England seemed resolved to show how a government could get along without sending its children to school. The aristocracy was not interested in education except for its own sons. It seemed better for the status quo that the peasant and the proletaire, and probably the bourgeois too, should be unable to read, especially now that Godwin, Owen, Cobbett, Paine, Coleridge, and Shelley were printing such nonsense about exploitive aristocracies, agricultural communes, factory slaves, and the necessity of atheism. “The resolute advocates of the old system,” wrote Godwin about 1793, “have, with no contemptible foresight, opposed the communication of knowledge as a most alarming innovation. In their well-known observation—that ‘a servant who has been taught to write and read ceases to be any longer the passive machine they require’—is contained the embryo from which it would be easy to explain the whole philosophy of European society.”22 Besides (argued the upper echelon), the lower classes would be unable to judge with wisdom and caution the notions presented to them in lectures, journals, or books; ideas would be explosives; given nationwide schooling, the “monstrous regiment” of dreamy simpletons would try to tear down the necessary privileges and powers of the only classes that can preserve social order and civilization. And manufacturers, worried by competitors, pressed by investors, and looking for cheap labor, saw no sense in teaching child laborers the Rights of Man and the splendors of utopia. “These principles,” said an anonymous conservative quoted by Godwin, “will inevitably ferment in the minds of the vulgar, … or the attempt to carry them into execution will be attended with every species of calamity…. Knowledge and taste, the improvements of the intellect, the discoveries of the sages, the beauties of poetry and art, are trampled under foot and extinguished by barbarians.”23
In 1806 Patrick Colquhoun, former police magistrate in London, estimated that two million children in England and Wales received no education; in 1810 Alexander Murray, philologist, calculated that three fourths of the agricultural laborers were illiterate; in 1819 official statistics reported 674,883 children attending schools in England and Wales—a fifteenth of the population.24 When, in 1796, Pitt proposed that the government set up schools for industrial education, his measure did not come to a vote; when, in 1806, Samuel Whitbread offered a bill for the governmental establishment of an elementary school in every parish (such as already existed in Scotland), it was passed by the Commons, but was rejected by the Lords on the ground that it did not place education on a religious basis.
Religious groups taxed themselves to provide some education for some of their children. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge maintained “charity schools,” but their total enrollment of children did not exceed 150,000.25 Hannah More’s schools were almost confined to religious instruction. The Poor Law administration opened “Industry Schools” to 21,600 of its 194,914 children to fit them for employment. One thing the children in the religious schools learned well—the Bible; it became their faith, their literature, and their government, a precious possession amid the misfortunes, injustices, and bewilderment of life.
In 1797 Dr. Andrew Bell, to meet a shortage of teachers, established a “monitorial system” of using older students as assistant instructors in elementary schools connected with the Anglican worship. A year later Joseph Lancaster introduced a similar system on principles accepted by all Christians. The churchmen refused to operate with this undenominational plan; Lancaster was denounced as a deist, an apostate, a tool of Satan, and Coleridge joined in the condemnation.26 In 1810 James Mill, Lord Brougham, Francis Place, and Samuel Rogers founded the Royal Lancastrian Association to spread unsectarian schools. Alarmed by the progress of the plan, the Anglican bishops organized a rival “Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church.” Not till 1870 was a national system of undenominational elementary schools established in England.
Higher education was provided, for those who could afford it, by domestic tutors, “public” schools, lecturers, and two universities. The public schools—Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, and Charterhouse—were open, for a fee, to the sons of the nobility and the gentry, with occasional additions from affluent bourgeois. The course of studies was primarily classical—the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome. Some sciences were added on the side, but the parents wanted their sons trained for government and polite company, and they were convinced that a youth could better prepare for these by Greek and Roman history, literature, and oratory than by physics, chemistry, and English poetry; Milton, however, was admitted as a displaced Roman who wrote Latin almost as readily as English.
Discipline in the public schools was a mixture of flogging and fagging. Major offenders were flogged by the masters; fagging was the provision of menial services by boys of the lower “forms” or classes for those of the upper forms: to run errands for them, shine their shoes, prepare their tea, carry their cricket bats and balls, and bear their bullying silently; the theory was that one must learn to obey before he is fit to command. (A like theory prevailed in the Army and the Navy, which were also organized on flogging and fagging and silent obedience; in this sense the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo were won not only on “the playing fields of Eton and Harrow” but as well in the halls and rooms of the public schools.) Once a fag reached the upper forms, he was ready to defend the system. There was some democracy in these nurseries of aristocracy: all fags were equal, regardless of wealth or pedigree, and all graduates (if they avoided commerce) looked upon one another as equals—and upon all others as inferiors, however talented.
From such schools the graduate—usually at the age of eighteen—went on to become an “undergraduate” at Oxford or Cambridge. These universities had declined from their late-medieval and Renaissance excellence; Gibbon was not alone in regretting his Oxford days as mostly wasted in irrelevant studies (though he profited hugely from the Latin and Greek), and student competition in gambling, drinking, wenching, and warfare with the town. Admission required acceptance of the Established Church. Instruction was by dons, each of whom took charge of one or more pupils, and transmitted his lore to them by lectures or tutoring. There too the classics dominated the curriculum, but mathematics, law, philosophy, and modern history had won a place, and lectures were available—though sparsely attended—in astronomy, botany, physics, and chemistry.
Oxford was Tory, Cambridge was Whig. In the latter, subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles had been removed as a condition for entrance, but only members of the Church of England could take a degree. The campaign against slavery had been waged there since 1785. Science found at Cambridge better teachers and more students than at Oxford, but both universities lagged behind the German and the French. Oxford taught philosophy from the works of Aristotle; Cambridge added Locke, Hartley, and Hume. Cambridge was producing scholars of international renown; Oxford aimed rather to fit men for eloquence and strategy in Parliament, and then, after trials and experience, and with proper connections, for a role in the government of Britain.