What’s so good about a classical education?

William Darwin FoxOn September 4th 1850, Charles Darwin penned a letter to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox in which he reported that he and Emma were “at present very full of the subject of schools”. As a middle class family, the Darwins had a number of options to choose from: they could follow in Fox’s footsteps and home school their sons, they could send their boys to a grammar school, or they could opt to educate them at public school where they would receive a classical education centered around the study of Latin and Greek.

 

Charles clearly had considerable reservations about the latter option; “I cannot endure to think of sending my Boys to waste 7 or 8 years in making miserable Latin verses,” he told told Fox. In a later, more candid exchange Darwin declared that, “No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do.”

 

Why did Darwin object so vehemently to classical education? According to Charles, a classical education had a “contracting effect” on young boys’ minds; it entailed “no exercise of the observing or reasoning faculties,—no general knowledge acquired.” It was, he said, “a wretched system”. Darwin’s preference seems to have been for the more diverse and skills-focussed education offered by grammar schools; “we have heard some good of Bruce Castle School, near Tottenham“, he told Fox in 1850, “which is partly [based] on the Fellenberg System”. [1]


Rugby SchoolDespite his reservations, however,  in 1852 Charles reluctantly reported that his son, William, had embarked on a classical education; ”I have not had courage,” Darwin confessed to Fox, “to break through the trammels. After many doubts we have just sent our eldest Boy to Rugby”.

 

Why such an orthodox move from a man considered to be something of a maverick? The answer most likely lies in prevailing middle class gender ideology. A classical education may have lacked diversity and the opportunity for creativity, but it provided access to an exclusive middle class masculine world. As Anthony Fletcher has shown, Latin was “the male elite’s secret language, a language all of its own, a language that that could be displayed as  a mark of learning, superiority, of class and gender difference.” [2]


Charles and William DarwinClassical education held a practical appeal also; monotonous, solid study in subjects with little intrinsic interest for its students was well-designed to check youthful high spirits and transform boys into studious, dedicated and all-round decent middle class men. As Darwin commented to Fox, “a Boy who has learnt to stick at Latin & conquer its difficulties, ought to be able to stick at any labour.”

 

Charles might have considered William’s schooling “stupid” and “wretched”, but as a middle class father concerned for his son’s professional future and progression into manhood, a classical education ultimately proved too valuable an opportunity for him to miss.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] The Hill School at Bruce Castle was a relatively radical institution founded by Rowland Hill, a close friend of Thomas Paine, Richard Price and Joseph Priestly. The Fellenberg System prioritised learning through experience, primarily through the study and practice of agriculture.

[2] Anthony Fletcher, Gender Sex and Subordination, (London, 1995), p. 302.

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