Working-Class Public Schools?

Towards a Working-Class Public School

By Peter Brooke

‘And what shall be their education? It would be hard, I think, to find a better than the traditional system, which has two divisions, gymnastic for the body, and music for the soul’ – Plato: Republic (Jowett translation), Book II, 376.c.

The Catholic University Of Ireland [i]

The post-war expansion of secondary and higher education in the United Kingdom has been an immense achievement that has at least provided the physical means of bringing great masses of people into classrooms and into contact with books. However, the ease of getting jobs in education until the late sixties, combined with the difficulty of getting jobs anywhere in the seventies and the virtual impossibility of sacking teachers (especially in Higher Education) has meant that a process of rapid development, with all the arbitrariness that that implies, has become frozen, with no clear sense of direction and a large amount of rubbish caught up in its midst. This is serious because the working class, the main beneficiary of the process, has an urgent need for education – the education that is appropriate to an emergent ruling class, i.e., an education that concentrates not on the accumulation of large amounts of information in a particular field, but on the cultivation of the ability to think.

The lack of an ability to reason on the basis of a large view of the world or of society as a whole (a basic pre-requisite for a successful ruling class) plagues the present-day Labour movement in Britain and Ireland, both in its political and trade union form. A trade union career is no longer the tough struggle with the forces of society at large that could produce an Ernest Bevin and the absence of a clear-cut intellectual elite in the Universities makes the emergence of another Fabian Society unlikely. The cultivation of the intellect within the working class needs to be thought about, together with the opportunities provided by the emergence of a new leisured class of the unemployed.

It happens that there is an enormous literature in English culture on just this very subject – the education that is appropriate for ruling classes. The succession of changes in the composition of the British ruling class that makes up most of British history since the sixteenth century has been accompanied by a continual and often very radical debate on education (radical in the sense that first principles – whether or not education was necessary at all – were often invoked). Socialists have tended to see this literature, often turning on the Public School and the Ancient University, as irrelevant to working class needs. But this, when it is not a product of reaction against their own Public School/Ancient University background, is largely a product of their instinct to see and treat the working class exclusively as an oppressed class. If, however, the working class is to be a ruling class what could be more relevant to its needs than the existing body of ruling class, or “elitist”, educational theory?

This article is the first of a series which aims to uncover some of that literature and assess its relevance to working class needs. And since a large part of the literature also deals with the role of religion in education, we may also examine its relevance to the rather different situation of the Republic of Ireland. I begin with the concept of “liberal knowledge” outlined in John Henry Newman’s On The Scope And Nature Of University Education.

The circumstances in which Newman’s book was produced are interesting. It was based on a series of lectures given in Dublin in 1852, preparatory to the establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland, which opened on St. Stephen’s Green in November 1854 with Newman as its first Rector. The Catholic University, which later became the present University College, Dublin, was a failure, though this may not have been Newman’s fault and does not necessarily discredit his ideas on education.

Ireland was the first part of the British Isles to be given a mass-based state education system. From 1816, the state had been heavily subsidising the “Kildare Place Society”, at least fifteen years before any equivalent educational society was subsidised in Great Britain. In 1831, the “National Education System” was established, some forty years before the principle of direct state funding of individual schools was established in Great Britain. The problem in Great Britain was that education was the province of the Churches but the dissenters opposed any system of exclusive aid to the established Church while the established Church opposed aid being given to the dissenters. The Irish system purported to be non-sectarian, based on a minimal “common Christianity” that could be shared by the different varieties of Protestants and by Catholics. Initially it was welcomed by most of the Catholic bishops who thought that the Kildare Place Society (also notionally non-sectarian) was too Protestant, but who had no means of providing an adequate education system of their own (it was opposed by the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, though many individual Presbyterian ministers co-operated). A ferocious opposition, however, was mounted by Archbishop John MacHale, who had closed his diocese of Tuam (in the West of Ireland) to the new schools.

In the 1840s the Tory Government of Sir Robert Peel proposed to establish three new colleges of higher education to provide for the education of Catholics and Presbyterians. The Presbyterians already had a college of higher education – the Belfast Academical Institution – built and managed by themselves on what were for the time very radical principles. Its story is remarkable, even – or especially – in the context of the overall history of education in the British Isles and it will be told later. Peel’s colleges were to be non-sectarian, by the device of excluding all religious instruction from them on the model of the University of London, which Peel himself, supported by Newman and the other Oxford High Church Tories, had opposed in the 1820s,(the Belfast Academical Institution had proposed to overcome the denominational problem by providing theological chairs for any denomination that was prepared to pay for them). Peel’s problem was that he could not provide government funding for a distinctly Catholic university. The Government was funding the Catholic seminary at Maynooth, and his proposal at the same time to increase those funds caused an outcry from his own supporters.

