In a letter to Sir T. Pasley that appears without a date in Stanley's life and letters of Arnold, the great headmaster mentions one of many discouraging experiences involved in running a school. Arnold states the seriousness of the situation and how it has discouraged him, but by the close of the letter he characteristically finds enough hope in the few young men he has encountered that he refuses to give up. "Since I began this letter," he tells his friend,

I have had some of the troubles of school-keeping; and one of those specimens of the evil of boy-nature, which makes me always unwilling to undergo the responsibility of advising any man to send his son to a public school. There has been a system of persecution carried on by the bad against the good, and then, when complaint was made to me, there came fresh persecution on that very account; and divers instances of boys joining in it out of pure cowardice, both physical and moral, when if left to themselves they would have rather shunned it. And the exceedingly small number of boys, who can be relied on for active and steady good on these occasions, and the way in which the decent and respectable of ordinary life (Carlyle's Shams") are sure on these occasions to swim with the stream, and take part with the evil, makes me strongly feel exemplified what the Scripture says about the strait gate and the wide one, — a view of human nature, which, when looking on human life in its full dress of decencies and civilizations, we are apt, I imagine, to find it hard to realize. But here, in the nakedness of boy-nature, one is quite able to understand how there could not be found so many as even ten righteous in a whole city. And how to meet this evil I really do not know; but to find it thus rife after I have been [so many] years fighting against it, is so sickening, that it is very hard not to throw up the cards in despair, and upset the table. But then the stars of nobleness, which I see amidst the darkness, in the case of the few good, are so cheering, that one is inclined to stick to the ship again, and have another good try at getting her about." [I, 181]

Several points in Arnold's letter demand comment, the first of which is his obvious recognition of the fundamental moral and educational problems created by the then-characteristic Public School combination of bullying, herd behavior, and a schoolboy code that held snitching the worst violation of it — even when it could stop terrible cruelty. Arnold hardly exaggerates, since statements by graduates of his own Rugby and other schools, such as Eton, confirm the problems a reforming headmaster faced. For example, Thomas Hughes, his great admirer, describes the schoolboy attitude that students and masters are "natural enemies at school." Similarly, Arthur Duke Coleridge's Eton in the Forties describes horrific instances of bullying.

A second point of interest involves the texts to which Arnold alludes. His mention of Carlylean exposures of shams and the way he concludes by buckling down to the task in true Carlylean fashion reminds us how deeply the sage of Chelsea permeated Arnold's ideas — and why Hughes could describe him as a Carlylean hero worthy of hero worship. But even as Arnold draws upon the no-longer-Christian Carlyle, he does so in a biblical context, revealing that for him the Bible was, as he urged in his sermons, something relied on all week long and not just Sundays. His reference to Genesis 18 in which Abraham bargains with God, who has sworn to destroy Gemorah, that God will spare the city if God can find 50, 45, 20, or even 10 righteous people. When angels can find only a single person, Lot, he and his family are saved but the city destroyed. Arnold himself gains hope when he remembers he has come up-on a "few good" boys.

But exactly what was the evil "so sickening, that it is very hard not to throw up the cards in despair"? Just bullying and failure to report it for fear of violating the schoolboy code? Or something worse, sexual abuse of the weak by the strong, the younger by the older boys? I raise this possibility because of Arnold's choice of biblical allusion and its conventional connection with sodomy. One can't be sure, however, since Arnold does specifically mention " a system of persecution carried on by the bad against the good," and he would also have been sickened by the moral implications of a schoolboy culture that not only permitted bullying but also persecuted those who asked for protection.

Related Material


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 4 August 2006