabethans, characterised mostly by their Christianity, and laughable because of it.

I am undecided about whether any of the present day educational alternatives, which I have certainly experienced, are better than Arnold’s method. I will make some straightforward assertions to try to put some doubt in the reader’s mind, as I myself doubt that the alternatives to a Christian education have been successful. For, I assume that our children, and we as children, did not have an education which was anything like Arnold’s children.

What strikes me most immediately is that, speaking from personal reflections which I have mulled over for a few decades in silence, I did not take in any of the ‘science’ or other things which were ostensibly being taught at my Secondary School. A modern Comprehensive school education has, as its most important aim, to produce children who ‘know’ things and can prove that they know them by passing examinations. I mean, the school day of our children, and which I experienced, consists of a short gathering for registration, then between six and eight different periods of ‘lessons’ in which facts and methods about different arbitrarily divided areas of knowledge are taught. The list usually includes English language, mathematics, two or three foreign languages (the learning of phrases which a visitor to the foreign land might need to use), history, computing, business, physics, biology, PE, food technology, geography, etc. I don’t comment on the details of this syllabus. It is only worth remarking that I did not feel, at the age of seventeen, when I left Comprehensive education, that I had learned much at all.

We could speak about the pressure of examinations, and what they signify, but this gets us away from the main point. Arnold was right that children don’t need to learn facts, because to do so en paregon, or half-heartedly, will leave the matter unresolved and unsatisfied. Rather, it was only worthwhile to teach a child how to learn; the actual substance of the teaching is neither here nor there; people learn what they need at the later stages in life. On principle, people will disagree with my statement here, but I can’t think of a satisfactory way of proving that their pre-16 education really did teach them valuable information or not, if it taught any information at all. As for me, I was convinced that everything which I now know and understand has come about from my own self-teaching, or perhaps from post-comprehensive education.

Secondly, it will definitely be said that a child who is taught Christianity, and the ethics which are essential to existing as a Christian, will have been ‘brainwashed’. That is, the child will remain a Christian throughout life because of what his teachers and elders said to him about these things in his youth. And that he may thereby have a fixation on something in later life which he would not otherwise have had. A couple of points with this argument. It would be possible to teach children atheism, and, they would thereafter in life have a fixation with atheism, and have been ‘brainwashed’ into it, and this fixation on the absence of God would be something which they would not otherwise have had, were it not for the emphasis on atheism in their early years; and this can be shown to be actually the case for a great many people. And, as for whether the belief in God, inculcated during childhood, is bad or good for them, we shall not comment.

Eternity in a box

I would, however, remark the following. That person who would spit at God because God has submitted us to a life where he hid Himself from us, and purposely made the world hard and difficult, and made it harder still to see Him – that person has a good point. But, the benefits of a religious attitude toward God are real. And, at the same time, the pride of a free person who is willing to stand up against God is real. But it is not good to this extent: that if there is a life after death, then that person who has distanced himself from God throughout an entire life, and has been proud of his individuality and intellect, will perhaps find himself, in the afterlife, with only that intellect and that pride for company. The people we have around us, and who we love, are loved and lovable because they were created by God; and the love we have for them is a variety of the ultimate love for God, which has been designed by Him to reside in the heart. And, when we are dead, will we find ourselves without God, just as in life we were without God? And therefore, will we be without those other people, and without love? Will the defiant and proud one be alone, staring in the dark for ever, with the same passions and infatuations, pride and self-assertion, and yet without a world, and without other people, without any distractions, or anything to relieve him from his solitary self? Where in life we rejected God, so in death there will be no God, either.

It is easy to understand the eternity of solitude when we see fictional and popular dramas; people easily accept that life is perhaps a creation by some kind of super-technology, and that eternal existence is possible. A recent TV series called Black Mirror, for example, in its Christmas Special, portrayed the nightmare situation of a man who had killed a child because of rejection in love. The murderer is eventually caught when police officers use world-simulation technology to induce in him a confession; they then submit him to thousands of years living alone in a single room, completely without any company or any escape. A horrifying situation for a guilty man. I don’t provide this example with any malicious intent. I don’t mean to scare the reader into submission into accepting God’s presence and rule over events. I mean it as a thought experiment, to raise awareness in a people who are too used to insisting on ‘science’ and facts as the main content of their belief system; I mean, the world itself is not scientific, and its strangeness exceeds the easy certainties of scientific assurances. If there were an afterlife… ?

What we learned at school

A final objection might be that a school should not be a place for producing a particular type of person. You might say, a school should not produce a Christian, as opposed to some other kind of person, for example. I myself was an ‘RE’ teacher in North Wales and Wirral. I was young, and not actually a Church-goer or even a Christian at that time. During my own teacher training, and my time at school, the RE lesson every week was the least important, as far as the school was concerned. I know that this is true for modern schools, and let us say no more about this obvious statement.

However, it was my experience of a state education that the most important moments of the whole period of around ten years, consisted in my interactions with teachers on what they today call the ‘pastoral’ level; and that, one way or another, the school’s main importance for me was that it made me into a certain type of person. And this is why the physical education teachers were for me the most important teachers of the school. I speak as a Ph.D and an author, and whatever else I have become. How can it be that the only memorable and worthwhile events in a modern secondary school seem to have taken place when no learning of any kind was going on, but where a middle aged man taught a gang of boys how to play football in a fair way? Or, when the head of house decided to talk to me about my problem of brawling in the yard, and took the place of a father for me? Admittedly, we usually did not get caught or in trouble when we had been fighting; but the presence and the reactions of the teachers to these events and my mistakes have been a lesson for life. How is it that, where matters of discipline were at stake, in those events for example where I swore, or used an unfair word about somebody else, then these were the lessons which I took away with me for life, while the rest of the stuff being taught at school was either forgotten or useless?

Effectively, the most important moments of school life are actually in the ethical moulding of a young person with reproofs at the right moments, and where praise is due for displays of character and skill. There is something very close to a relationship of a father to a son in the relationship of a teacher and pupil. I offer these evidences, my opinions, as simple facts to work with when we are tempted to think of schools as places where a type of person is not being moulded.

I know that student teachers and government officials already know the justice of these kinds of remark. However, accepting the fact that the pastoral, and teaching of ethics and Christianity is infinitely more important to a child than teaching poor quality biology and irrelevant geography, is never going to be accepted today, so I don’t press the matter. We will continue to cram children with the answers to quiz questions, and force them to be quizzed at the end of every year.

Rather, I should end by remarking that Strachey’s Dr Arnold, even when he has been made to look stupid, seems still to be realistically ‘eminent’. One of Nietzsche’s aphorisms somewhere says that ‘it is easy to make a great man look small; but it is impossible to make a petty man appear great.’ By which he meant that Arnold or some other important figure can be ridiculed because of his oddities and faults. But you could not call Strachey, or any of the Bloomsbury group, ‘great’. Strachey’s science, democracy, and liberalism are somehow empty of content, like the modern school curriculum. However much the schools attempt to cram information and the like into children, and test them on the results, there seems to be less and less actually happening.

I thank my teachers for the morning assemblies where some hymn singing and a bit of a sermon took place; and, then, the Army Cadets platoon, which then had a house on the school field; and the manly encouragement of the teachers to do right. These are, I suppose, some kind of faint echo of the Victorian public school. I don’t remember anything else of significance offered by that education.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.