Confessions of an Eton Master
by H. S. Salt
There is probably no institution on which the opinion of the initiated few is so hopelessly at variance with that of the uninitiated many, as that venerable relic of mediæval times which is known as the ‘Eton system of education.’ The typical patriotic Etonian is so thoroughly possessed with the conviction that in all material points Eton has attained not only pre-eminence, but perfection, in comparison with other schools, that he cannot by any argument be brought to admit that his Alma Mater can be in need of reform—reform, the bugbear of public schools, ‘that hateful invention of overbearing Radicals,’ as it was once characteristically described in a letter to an Eton magazine. The shrewd remark of a great American moralist, that ‘the axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town or city,’ is true in a marked degree of Eton, as viewed from the Etonian standpoint; indeed, only those who have had personal experience of it can realise with what supreme content, what huge complacency of self-satisfaction, the Etonian regards the great school of which he is, or has been, a member. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the popular idea of Eton is very far from being equally complimentary; for to an outsider Eton generally appears the very incarnation of idleness and luxury, and its alumni little better than a horde of selfish and thriftless youngsters, who, under the specious name of education, are taught vicious habits of extravagance and self-indulgence.
The appointment of a new head-master at Eton has of late drawn especial attention to the management of the school, and invited renewed discussion of its merits and shortcomings. Much of this controversy must necessarily be somewhat barren and unprofitable, for, as I have just shown, there is little basis for a useful exchange of views between the uncompromising Etonian and the implacable outsider. As one, however, who does not belong to either of these extreme parties, I venture to offer an opinion on this vexed question of Eton education, and as I have been intimately acquainted with the place for the last eighteen years, and have spent five years there as a boy, and ten as a classical master, I hope my suggestions may not be entirely without weight.
The cardinal point of Eton education is the so-called ‘tutorial system.’ That is to say, each boy, in addition to the regular work of the school, does certain preparatory work with one of the classical tutors, who corrects and signs his exercises, hears him construe the lessons before they are done in school, and maintains a general supervision over his studies. The advantages and disadvantages of this system are at once obvious. It is certainly an advantage to a boy to have throughout all his school career one tutor, to whom he can always look for advice and assistance, and with whom he can establish closer ties of friendship than usually exist between master and boy, though it has yet to be shown that the house-master cannot occupy the same position. On the other hand, it may be urged that it is a great waste of time that a boy should be obliged to repeat the same lessons to two different masters, and that such a system, by necessitating an enormous sacrifice of time on the tutor's part, thereby renders the regular school-work a matter of almost secondary consideration; for how can a master conduct his school-work efficiently, when he is distracted in his capacity of tutor by having to construe all the lessons and look over all the exercises that are set in other parts of the school?
Another grave complication which results from the tutorial system is the inequality between classical and mathematical masters. The latter, who are usually unable to perform the duties of private classical tuition, are thus excluded from that part of an Eton mastership which is held in most repute and is by far the most lucrative; while if they have boarding-houses of their own, they are compelled to hand over the direction of their boys’ studies to some young classical tutor and content themselves with what (in spite of the recently invented name of ‘house-tutor’) is in reality a subordinate position. The non-classical masters are accordingly in a constant state of rebellion against the present system, and openly avow that they will not rest until they have obtained complete equality with their classical colleagues; hence a very unsettled and uncomfortable state of affairs, which has certainly had a mischievous effect on the general work of the school.
There is again a third disadvantage in the tutorial system—viz. that it makes the introduction of modern subjects far more difficult than it would otherwise be. Hitherto, French, mathematics, and science have been taught in a casual and half-hearted manner, simply because the classical masters have insisted on appropriating so much of the boys’ time that it is impossible to teach anything effectually in the remainder. If modern subjects were to be seriously introduced and a ‘modern side’ instituted, boys would be compelled to drop a large part of their present classical tuition; and this would necessitate the abolition of the tutorial fee, and the reorganisation of the whole system of payment. What wonder if, under such circumstances, the study of modern subjects has not flourished at our greatest public school?
