Mathew Arnold HMI

This essay originally appeared in Hoggart’s collection, An English Temper (1982), and it was reprinted in “First of the Year” in 2011.

Hoggart may well have been talking back here (gently) to an analysis of Mathew Arnold’s reactionary reflexes laid down by Raymond Williams in the late 60s, which Williams republished in 1980 (in his collection Culture and Materialism). Williams’ “One Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy” exposed Arnold’s fear-mongering about Hyde Park “riots” of the 1860s–the crisis behind the antimony in Arnold’s famous essay, “Culture and Anarchy.” That Hyde Park scene was, in truth, anything but anarchic (in Arnold’s pejorative sense). It was a demonstration by peaceful protesters whose aim was “to secure the vote for working class people in English towns” (as well as the right to use Hyde Park as a venue for free speech). I’ll confess Williams’ revelations about Arnold’s rightist side kept me from digging Arnold’s case for the canon, piquant prose and “lived-in virtues” (to borrow a phrase of Hoggart’s) until I came across “Mathew Arnold HMI.” Not that Raymond Williams would’ve wanted any reader to take a pass on Arnold. (His own classic account of England’s anti-capitalist literary tradition, Culture and Society, is pretty Arnoldian.) The implicit back and forth between Williams and Hoggart brings home the dialogic relations between these two thinkers who were both born into the working class, though Williams came to be much more of a Marxist than his fellow fervent adult educator and scholarship boy-to-mensch. Hoggart’s choice to steer away from Marx wasn’t a namby-pamby move. He knew there were alternatives to Marx in high-mock mode since he was alive to Arnold’s criticism of aristos and posh mimic men as the following essay proves. B.D.

…though I am a schoolmaster’s son … school teaching or school inspecting is not the line of life I should naturally have chosen. I adopted it in order to marry a lady who is here tonight and who feels the kindness as warmly and as gratefully as I do. (Cheers.) My wife and I had a wandering life of it at first. There were but three inspectors for all England. My district went right across from Pembroke Dock to Great Yarmouth. We had no home; one of our children was born in lodgings at Derby with a workhouse, if I recollect right, behind and a penitentiary in front. (Laughter.) But the irksomeness of my new duties was what I felt most, and during the first year or so this was sometimes almost insupportable. But I met daily in the schools with men and woman discharging duties more irksome than mine, and I asked myself, Are they on roses? Would they not by nature prefer, many of them, to go where they liked and do what they liked instead of being shut up in a school?  I saw them making the best of it; I saw the cheerfulness and efficiency with which they did their work, and I asked myself again, How do they do it? Gradually it grew into a habit with me to put myself in their place, to try to enter into their feelings, to represent to myself their life, and I assure you I got many lessons from them.

Mathew Arnold speaking at a banquet given him on his retirement from being one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools, in 1886. When he had started in that work, just before he was thirty, he had no idea that it would be his whole career. But it was. He served thirty-five years.

And served magnificently. I doubt whether, in all the parade of devoted HMIs since Arnold, there has been a better one. He saw so much and so well. He argued over decades for “a more deliberate and systematically reasoned action on the part of the State in dealing with education in the country”; so, among much else, he stressed the central importance of compulsory popular education, the case for infant schools, the case against payment made by results—even about the care and cleanliness of buildings. Coming back in particular to the annual reports he made on the elementary schools, many years after I first read them on the fringes of my work in preparation for a degree in English literature, I am enormously impressed all over again by their richness and also—something less expected—their great present pertinence. Stylistically, they do not have the bounce of Culture and Anarchy: they are sober and telling. They throw a very severe light on aspects of our approach to education today.