Many of the leading Catholic Bishops, recognising the need for Catholics to have access to higher education and knowing the impossibility of the Government improving its offer, were happy with the proposal, but Rome, egged on by MacHale and by Daniel O’Connell, opposed it. MacHale and O’Connell were repealers wanting a separate government based in Dublin and basing their Irish nationalism on Catholic sectarianism (it is astonishing that O’Connell’s use of liberal rhetoric still fools historians such as Joseph Lee or Fergus D’Arcy into seeing him as a kind of Benthamite utilitarian).

Rome sent over Paul Cullen, rector of the Irish College at Rome and long-standing ally of the MacHale/O’Connell faction, to sort things out and in 1850 the Synod of Thurles, to which all the Irish Bishops were invited, condemned the new colleges (though by only one vote, and individual bishops such as William Delaney in Cork – where one of the colleges was placed – continued to support them. Cullen had to bide his time, replacing the old pro-government Bishops as they died off with more loyal Romanists).

The Catholic University of Ireland, promoted by Cullen, was to be an alternative to the Government scheme. Despite his support for MacHale and O’Connell, however, Cullen was very much a Roman first and an Irish nationalist a long way after. In a struggle with Bishops prepared to do a deal with the Government, he was happy to ally with the Catholic sectarian Repealers. But he had been in Rome in 1848 when Pius IX was overthrown by the Italian nationalist movement; in Young Ireland, the non-sectarian tendency within O’Connell’s Repeal movement, he saw a group deeply influenced by Mazzini’s anti-clerical “Young Italy”. He despised the intellectual calibre of the Irish bishops and distrusted the great majority even of the nationalists who had been trained in colleges (including Maynooth) dominated by French “Gallican” ideas of national independence from papal authority. In England, he knew, there was a growing band of highly intelligent converts, led by Newman, and drawn to Catholicism precisely because they recognised its universal, supra-national status as symbolised by the Pope. It was to this group, thoroughly grounded in the tradition of the English Ancient Universities, especially Oxford, that Cullen turned for ideas for the new University, which was already being opposed by MacHale (who seems to have seen no need to educate anyone who wasn’t going to be a priest) as impractical.

Newman was appointed Rector of the not yet existent college in November 1851. He was asked by Cullen to deliver a series of public lectures mainly to counter the arguments used by the supporters of the Queen’s Colleges scheme and to show the impossibility of a University from which religion was excluded. That was the main content of the lectures actually delivered in May/June 1852. When they were published in 1853, however, he had added a number of discourses on “liberal knowledge” arguing against an exclusive preoccupation with utilitarian ends in education. These discourses contained the seeds of the quarrel with Cullen which eventually forced Newman to leave the Catholic University in November 1858.


Newman And ‘Liberal Knowledge’

Liberal knowledge for Newman is knowledge that is cultivated for its own sake not for any utilitarian purpose:

“Manly games, or games of skill, or military prowess, though bodily, are it seems, accounted liberal; on the other hand, what is merely professional, though highly intellectual, nay, though liberal in comparison of trade and manual labour, is not simply called liberal, and mercantile occupations are not liberal at all. Why this distinction? Because that alone is liberal knowledge which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation. The most ordinary pursuits have this specific character, if they are self-sufficient and complete; the highest lose it, when they minister to something beyond them” (p.88. I am using the Everyman edition, which so far as I can see – it is by no means obvious – is based on the 1859 edition in which much of the material referring to Irish circumstances has been removed).

He goes on to quote Aristotle (remarking in passing that “While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great master does but analyse the thoughts, feelings, views and opinions of human kind”) to say: “‘Of possessions … those rather are useful which bear fruit; those liberal which tend to enjoyment. By fruitful I mean, which yield revenue; by enjoyable, where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the use'” (Aristotle Rhet., 1.5. Newman’s emphasis).

He is not, however, proposing the mere acquisition of large quantities of facts – even if only for their own sake.

