Some Reflections of a Public Schoolmaster (1905)
By J.H. FOWLER, M.A. Clifton College
It is possible for a schoolmaster who believes in humane letters as the best form of education to rise from the attacks of Sir Oliver Lodge or Prof. Ray Lankester upon English public-schools and the older Universities with his withers unwrung. He may, I hope, be forgiven for feeling, with all respect for those eminent controversialists, that his ideals are so different in some ways from theirs that the criticism leaves him unmoved; the aims in view are unlike; it is not to be expected they should approve his methods. It is obvious, however, that such an attitude of indifference is no longer to be justified when the criticisms proceed, not from the outside and from avowed enemies, but from within and from distinguished champions of the humanities. There is little room for self-complacency left after one has read — as every public schoolmaster ought to read — Canon Lyttelton's article in the June Nineteenth Century on the training of teachers, Mr. Benson's article in the May National Review on "An Eton Education," and the anonymous diary of a classical schoolmaster lately issued under the title of "The Upton Letters."
"Is there a country in the world except England where it could be commonly supposed that a man is the better for being ignorant?" asks Canon Lyttelton with pardonable impatience, after mentioning the easy indifference with which our English schoolmasters dismiss as useless all investigations into educational theory and practice. The men who criticise have not read, he says, a line of the works he has been speaking of "except perhaps, Stanley's life of Arnold." The statement is almost literally true, and it is a severe indictment, perhaps of our national failings, certainly of the scholastic profession in England. We are far too easily satisfied with traditional methods, and the man who has wit enough to command the respect of his pupils is apt to suppose he has nothing more to learn.
Passing from Canon Lyttelton to Mr. Benson, I find that a long experience of Eton in the double capacity of boy and master has led to the deliberate conviction that "the thing could not be better organised, but it is like a great factory for weaving ropes out of sand." "The present system has been framed in a spirit of despair; ... the result is intellectual confusion, waste of labour and highly unsatisfactory results." And when I turn to "The Upton Letters" — a book that seems also to reflect a long experience at Eton, whether Mr. Benson's or another's, it is not for me to say — I find this most disheartening picture of the life of our public schools:
I declare that it makes me very sad sometimes to see these
well-groomed, well-mannered, rational, manly boys all taking
the same view of things, all doing the same things, smiling
politely at the eccentricity of any one who finds matter for ¡
serious interest in books, in art, or music; all splendidly
reticent about their inner thoughts, with a courteous respect
for the formalities of religion and the formalities of work ; perfectly
correct, perfectly complacent, with no irregularities or irregular
preferences of their own; with no admiration for anything
but athletic success, and no contempt for anything but
onginality of ideas. They are so nice, so gentlemanly, so easy
to get on with; and yet, in another region, they are so dull, so
unimaginative, so narrow-minded. They cannot all, of course,
be intellectual or cultivated; but they ought to be more tolerant,
more just, more wise.
Happily I am sure that the picture is not true
as it stands of the public school I know best.
There, at least, it is not the fashion to regard
"serious interest in books, in art or music," as
nothing better than eccentricity ; nor is it true
that the boys have "no admiration for anything
but athletic success." Yet who that knows much
of English public-schools or English public-schoolboys
would dare to say that he does not
recognise the picture as a faithful portrait of a
type to which they are ever tending to approximate?
There is another side to the picture, even if we accept the account of "The Upton Letters," and, as I think it important that it should not be forgotten, and it is forgotten by many of our critics, I should like to mention before I go any further that it has found admirable expression recently in a pamphlet by Mr. J. L. Paton ("English Public Schools," G. Allen, London, 6d. net). The
friends of the Highmaster of Manchester Grammar
School will not suspect him of admiring any ideals
of life that are lacking in strenuousness, and no
stronger testimony to English public-schools could
be found than Mr. Paton's judgment, after his boyhood
at Shrewsbury and his early manhood at
Rugby, that the great need of English middle-class education to-day is the leavening of the
grammar-schools with the splendid spirit of
brotherhood that animates the public schools.
Mr. Paton's complaint against the great schools
is not that they are not good in themselves, it is
merely that they are the schools of a class, not
sufficiently in touch with the national life.
But it was not on deserved praise so much as on
justifiable censure that I had meant to dwell. The
wise fool in "Twelfth Night" avowed himself the
better for his foes and the worse for his friends.
