In "The Ancient Church," a sermon that Thomas Arnold preached in Rugby Chapel on 5 April 1840, he begins his directions for reading and understanding the Bible by praising the kind of education his audience of boys and young men encountered in their classrooms every day — an approach to secondary education, that is, that concentrated on secular texts written two millennia earlier:

It has always seemed to me one of the great advantages of the course of study generally pursued in our English schools, that it draws our minds so continually to dwell upon the past. Every day we are engaged in studying the languages, the history, and the thoughts of men who lived nearly or more than two thousand years ago; if we have to inquire about laws or customs, about works of art or science, they are the laws, customs, arts, and sciences, not of existing nations, but of those whose course has been long since ended. And the very difficulty which is often found in realizing the things of which we read, the difficulty of representing to ourselves times so remote, and so unlike in many respects to our own, shows how much the mind requires such a discipline, and how naturally it rests contented with the scenes immediately around it. [241-42]

We have to remind ourselves that when Arnold says "our English schools" he means private schools for boys, since in April 1840 government-funded education for either girls or boys was still decades in the future. In addition, the primary purpose of studying texts written by people who died thousands of years ago is that it "shows how much the mind requires such a discipline." Such a discipline is necessary because educators and educated alike assume that the students at Rugby, like all young people, are essentially savages in need of control. To leave this savage, uncivilized state and become more or less civilized adults, they must internalize society's notions of right and wrong, proper and improper behavior. This attitude toward education, so different from late-twentieth century emphases on creativity and self-development, derives of course from a Christian view of human nature whose point of departure is Original Sin — the idea that all human beings are fallen beings who need both law and gospel to live in civil society (or for civil society to long survive). Certainly, Tom Brown's Schooldays, the once-immensely popular novel for boys written by a Rugby alumnus who took Arnold for his own personal hero, does nothing to disprove that view of human nature. Except for the Christianized few, like Tom and his friend George Arthur, most of the boys there are involved in a system of organized oppression and abuse of the young. At best, the highest notion of conduct, according to Tom's other friend Harry East, is a state of honorably conducted war between teachers and students in which any form of cheating passes as acceptable as long as the cheater acts bravely when caught and physically punished.

Although he thus begins by establishing discipline as the chief purpose of studying the classics, Arnold, who established a reputation as a major educational reformer, immediately qualifies or even downplays that notion by adding that diligence is useless without understanding. Arnold thus points out that

there are some who study the books which relate to past times very diligently, but who have no real understanding of the times themselves, because they do not know or understand their own. What they raise up to themselves being drawn wholly from books, is a dead and imperfect image; and when they would set up this image as a model by which to fashion the present state of things, the folly of the proceeding is almost ridiculous. Nay, of the two, he is a wiser man and a safer guide, who, knowing nothing of the past, has yet had a large experience of the present, and has observed it carefully, rather than the other, who is blind to the very world in which he lives, and therefore is perfectly incapable, with all his reading, of understanding a world in which he does not live.

One cannot understand the ancient past, or any past, without knowledge and understanding of one's own time. Furthermore, one cannot dip into ancient history, taking people and events out of their contexts. Instead, we must "study it widely and fully" —

that is to say, although we are led to study some periods of ancient history more than others, yet in the main we are led to an acquaintance with all its periods, we study it in its beginning, middle, and end. Where this is not done, the knowledge gained will be often delusive; we see things taken just at the moment when they were going on well or ill, and we are shut out from that farther prospect which would have taught us how that seeming good was full of the seeds of centuries of after-mischief; or how that seeming evil was but the short and cheap price paid for a long futurity of good. To study one single period of history, is to take a passage apart from its context, and thus to lose its real sense and purport. We cannot judge of what history has to teach us, if we only stop to listen to her for a short time, and go away before she has concluded her instruction.

Arnold here emphasizes historical contexts and processes, pointing out that after students have acquired by memorization the linguistic skills necessary to read Latin and Greek texts, then they must next learn to see complex patterns of historical relationships. The great headmaster here turns out to sound very modern indeed, or, rather, he sounds like someone who wants to combine the best of old and new educational approaches. He recognizes the need for basic skills that can often be acquired only by drudgery and self-discipline, but he sees these skills as simply a first step. Unlike many educationists of the 1960s and '70s, he realizes that one has to learn to think inside the box before thinking outside it. Equally important, as an education theorist and practitioner, Arnold is both a realist and a meliorist, rather than a revolutionary. That is, as one of the masters points out in Tom Brown's Schooldays, Arnold carries out reform with tact and patience. "That's the way that all the Doctor's reforms have been carried out when he has been left to himself — quietly and naturally, putting a good thing in the place of a bad, and letting the bad die out; no wavering, and no hurry — the best thing that could be done for the time being, and patience for the rest" [Part II, Chapter 8, "Tom Brown's Last Match"]. One may hazard a guess that confronting an educational system based on classical Latin and Greek, Arnold made the most of it. He made the discipline and hard work necessary to learn classical languages a point of departure, but for him it was only a point of departure.

Related Material


Arnold, Thomas. "The Ancient Church" (1840) Sermons chiefly on the Interpretation of Scripture. [Ed. Mary Arnold] 4th ed. London: T. Fellowes, 1859.

Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.

Last modified 5 July 2006