Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960

By Christopher Stray | Go to book overview

2
The Classical System

Classics and Class

Early nineteenth-century England witnessed both the consolidation of the power of the bourgeoisie, and the remarkable recovery of authority of classics, which had earlier been subject to mounting criticism. This was no coincidence. As Armstrong puts it, we find 'a sudden infatuation with classical authors at a point in history when strong group interests appear to be at stake'.1 Friedrich Paulsen made the connection explicitly in his study of German education:

Introduction of Greek as the obligatory subject in the schools was carried out at the same time as the bourgeoisie entered society . . . In the nineteenth century, the dukes and princes also had to learn Greek in order not to fall behind in education. These . . . are the essential factors which led to the surprising change in the nature of education and the constitution of the schools.2

In England, as elsewhere, the emergence of middle-class groups to a position of prominence after industrialization was a complex phenomenon. Not only were there at any moment several fractions of the bourgeoisie, whose interests and social power differed one from another; over time, the century witnessed a dialectical process of formation and fission, aspiration and exclusion, in which new middle-class groups sought to stake a place in the social order while their predecessors defended their own. The consolidation of the assimilated noble-bourgeois élite by the 1830s, for example, was followed by the emergence of new bourgeois groups who looked to the established groups for the means to symbolize their superiority to their own social inferiors. As Hobsbawm puts it, 'In turn, every stratum of the rising middle class, every new profession, marked the ledge on the rockface of social ascent where

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1
J. A. Armstrong, The European Administrative élite ( Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973), 135. This somewhat neglected book devotes considerable attention to the role of classics in élite socialization in Europe. See especially his chapter on "The Classics Barrier", 127-48.
2
Quoted by Armstrong, ibid. 136, from F. Paulsen, Geschichte des gelchrten Unterrichts ( Leipzig: Veit, 1885), ii. 311-12.

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