“When I speak of knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea. It expresses itself, not in a mere enunciation, but by an enthymeme:[ii] it is of the nature of science from the first, and in this consists its dignity. The principle of real dignity in knowledge, its worth, its desirableness, considered irrespectively of its results, is this germ within it of a scientific or a philosophical process. This is how it comes to be an end in itself; this is why it admits of being called liberal. Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children; to have mapped out the universe is the boast of philosophy.

“Moreover, such knowledge is not a mere extrinsic or accidental advantage, which is ours to-day and another’s tomorrow, which may be got up from a book, and easily forgotten again, which we can command or communicate at our pleasure, which we can borrow for the occasion, carry about in our hand, and take into the market- it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment. And this is the reason why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of a university as a place of education than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word. We are instructed, for instance, in manual exercises, in the fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business ; for these are methods which have little or no effect upon the mind itself, are contained in rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use, and bear upon an end external to themselves. But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character ; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connection with religion and virtue. When, then, we speak of the communication of knowledge as being education, we thereby really imply that that knowledge is a state or condition of mind; and since cultivation of mind is surely worth seeking for its own sake, we are thus brought once more to the conclusion, which the word liberal and the word philosophy have already suggested, that there is a knowledge which is desirable though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labour.”

In his Preface, Newman refers to the objection “that an academical system, formed upon my model, will result in nothing better or higher than in the production of that antiquated variety of human nature and remnant of feudalism called ‘a gentleman'” (xxx). He replies that “whether or not a Catholic university should put before it, as its great object, to make its students ‘gentlemen’, still to make them something or other is its great object, and not simply to protect the interests and advance the dominion of science” (xxxiii). The Holy See has recommended the establishment of a university in order that Catholics might have certain advantages hitherto confined to Protestants:

“What are these advantages? I repeat, they are in one word the culture of the intellect. Robbed, oppressed, and thrust aside, Catholics in these islands have not been in a condition for centuries to attempt the sort of education which is necessary for the man of the world, the statesman, the landholder, or the opulent gentleman…. Our desideratum is, not the manners and habits of gentlemen – these can be, and are, acquired in various other ways, by good society, by foreign travel, by the innate grace and dignity of the Catholic mind – but the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness , and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.” (xxxv.)

Boys “have no discriminating convictions and no grasp of consequences. In consequence they talk at random, if they talk much, and cannot help being flippant, or what is emphatically called young. They are merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are… the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle and system; of rule and exception, in richness and harmony. This is commonly and excellently done by making him begin with grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness and subtlety of teaching be used towards him as his faculties expand, with this simple view. Hence it is that critical scholarship is so important a discipline for him when he is leaving school for the university. A second science is the mathematics, still with the same object viz. to give him a conception of development and arrangement from and around a common centre. Hence it is that chronology and geography are so necessary for him when he reads history, which is otherwise little better than a story-book. Hence, too, metrical composition, when he reads poetry… Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views…” (xxxvi… xxxix).

Let us remark in passing that the largest philosophical views were not at all what Paul Cullen had in mind for the youth of Catholic Ireland. Newman’s aim, which he acknowledged to be “but a temporal object” was intellectual beauty as an end in itself:

“Your cities are beautiful, your palaces, your public buildings, your territorial mansions, your churches ; and their beauty leads to nothing beyond itself. There is a physical beauty and a moral; there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect” (p.101), but this does not mean that it is not useful. “I lay it down as a principle which will save us a great deal of anxiety that, though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful… You will see what I mean by the parallel of bodily health. Health is a good in itself, though nothing came of it, and is especially worth seeking and cherishing; yet after all, the blessings which attend its presence are so great, while they are so close to it and so redound back upon it and encircle it, that we never think of it except as useful as well as good…” (p.l39-40).

What is being created is not an instrument for a particular end, as in an apprenticeship, but a cast of mind which is able to see the relations between different subjects (this is a central theme of the book), able to discriminate between a good argument and a bad argument, able to make sense of and put to good use the facts presented to it. He is especially caustic on the barren accumulation of facts:                                                                                    “I am not disparaging a well-stored mind, though it be nothing besides, provided it be sober, any more than I would despise a bookseller’s shop: it is of great value to others, even when not so to the owner.” (p.119) For Newman this control over one’s own mind can only be taught by close, friendly and informal supervision. Self-education was infinitely preferable to a system of education by anonymous examination. On this subject, and on the virtues of the barbarous English public school/ancient University system in the eighteenth century, he is excellent and I will finish this outline of what is meant by ‘liberal knowledge’ by quoting the passage at length:

