Thomas Arnold by George Richmond. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

In the second half-year of 1828 Thomas Arnold took over the reins of government . . . [at Rugby School], and the fourteen years which he held them form one of the most important epochs in the history of the school of of English education in general. He is perhaps the most famous of schoolmasters. . . .

What Arnold did for public schools was to alter and expand, to a degree which amounted to a revolution, the aims and objects which these institutions set before themselves. Before his time the avowed object of the public schools was to impart learning; system and discipline were subservient to this end, and though incidentally they had other effects, their main object was to render learning possible and effective; if this object was attained their work was done, and they were judged by their success or failure in this respect.

Arnold took a much broader view of the objects of education; while deeply impressed with the importance of learning, he realized that it was only a part of education, and that the great end and aim of education was the formation of character. This was the great object which was to dominate all others: to this end learning and everything else must be subservient. The ideal which he set before himself was to train boys to become not merely scholars but Christian gentlemen.

But, like most men who have done great things for the world, Arnold was not only an idealist, but a most practical man as well. In the public school system at Rugby he found to his hand an instrument which, however imperfect, was capable of serving his ends; he did not therefore attempt to revolutionize; he accepted the system as a whole, rejecting some parts and developing others, with the object, of creating conditions under which a boy's character could grow on right lines. We may mention a few points to illustrate the way in which he worked.

He accepted the two great features of English public schools, the liberty allowed to all, and the power exercised by the senior over the junior boys, but he bent all his energies to bring it about that the liberty should not be mere licence, and that the power should be exercised for good and not for than evil, as had too often been the case. The power he vested in the hands of the Sixth Form only, having, as Stanley says, "a strong belief in the general union of moral and intellectual excellence;" the liberty he curtailed but little, but, on the other hand, he freely exercised the right of sending away those who, even if they had not committed any flagrant evil, showed themselves unfit to make proper use of their privileges; on this point he was very emphatic, and his opinion is well worth notice at time when the justice of superannuation rules is called into question; "till a man learn that the first, second and third duty of a schoolmaster is to get great rid of unpromising subjects, a great public school," he said, "will never be what it might be, and what it ought to be."

Secondly, he introduced very necessary reforms as regards the status of assistant masters. "From the first," to quote Stanley again, "he maintained that the school business was to occupy their main and undivided interest. The practice, which owing to their lower salaries had before prevailed, of uniting some parochial cure with their school duties was entirely abolished and the boarding houses us they respectively became vacant he placed exclusively under their care." Hitherto "dames' houses" had still survived. An increase in school fees had also enabled him to raise the salaries of his assistants, so that he felt himself justified in every way in making the demand energies to their school work,

Thirdly, he laboured strenuously to make the direct religious teaching effective. This he did, not by multiplying services, nor by attempting to force young minds into a fixed mould of piety, but by using the opportunities which the pulpit afforded him for imparting something of the fiery zeal for right which consumed him, for presenting forcibly and directly to the minds of his hearers the practical effects which religion ought to have upon their daily life at school, and for stimulating in them the quality of moral thoughtfulness which he prized so much.

Such were the main points of his system. In carrying it out he had to meet with the storm of abuse and opposition that so often is the lot of great reformers. Perhaps, had he been content to concern himself with the school only, people might have let him alone; had he done so, he would not have been Arnold. His heart and mind were too full of passionate desire for reforms in Church and State for him to stand aloof; the education of boys in the small society of school was successful to him only if they learned there how to play a true part in the larger societies wherein they were destined to move. And so it came about that the man whose great aim in life was to help to make English boys and men Christians in practice and not only in name, was accused of laxity of religion, and that his educational system was the object of bitter attack, But he was "ever a fighter," a magnificent fighter, with no arrogance and the broadest sympathies, but inflexible in the maintenance of what he thought right, and in the end he triumphed over all opposition. With the better sort of boys he soon succeeded; no boy worth anything could resist the influence of a man so transparently sincere, in whose zeal for religion there was such a complete and refreshing absence of humbug or of mere conventionality, a man who was not afraid of anybody. The trustees, in spite of the dislike with which many of them regarded his public views, did not fail to recognise the good work which he was doing at the school; even in July, 1836, when a resolution of censure was brought forward, which Stanley says "would probably have occasioned his resignation had it not been lost." there was no criticism of his school work; "they did all I wanted," writes Arnold at the time, "about the school." They could, indeed, hardly have done otherwise in face of a special resolution of confidence in him which they had passed in the previous March. Last of all the popular prejudice against him died away, and in 1841, the year before his death, when he was elected Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, he was beginning to occupy in general estimation the place which he deserved. [52-60]

Related Material


Bradby, H. C. Rugby. The Great Public Schools Series. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.

Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.

Last modified 16 June 2016