It’s a heroic personal story and ought to make those of us who have moved into educational administration grumble less about the little time we have left for “our work.” Arnold’s other role—as a creative writer—was fulfilled on the margins. He wrote many of his essays and poems in boarding houses and hotels, far from home and usually alone, after a hard day’s inspecting. Always he respected the teachers.

although I thus press for the most unvarnished and literal report on their schools, I can assure the teachers of them, that it is from no harshness or want of sympathy towards them that I do so. No one feels more than I do how laborious is their work, how trying at times to the health and spirits, how full of difficulty even for the best: how much fuller for those, whom I too often see attempting the work of a schoolmaster—men of weak health and purely studious habits, who betake themselves to this profession, as affording the means to continue their favorite pursuits, not knowing alas, that for all but men of the most singular and exceptional vigor and energy, there are no pursuits more irreconcilable than those of the student and of the schoolmaster. Still, the quantity of work actually done at present by the teachers is immense: the sincerity and devotedness of much of it is even affecting. They themselves will be the greatest gainers by a system of reporting which clearly states what they do and what they fail to do; not one which drowns alike success and failure, the able and the inefficient, in a common flood of vague approbation.

Arnold’s own education had hardly prepared him for seeing deeply into the elementary schools. Rugby, where his father had been headmaster, prepared upper middle class and professional-class boys to succeed in the same styles of life as their parents, often via Oxford and Cambridge. Against that background, Arnold could envisage without great difficulty a new and more important role for the day grammar schools, because they had at least some characteristics in common with the great public schools; they gave an academic training. But the role of the elementary schools—those for the “great masses”:—was much harder to see except in a very long perspective. But he kept on trying.

To two kinds of issue Arnold frequently returns. Both are still germane today. On one I think him substantially right. On the other, which is culturally particularly complex, time has disproved him: but his approach is still more suggestive and challenging than the great bulk of educational writing today, or at any time. And his prose is better. There’s not a “learning situation,” “teaching situation,” “caring situation,” or “ongoing, viable classroom situation” in the whole opus.

Here is Arnold on the importance of being introduced to our own literary heritage as an indispensable part of what it is now fashionable to call “the core curriculum,” and as a former of character so long as it is not being watered down:

It is not enough remembered in how many cases his reading book forms the whole literature, except his bible, of the child attending a primary school. If then, instead of literature, his reading book, as is too often the case, presents him with a jejune encyclopedia of positive information, the result is that he has, except for his Bible, no  literature, no humanizing instruction at all. If, again, his reading book, as is also too often the case, presents him with bad literature instead of good—with the writing of second and third rate authors, feeble, incorrect, and colorless—he has not, as the rich have, the corrective of an abundance of great literature to counteract the bad effect of trivial and ill-written school-books; the second or third-rate literature of his school-book remains for him his sole, or, at least, his principal literary standard. Dry scientific disquisitions, and literary compositions of an inferior order, are indeed the “worst possible instruments” for teaching children to read well. But, besides the fault of not fulfilling this, their essential function the ill-compiled reading-books I speak of have, I say, for the poor scholar, the graver fault of actually doing what they can to spoil his taste, when they are nearly his only means of forming it.

The recent arguments about a “core curriculum” (one can’t really dignify them with the title of debates) got bogged down in absurd and predictable anti-centralist arguments, references to educational totalitarianism, and the usual snide references to the dangers of ours becoming like the French system. Arnold, incidentally, who greatly admired much in French education, was very sharp about that routine reaction when he met it.

But who today, observing many intelligent university students in the humanities, could do other than say to Arnold’s shade, you were right, but it’s gone further now. Even those who go to universities—those institutions you so much prized—often arrive ignorant of the most fundamental elements of “the best that has been thought and said.” Students now taking Honours degrees in English literature at British universities are, I assume, as intelligent and imaginative as their predecessors. But you have to be careful about making in class what seem useful comparisons between authors because students are as like as not to say “Oh, Keats? Sorry, We didn’t do him at school.” And if you try to move out from a hidden quotation in Eliot or Auden or Greene to talk about the associations and contrasts it sets up, you may find that the quotation strikes no chord at all; there is often hardly any comparative literary stock in the mind.

