Book Review: Teaching Classics in English Schools, 1500-1840

After a briskly detailed overview of mediaeval education, where Donatus and Priscian were important texts, in chapter two, A. (the senior classics master at Pocklington School) identifies, as a—or the—key moment, Colet’s foundation of St Paul’s school in 1510, not beholden to any ecclesiastical body, but to the Mercers’ Company, and intended to prepare boys for roles in society as well as in the church (A. pertinently quotes Erasmus on this development). To be sure, the Latin authors recommended by Colet for reading (Lactantius, Prudentius and others) were Christian, but this austere precept was not followed for long.

Hardback, pp210, £47.99 / $81.95

In chapter three, A. considers Latin in the classroom, and here Lily’s grammar (actually the work of Lily, Colet and Erasmus) became phenomenally successful and long-lasting. At the same time, spoken Latin, even when theoretically enforced, went into a gradual decline, despite, for example, the regular production of plays—especially those of Terence—in the Latin language: the tradition continues today at Westminster School.

In chapter four—the ‘Arrival of Greek’—we read that by the beginning of the sixteenth century ‘Greek was the new wine’, yet by 1560 it appears that Greek had virtually disappeared—seemingly because study of it was a challenge to the authority of the church, whose opposition led to a shortage of texts; yet from about that year its resurgence was ‘rapid and essential’, helped by the accession of Queen Elizabeth, herself an ‘accomplished Greek student’. Edward Grant’s ‘indefatigable’ Greek Grammar was published in 1575.

In chapter five—‘Violence and Rebellion’ A. gives a lively account of school brutality, by no means all of it coming from the masters, who were often too few to deal with their unruly pupils—though we may assume that the Salopian discovered with a loaded pistol in 1820 was the exception rather than the rule. A. points out that a teacher’s authority suffered both from his low pay and his inferior social class (a quote from Daniel Defoe is telling on this subject): perhaps not surprisingly, two headmasters of Eton of modest birth—Foster and Keate—were especially despised.

Chapter six is devoted to Latin and Greek Composition, and, while (original) prose composition came first, there is plentiful evidence for the prevalence of verse composition from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, though it would be idle to pretend that it was other than ‘hugely unpopular’ with many pupils, as well as the public at large. That did not prevent the publication, especially in the 19th century, of many books of school compositions, such as Musae Etonenses and Sabrinae Corolla (accomplished as much of the work is, Hugh Lloyd-Jones pointed out to the reviewer that often ‘rules’ are ignored—or, more likely, simply not known: Hermann’s ‘Bridge’ is an example) .

In the important chapter seven— ‘Criticism and Change’—A. shows that the dominance of classics teaching came to be challenged as other subjects, were introduced—maths from 1673 at Christs Hospital, but there many other subjects also being introduced, and by the 18th century there were over 1100 non-classical foundations. A classical education was becoming ‘the preserve of those who could afford not to need it’. A. also shows in this chapter how the public schools began to acquire the tag of separatism (i.e. from grammar schools), with status and the ability to pay. They were ‘free from state control and possessed relatively self-sufficient endowments’—able to recruit the best classicists. In other words, they were no longer ‘public’ (Kennedy composed a long ‘note’, not mentioned by A., on the meaning of libera schola, which is a masterpiece of casuistry.)

Chapter eight’s title is ‘Classics Renewed’. It is not unfair to say that this chapter is dominated by two Shrewsbury headmasters—Samuel Butler and B. H. Kennedy, who had a phenomenal effect on the direction taken by English education throughout the 19th century, as of course did Arnold of Rugby in a rather different, and arguably even more important, way (A. rightly gives full credit to Arnold). It was Butler who argued fiercely against Brougham’s Bill of 1820 which had the intention of loosening the grip held by Latin and Greek on the education of the nation’s children. It is not surprising that, from this point on, A.’s material becomes, perhaps, more familiar, and a number of well-known stories make their appearance, including Kennedy’s winning the Porson Prize while still a schoolboy at Shrewsbury. He does not, however, tell the most famous story of all—how Thomas Brancker, again while at Shrewsbury, won Oxford’s Ireland Scholarship in 1831, beating both Gladstone and Robert Scott, yet another Salopian and future editor, with Liddell, of the eponymous dictionary. Nor at any time does he refer to the (readily explicable) absence of Lucretius from school syllabi. And when A. lists Charles Darwin, on page 2, among those ‘who looked back with fondness and delight for the classics they learnt’ at school, he is mistaken.

A.’s conclusion, (p. 138), is that it was especially in the centuries before the nineteenth that the ‘training and education made classics a part of men’s lives they have not been since and will not be again’. Perhaps so, but the flame lives on: why otherwise will this book, and this review, be read?

The reviewer, who declares an interest as a Salopian who has written on relevant matters, is conscious that this is but a brief notice, omitting much of interest, of a very detailed book which should certainly be bought by the libraries of all schools which offer classical teaching, and which may, one hopes, find a wider constituency than that, despite a fairly demanding price. However, the reviewer questions the publisher’s opinion that this is the ‘perfect reference book … for university students who are studying Classical Reception’. There are no fewer than 568 admirable endnotes, and a useful, but not complete, bibliography.

Colin Leach, Classics for All (30th December, 2016)

To find out more about Teaching Classics in English Schools, 1500-1840 by Matthew Adams, click here.


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