“I protest to you, gentlemen, that if I had to choose between a so-called university which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a university which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away, as the university of Oxford is said to have done some sixty years since, if I were asked which of these two methods was the better discipline of the intellect – mind, I do not say which is morally the better, for it is plain that compulsory study must be a good and idleness an intolerable mischief – but if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity, I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that university which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun. And, paradox as this may seem, still if results be the test of systems, the influence of the public schools and colleges of England, in the course of the last century, at least will bear out one side of the contrast as I have drawn it. What would come, on the other hand, of the ideal systems of education which have fascinated the imagination of this age, could they ever take effect, and whether they would not produce a generation frivolous, narrow-minded, and resourceless, intellectually considered, is a fair subject for debate; but so far is certain, that the universities and scholastic establishments to which I refer, and which did little more than bring together first boys and then youths in large numbers, these institutions, with miserable deformities on the side of morals, with a hollow profession of Christianity, and a heathen code of ethics – I say at least they can boast of a succession of heroes and statesmen, of literary men and philosophers, of men conspicuous for great natural virtues, for habits of business, for knowledge of life, for practical judgment, for cultivated tastes, for accomplishments, who have made England what it is – able to subdue the earth, able to domineer over Catholics.

“How is this to be explained? I suppose as follows: When a multitude of young persons, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant as young persons are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day. An infant has to learn the meaning of the information which its senses convey to it, and this seems to be its employment. It fancies all that the eye presents to it to be close to it, till it actually learns the contrary, and thus by practice does it ascertain the relations and uses of those first elements of knowledge which are necessary for its animal existence. A parallel teaching is necessary for our social being, and it is secured by a large school or a college; and this effect may be fairly called in its own department an enlargement of mind. It is seeing the world on a small field with little trouble; for the pupils or students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalize, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are interrelations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character.

“Let it be clearly understood, I repeat it, that I am not taking into account moral or religious considerations ; I am but saying that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. Thus it is that, independent of direct instruction on the part of superiors, there is a sort of self-education in the academic institutions of Protestant England; a characteristic tone of thought, a recognized standard of judgement is found in them which, as developed in the individual who is submitted to it, becomes a two-fold source of strength to him, both from the distinct stamp it impresses on his mind, and from the bond of union which it creates between him and others – effects which are shared by the authorities of the place, for they themselves have been educated in it, and at all times are exposed to the influence of its moral atmosphere. Here then is a real teaching, whatever be its standards and principles, true or false; and it at least tends towards cultivation of the intellect; it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is something, and it does something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers with no mutual sympathies and no intercommunion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy, three times a week, or three times a year, or once in three years, in chill lecture rooms or on a pompous anniversary.

“Nay, self-education in any shape, in the most restricted sense, is preferable to a system of teaching which, professing so much, really does so little for the mind. Shut your college gates against the votary of knowledge, throw him back upon the searchings and the efforts of his own mind; he will gain by being spared an entrance into your babel. Few indeed there are who can dispense with the stimulus and support of instructors, or will do anything at all if left to themselves. And fewer still (though such great minds are to be found) who will not, from such unassisted attempts, contract a self-reliance and a self-esteem which are not only moral evils, but serious hindrances to the attainment of truth. And next to none, perhaps, or none, who will not be reminded from time to time of the disadvantage under which they lie by their imperfect grounding, by the breaks, deficiencies, and irregularities of their knowledge, by the eccentricity of opinion and the confusion of principle which they exhibit. They will be too often ignorant of what everyone knows and takes for granted, of that multitude of small truths which fall upon the mind like dust, impalpable and ever accumulating; they may be unable to converse, they may argue perversely, they may pride themselves on their worst paradoxes or their grossest truisms, they may be full of their own mode of viewing things, unwilling to be put out of their way, slow to enter into the minds of others; but with these and whatever other liabilities upon their heads, they are likely to have more thought, more mind, more philosophy, more true enlargement, than those earnest but ill-used persons who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premise and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust, having gained nothing really by their anxious labours, except perhaps the habit of application.” (p.l22-126)


[i] First published in the magazine The Irish Communist, No 224, October 1984

[ii] An enthymeme, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, is “an argument based on probable premisses as distinct from a demonstration”.

[iii] A continuation was published back in 1984, but we can’t currently locate any copies of it.