decorated initial 'A't a key point in the action about three-quarters of the way through Tom Brown's Schooldays, the saintly young George Arthur asks Tom, "What were you sent to Rugby for?" His reason for doing so and Tom's response are both very interesting. He does so as part of his campaign to make Tom stop using cribs and vulgus-books handed down from schoolboy generation to generation because doing so, he realizes, defeats the educational and moral goals of Rugby: it is simply socially condoned cheating. On the one hand, this shows the once-frail Arthur, whom Tom had been charged to protect and guide, acting as guide and protector for Tom. On the other, it has a much broader social and political application for Hughes, the political reformer, since it provides an unexceptionable example of how even the most moral and high-thinking people accept evil, dishonorable practices when their own social group accepts them.

Three views of Rugby School. [Click on the thumbnails to obtain larger images and additional information.]

The second point of interest comes in Tom's response to "What were you sent to Rugby for?" "Well, I don't know exactly," Tom says, "— nobody ever told me. I suppose because all boys are sent to a public school in England." Tom doesn't answer as many a modern North American or British student might, "My parents are getting divorced" (divorce wasn't really an option then), "I've gotten into too much trouble at home," or even "My parents told me that one has to go to a school like Rugby to maintain one's position in society" — or, if one is a member of the middle classes — "to get ahead, to network, to gain admission into a top university, to get a better job." Tom's answer instead shows how unreflective he is — Carlyle would have liked that — and that people of his class, the top 5-8% of people in England at best, are simply sent away to school. Elizabeth and Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Ruskin weren't sent away, and they did fairly well, but none of them, of course, were of Tom's class.

At this point, George pushes harder, asking "But what do you think yourself? What do you want to do here, and to carry away?" Now that he is forced to think of it, Tom realizes he has several goals. And then he adds another.

Tom thought a minute. "I want to be A1 at cricket and football, and all the other games, and to make my hands keep my head against any fellow, lout or gentleman. I want to get into the sixth before I leave, and to please the Doctor; and I want to carry away just as much Latin and Greek as will take me through Oxford respectably. There, now, young un; I never thought of it before, but that's pretty much about my figure. Ain't it all on the square? What have you got to say to that?"

"Why, that you are pretty sure to do all that you want, then."

"Well, I hope so. But you've forgot one thing — what I want to leave behind me. I want to leave behind me," said Tom, speaking slow, and looking much moved, "the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy, or turned his back on a big one."

Tom, it turns out, wants to be a successful athlete, a proficient enough fighter to defend himself against any members of his own or the lower classes ("lout or gentleman"), do well enough academically to please Thomas Arnold and not embarrass himself at Oxford, and, finally, to establish a reputation at school as an honorable young man who never bullied anyone smaller than himself or acted in a cowardly manner toward anyone bigger. All theses goals chiefly involve matters of reputation, as if Tom belonged to what anthropologists term a primitive shame culture, rather than to a more advanced guilt culture — that is, to a culture in which morality and mores are a matter of what other people think than an internalized code of behavior. For most of the novel Tom really does belong to such a primitive culture, though when George Arthur leads him to pray in public, he takes the first steps out of it to a higher morality and spirituality. Only the last quality Tom names, despite its outward signs, is truly a matter of personal character. Recognizing that Tom is a better person than he himself realizes, George appeals to what the Victorians would have called his higher nature, telling him that "you're the honestest boy in Rugby," and using cribs "ain't honest." Difficult as it is, Tom resolves to try and do his translations honestly, using cribs properly only when he can't go any farther on his own.

This passage, which seems a more sophisticated version of a standard Victorian religious tract, has a central, though possibly misleading, role in the novel — central because Hughes does indeed believe that developing moral character must be the highest priority in educating young men, particularly men of the upper classes. The implicit anti-intellectualism of the passage (and the rest of the novel), like the narrator's earlier tirade against foreign travel, does not really represent Hughes's full beliefs. His Rugby students seem to learn nothing but reading and writing classical languages whereas in fact students during Arnold's time studied mathematics, geography, modern history, and other subjects, too! Hughes makes clear that these essentially uneducated young men go out to India and other parts of the Empire, and he seems to believe that if they have the kind of character to which Tom aspires, if they are like Tom and act bravely, refuse to bully those weaker than themselves, and when put to the test do the right thing, that will be a good start. One reason for such an emphasis, of course is that Hughes wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays for average young boys, not those with artistic, literary, or scientific gifts and interests. Here he shows the influence of Carlyle, who emphasized acting on behalf of others rather than navel-gazing, as well as his headmaster, the great reforming headmaster of Rugby. Furthermore, Hughes himself both is and isn't Tom Brown: Like the fictional Tom, he intensely admired Arnold, and one assumes with confidence that Tom's and the narrator's thoughts on returning to Rugby as an older man are his own. Nonetheless, Hughes, who helped found the Workingmen's College, and was long its principal, clearly believed education to be more than a matter of character development. Actual subject knowledge had the kind of importance to him that never appears in the novel.

In other words, like Ruskin and so many other Victorians, Hughes sometimes writes so powerfully in making a particular point that readers can easily mistake that point for his final word about a subject. Ruskin (who taught at Hughes's Workingman's College) defends Turner against charges that he hadn't studied nature enough, and he urges beginning artists to become students of nature, but he was hardly, as many have falsely concluded, a theorist of simple realism: he preferred Turner's late expressionistic visions of mist and fire, and much of his art criticism concerns pictorial composition and elaborate symbolic meanings. Similarly, writing for students, parents, and teachers, Hughes concentrates almost entirely on character development, but for him, like Ruskin writing on art, such development was just the first stage of education.

Theme and subject

Last modified 30 June 2006