"My friends praise me and make an ass of me;
now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass, so that
by my foes I profit in the knowledge of myself,
and by my friends I am abused." So, whilst we
distribute Mr. Paton's excellent pamphlet amongst
the parents of possible pupils, let us the rather turn
for ourselves to the strictures of "The Upton
Letters." If the prevailing temper of English
public schools be at all as this book describes it,
can we do nothing to improve it? It is not made
by the masters, of course. The tradition of the
schools is stronger than they. The pressure of the old boys is strong also. It was not the least intellectual of public schools whose old boys, at their annual conclave, recently offered as their one contribution to the school's welfare a solitary resolution asking the headmaster to appoint a permanent cricket master on his staff. And, again, there is the influence of the home and the parents' ideals, which often enough are not what they should be. We may be sure that a nation has the schools, as well as the government, that it deserves. But the masters are certainly not guiltless in the matter. At " Upton " we hear of some masters dining together." A few half-hearted remarks are made about politics and books, a good deal of vigorous gossip is talked, but if a question as to the best time for net-practice, or the erection of a board for the purpose of teaching slip-catches is mentioned, a profound seriousness falls on the group."
It is not a reform of studies, as it seems to me, that is wanted, nor any reform of methods that could be imposed by any external authority. What we need is that we should ourselves become more alive to the true importance of things; that we should be less content to accept conventional standards; that we should think nobly of our own profession and its responsibilities. The longer I live the more deeply I feel, in this warfare of the
studies that makes up so large a part of our talk
about education, that the spirit in which we learn
or teach is vastly more important than the subject-
matter. I have strong prepossessions in favour of
literature and history, but I would far rather see
natural science or modern languages or mathematics
taught in the right spirit than classics or
history taught in the wrong.
Depressing as are the quotations which I have given from "The Upton Letters," the book on the whole leaves me with a feeling of hope. The inspiration of it may go far; and this article will not have been written in vain if it induces one or two schoolmasters to include the "Letters" in their holiday portmanteau. It is foreign to my purpose to speak of other pleasures the book holds in store for its readers—the charm of its descriptions of nature, the interest of its literary judgments, its frank revelation of character, its depth and delicacy of religious feeling. Each day brings its petty dust Our soon-choked souls to fill is as true of the schoolmaster's life as of any other. And no success that is worth having will come to us unless we sweep away the dust as fast as it accumulates. One help to this is in those books which, as Canon Lyttelton complains, we too seldom read. Even the humble treatises on method have their use to this end. They keep a man from getting into those ruts of teaching which so quickly destroy his living interest and enthusiasm in his work. But there is a higher usefulness in volumes that show the ideals which may glorify the schoolmaster's craft—books still too few in number, but lately increased by the addition of Mr. Skrine's " Pastor Agnorum " and of " The Upton Letters." I can only quote here
one or two samples of the wisdom which those
who go to this last book will find :—
It is better to encourage aptitudes than to try merely to
correct deficiencies. One can't possibly extirpate weaknesses
by trying to crush them. One must build up vitality and interest
and capacity (p. 136).
I am sure that it is one's duty as a teacher to try and show
boys that no opinions, no tastes, no emotions, are worth much
unless they are one's own (p. 130).
There should be a treasure in the heart of a wise schoolmaster ;
not to be publicly displayed nor drearily recounted ;
but at the right moment, and in the tight way, he ought to be
able to show a boy that there are sacred and beautiful things
which rule, or ought to rule, the heart (p. 102).
What one ought to aim at is not the establishment of personal
influence, not the perverted sense of power which the consciousness
of a hold over other lives gives one, but to share such good
things as one possesses, to assist rather than to sway (p. 321).
In such sayings the "old experience" of a
public school-master seems to "attain to something
like prophetic strain." He speaks of the
things which he knows, and his words have, in a
measure, that power which Matthew Arnold found
in his father's speech and example. They—
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.
From The School World, 1905, page 282.
The above passage comes from the period of Fowler's early activity in the
English Association. Brian Doyle in Englishness: Politics and Culture
1880-1922 (eds. COLLS, Robert, Philip DODD; London, Routledge, 1986)
describes the association in those years as a movement to resolve the continuing
tension between the utilitarian needs of business and industry and the reinvigoration
of a cultural leadership: it quotes Fowler moving a motion in 1907 as a
member of the original executive committee of the association: "That this
Conference urges the importance of the study of the English language and
literature as an essential part of School Training on the grounds of practical
utility, enlightened patriotism, and the human idea in education." (Bulletin,
no. 1, July 1907).