Arnold links, again, rightly, the need for a hold on the common literary heritage with the value of learning things by heart. In the report for 1863 he was able to say:

No more useful change has in my opinion ever been introduced into the programme of the pupil-teachers’ studies than that which has lately added to it the learning by heart of passages from some standard author. How difficult it seems to do anything for their taste and culture I have often said. I have said how much easier it seems to get entrance to their minds and to awaken them by means of music or physical science than by means of literature; still if it can be done by literature at all it has the best chance of being done by the way now proposed. The culture both of the pupil-teacher and of the elementary school-master with us seems to me to resist the efforts made to improve it and to remain unprogressive, more than that of the corresponding class on the Continent.

By 1882 he was still fighting (what has since proved to be a losing battle):

People talk contemptuously of “learning lines by heart;” but if a child is brought, as he easily can be brought, to throw himself into a piece of poetry, an exercise of creative activity has been set up in him quite different from the effort of learning a list of words to spell, or a list of flesh-making and heat-giving foods, or a list of capes and bays, or a list of reigns and battles, and capable of greatly relieving the strain from learning these and of affording a lively pleasure.

We all know today the engaging educational justifications for never helping children to learn anything by heart: they must come to things in their own good time (when will that be? It hardly ever seems to happen after adolescence), they must not be required to learn things by rote, must not have things stuffed down their throats, (the language is being screwed up so that the case can be more easily dismissed) and so on. Yet when we are young we memorize easily, and often with pleasure. I am forever grateful to those teachers who “stuffed” my head with large parts of Shakespeare, Pope, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and the rest. After that, and on my own, it seemed easier to pick up lots of Yeats and Hardy and Eliot and Auden. Without that mental baggage, I‘d feel half-naked.

It might be tempting to assume from what I’ve said so far that Arnold sought to give each pupil a sort of posh, culture-vulture finish. Not at all. He saw through that, as this splendid comparison of letters, with which he ended his report for the year 1867, shows:

I will conclude by placing in juxtaposition a letter written in schools by an ordinary scholar in a public elementary school in my district, a girl of eleven years old, with one written by a boy in a private middle-class school, and furnished to one of the Assistant Commissioners of the Schools Inquiry Commission. The girl’s letter I give first:

“DEAR FANNY, —I am afraid I shall not pass in my examination; Miss C says she thinks I shall, I shall be glad when the Serpentine is frozen over, for we shall have such fun. I wish you did not live so far away, then you could come and share in the game. Father cannot spare Willie, so I have as much as I can do to teach him to cipher nicely. I am now sitting by the school fire, so I assure you I am very warm….

From your affectionate friend,


And now I give the boy’s:

“MY DEAR PARENTS, —The anticipation of our Christmas vacation abounds in peculiar delights. Not only that its “festivities,” its social gatherings, and its lively amusements crown the old year with happiness and mirth, but that I come a guest commended to your hospitable love by the performance of all you bade me remember when I left you in the glad season of sun and flowers. And time has sped fleetly since reluctant my departing step crossed the threshold of that home whose indulgences and endearments their temporary loss has taught me to value more and more….

We break up on Thursday, the 11th of December instant, and my impatience of the short delay will assure my dear parents of the filial sentiments of

Theirs very sincerely


Arnold concludes:

To those who ask what is the difference between a public and private school I answer, It is this.

