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OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS.
It is just seventy years since Sydney Smith wrote in the 'Edinburgh Review' that at a public school ‘A boy is cast in among five or six hundred other boys, and is left to form his own character—if his love of knowledge survive this severe trial, it, in general, carries him very far;. and upon the same principle a savage, who grows up to manhood, is in general well made, and free from bodily defects ; not because the severities of such a state are favourable to animal life, but because they are so much the reverse, that none but the strongest can survive them.'
* At a public school' (he further says)—' for such is the system established by immemorial usage every boy is alternately' (? successively) ‘tyrant
and slave. This system ... gives to the elder boys an absurd and pernicious opinion of their own importance, which is often with difficulty effaced by a considerable commerce with the world. The head of a public school is generally a very conceited young man, utterly ignorant of his own dimensions, and losing all that habit of conciliation towards others and that anxiety for self-improvement, which result from the natural modesty of youth.
Of men educated elsewhere the reviewer remarks that ‘They have probably escaped the arrogant character so often attendant upon this trilling superiority; nor is there much chance that they have ever fallen into the common and youthful error of mistaking a premature initiation into vice for a knowledge of the ways of mankind; and, in addition to these salutary exemptions, a winter in London brings it all to a level : and offers to every novice the advantages which are supposed to be derived from this precocity of confidence and polish
The 'Edinburgh Review' is still, we believe, a Liberal journal, but its contributors are no longer struggling curates, and are for the most part judges,
privy councillors, and members of Parliament. It is therefore not unnatural that a more cheerful view of existing institutions should be offered to the world in its pages. A sober optimism is suitable to the maturity of individuals and periodicals, and in this year 1880 we should be less astonished to detect a witticism between the covers of our venerable contemporary than to find there an assault upon established methods of education.
But at the beginning of the century Whigs were not the sole or the most formidable enemies of public schools. It was not only audacious critics with their unreasonable demand of a reason for everything who distrusted the efficiency or deplored the management of Eton and Winchester and Harrow. Those were days when the saints' were a power in the land, and the saints did not like public schools. So early as 1784 Cowper had written his 'Tirocinium,' in which occurs the easily remembered if not very impressive line
For public schools 'tis public folly feeds,
together with much concentrated invective, probably not all justified by the facts, and certainly far too strong for reproduction in these pages.
It is a curious and, at first sight, a startling fact that while many English institutions then regarded as immortal have since succumbed to the solvent action of scepticism or yielded to the steady progress of reform, the schools which were then on their trial or rather awaiting their final condemnation should long since have been re-established in a position which it is hazardous to attack, and based upon doctrines which it is heretical to deny. The successors of the old Edinburgh reviewers would as soon think of storming Windsor Castle as of assaulting Harrowon-the-Hill, while the pious layman and orthodox ecclesiastic entrust their sons without fear or scruple to establishments which their predecessors regarded as the portals of hell. This singular revolution was mainly wrought by one man of strong will, dogmatic temper, and irreproachable life. Thomas Arnold's influence upon Rugby all the world knows. The peculiar system of discipline which he established has been described in one of the most popular of books for boys, while the Dean of Westminster has drawn with admirable skill and chastened enthusiasm the portrait of a man whose energies were so absorbed in his darling scheme of
monitorial government that the unoccupied portions of his mind were completely engrossed by the desire to reform Convocation and the determination to keep the Jews out of Parliament. But Arnold's influence was not confined to Rugby nor to the particular form of scholastic management which he there set up. He did what may have been a good thing or a bad thing, but was certainly a great thing, by restoring or perhaps creating the confidence of the sober and respectable middle class in schools which, though they never completely lost their hold on the aristocracy, had fallen into excessively bad repute among the more prejudiced or more moral part of the community. That, we say, is a great thing for one man to have done, though whether the achievement has been beneficial to the country is another and a very different question.
When Sydney Smith wrote the irreverent sentences which we have already quoted, John Keate had just commenced at Eton the rule which he was to exercise for a quarter of a century, and which extended almost to the four hundredth anniversary of the school's foundation. It is not often that a royal founder is rescued from oblivion