Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Passionate Reporting: Arnold on Elementary Schools, Teachers, and Children

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Passionate Reporting: Arnold on Elementary Schools, Teachers, and Children

Article excerpt

Matthew Arnold spent thirty-five years inspecting elementary schools and reporting annually about the teachers, the students, and the buildings. His annual reports are not in the Complete Prose Works, but they provide a detailed portrait of Arnold's work and his evolving ideas about education and the state. They also reveal how he came to sympathize with students and teachers and how he used his position to support them. In contrast with the familiar biographical understanding of his distaste for his job, Arnold's reports and other writing about the elementary schools speak of his growing interest in the problems which his job made concrete and his deepening commitment to advancing state-supported public education. They also show how progressive his views were on issues such as "payment for results," assessing student learning, and teaching to the test, all issues which continue to be of interest today. A closer look at Arnold's reports suggests that his work as an inspector was at the center of his career, not on the periphery, and that instead of spoiling his poetry, it grounded his work in prose.

I. The Job: Drudgery or Philosophic Gesture?

Inspecting elementary schools for the Education Department in the 1850s was demanding work, and the pay only moderately good. There were things Matthew Arnold did not like about this job. He did not enjoy conducting the exams, writing lengthy committee reports, and spending long hours in the classrooms when he could have been writing. There were days so busy he had to grab a quick biscuit for lunch to get through the afternoon. The early years were especially grinding, traveling from school to school, taking time away from his family when the children were babies. In a few years, though, he moved up the ranks to become Chief School Inspector. His districts were narrowed and he had fewer miles to cover. The paperwork demanded more detail, as if numbers could measure quality of education, but his assistant helped with the figures. His publications were well received, and though he often wrote critically of policies favored by his supervisors, he never suffered any serious retaliation. Upon his retirement after thirty-five years in education, his colleagues honored him with a party and a gift, and he made a warmhearted speech avowing his regard and affection for the people with whom he had worked most closely. Like most jobs, being a school inspector had been a mix of rewarding and tedious work.

In between the familiar milestones of his career in education lies an enormous amount of work to which in time Arnold made a profound and tireless commitment. He was right when he wrote his wife in October 1851, "I think I shall get interested in the schools after a time: their effects on the children are so immense, and their future effects on civilising the next generation of the lower classes, who, as things are going, will have most of the political power of the country in their hands, may be so important" (Letters I: 227). Though he continued to feel he was not cut out for this position, in time, he became more than just "interested." Questions of curriculum, certification, and funding for state-supported schools were critical public issues that he took as his mission to address.

Arnold's ideas about schools were often seen as too progressive by his supervisors. His recent harsh critics have been reluctant to see Arnold as a progressive, but his views on public education still resonate with contemporary liberal views on education. Arnold's ideas about education were anchored in the reality of the schools he saw as part of his job. According to the Regulations of 1833 and 1862 that defined the purpose of the Committee of the Privy Council of the Education Department, the grant system of state aid was designed for "children of the poorer classes" (1833), or "children belonging to the classes who support themselves by manual labour" (Appendix A and K, Reports 269, 332). …

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