The most difficult and important cultural themes which run through Arnold’s reports are part of his gallant attempt to grapple with questions about the role of each of the main classes of society, and so of each kind of school for the training of those classes. “The education of each class in society has, or ought to have, its ideal, determined by the wants of that class, and by its destination,” he proposed. To use his own labels from Culture and Anarchy, he recognized that “the barbarians,” the aristocracy, could no longer be expected to give a responsible lead to the country. (“Whence, I say, does the slackness, the sleep of mind, come, except from a torpor of intellectual life, a dearth of ideas, an indifference to true culture?,” he asked apropos the aristocracy.) Then who would give a lead? For in his view there had to be guiding elite. It is easier to laugh at this idea than to answer it properly. Today we are likely to begin an answer by saying that elites are out, and that in time and by due democratic process right decisions may be expected to emerge from the great body of us, so long as we are informed and free. We can all hope so. But tell that to those who make their fortunes out of our steadily worsening popular press, or to teachers in what we used to call “elementary” schools, who often feel they are being implicitly expected to do no more than provide fodder for that press and all it represents. Ah, comes the reply, but that is because the structures of communication are wrong; if the structures were right, people would ineluctably come to choose well. That depends. If the structure is “right” in today’s Communist countries it has so far failed to produce any intellectual resurgence—except in resistance to the regimes. In the commercial West, the only structures which were even marginally right were those of early public-service radio and television. And they were with some justice laughed out of countenance because they were so much the happy hunting ground of one special sort of elite. A narrow elite—they all seemed to have been to Oxbridge—but certainly a terribly responsible elite.

So Arnold wasn’t silly or merely wrong-headed or old-fashioned in asking us to face better the need for some kind of what he liked to call a “clerisy” in any society. More modern words such as “gatekeeper” or “opinion former” simply look neutral, and so beg all the questions, but that is just what we congenitally do today as part of our overall rejection of elitism.

No. Arnold’s greatest weakness was not in raising the idea of a clerisy. It was simply that he did not see how things would develop in the decades after him and so came to the wrong conclusions in the matter; and we may all hope to be forgiven for such a failing in prognosis. He saw hope of a lead from the middle class:

A liberal culture, a fullness of intellectual life, in the middle class, is a far more important matter, a far more efficacious stimulant to national progress, than the same powers in an aristocratic class.

He talked of “placing in the great middle class the fullest, freest and worthiest development of the individual’s activity.” That was their “destination,” to use his word. So he came to regard the grammar schools as the trainers of a new clerisy. Rugby and water? No—that would be unfair. But today the idea that the day grammar schools or public schools could or should provide such an intellectual or imaginative lead sounds like a preposterous joke.

Nevertheless, he did say again and again that in the long run the future lay in the elementary schools. Here he is, writing to his wife, in his very first year as an Inspector, 1851, from Oldham Road Lancastrian School, Manchester:

I think I shall get interested in the schools after a little time; their effects on the children are so immense, and their future effects in civilizing the next generation of the lower classes, who, as things are going, will have most of the political power in their hands, may be so important.

And, here, in the report for 1871 he makes a point which is quite precisely—indeed appallingly—apt to this very day:

…the whole use that the Government, now that its connection with religious instruction is abandoned, makes of the mighty engines of literature in the education of the working classes, amounts to little more, even when most successful, than giving them the power to read the newspapers.

But he never gave up in his hopes for the future of “the lower classes.” His Victorian public rhetoric enshrined a very clear insight:

This obscure embryo, only just beginning to move, travelling in labor and darkness, so much left out of account … will have … a point towards which it may hopefully work.

I suggest that, were he alive today, Arnold might say that the crucial test of both the educational and social health of this country will be its success and failure with comprehensive schools. Getting them right is overwhelmingly the most important educational issue of the day. And beyond those schools lies the whole range of further and higher education, part and full-time. Arnold greatly admired good evening schools, especially when they drew in the whole community. This prompts one final word about clerisies. If we are going to reject the idea that any particular social group or level of education has or gives rights to leadership—as I believe we must—then we must also surely put increasing hope in the concept of voluntary continuing education for all who want it, whatever their background. This kind of provision, easily available throughout life, offers (as, its great progenitors such as Mansbridge, Temple, and Tawney knew) unique and freely-willing opportunities for the individual to take a better critical grasp on issues within society and within the self. And that, at bottom, is what Arnold was always talking about.