It will be seen from what I have already said, that the Eton tutorial system is by no means the smoothly working machine that its votaries would have us believe it to be; I hope presently to show that it is the great obstacle in the way of all real reform at Eton, and that until it is done away with, there can be no substantial improvement in the method of education. Delenda est Carthago—the tutorial system must be abolished—is to be the moral of this article. But before we proceed to consider how this revolution can be accomplished, it may be well to see what truth there is in the popular opinion concerning Eton itself.
I believe there is much exaggeration on both sides; not only in the patriotic determination to see no fault in anything Etonian, which may be set aside as the childishness of real or overgrown schoolboys, but also in the hostility of those who brand all Eton boys as irreclaimably idle, and deny even the merit of good intentions to those who have the management of the school. I am afraid the malady which is at the root of Etonian troubles is more complicated and deep-seated than any mere idleness, pure and simple, among the boys; for whereas the remedy for downright idleness is comparatively easy and expeditious, it is extremely difficult to reform an intricate and misdirected system of education. This, unfortunately, is precisely the fault of Eton; not so much the unwillingness of the boys to work, as the anomalies of a system which render useful work almost impossible, and the existence of certain ‘interests’, which, insensibly, of course, and indirectly, but none the less surely, prejudice the minds of the masters against reform. In the opposition which the majority of classical matters offer to all innovation, I am compelled to think the wish is father to the thought; as was once said of the Conservative party, they have some valuable possessions and they mean to ‘conserve’ them. On the other hand, the boys could certainly be made to work under a more sensible organisation; even now some of the more conscientious of them, besides the few who are ambitious, do a good deal of work, and even complain at times of being over-tasked. In fact, it is not mere idleness that reigns supreme at Eton, so much as a strenua inertia—a busy sloth—which, with much bustle and profession, effects practically nothing, and, by the exhibition of its own worthlessness, drives the boys more and more to the worship of athleticism, that great deity of the youthful mind.
It is vain to point to additional school-hours, an increased number of exercises, examinations without end, and a general show of scholastic activity: the mournful fact remains, uncontroverted and incontrovertible, that under the present system little is taught, and little can be taught, and therefore a general spirit of heartlessness and discouragement (none the less real because it is not openly acknowledged; it would be high treason to do that) pervades alike the minds of masters and boys. The Eton system may be aptly compared to an oarsman who through some unhappy peculiarity of mind persists in rowing against that part of a stream where the current is insuperable, and who, after vast expenditure of time and labour, and a masterly exhibition of oarsmanship, finds himself at the end in precisely the same position as when his work began. It would be unjust to call such an one idle; but it is also impossible to congratulate him on his progress; worst of all, it is doubly hard to convince him that his time is misspent, for he can point to his sweating brow and tired arms as evidences of his success. Even so it is at Eton—work there is, but useful work there certainly is not; little wonder then if the boys turn aside from the culture of the intellect, presented as it is to them under the guise of a perfectly barren and unprofitable labour, and give themselves over to a pursuit which is at least possible and practicable, and from which they gain some definite result—the culture of the body by athletic exercise.
But here it will probably be asked, What are the causes which make work at Eton so discouraging and unsuccessful? They may be described as faults partly in the choice of subjects taught, and partly in the method of teaching, the former being to some extent common to all public schools, the latter peculiarly inherent in that system of which we are speaking. In the first place, it can hardly be denied that it is a mistake to attempt to teach many subjects at the same time. Classics still remain the basis of an Eton education; yet the governing body are constantly making rules that this or that modem subject is to be introduced, without in any way explaining how it can be taught efficiently unless some portion of the classical work is allowed to be dropped. The result is, of course, disastrous both to the old studies and the new, for the effective teaching of the former is seriously impaired, while the merest smattering is obtained of the latter.
Again, a serious mistake is made in aiming at an impossibly high standard of classical teaching, the whole system of which seems to be based on the assumption that every boy is capable of being made a scholar or grammarian. Accordingly, the dullest and most backward boys are plunged, together with the cleverest, into that great vortex of mistaken and unsuccessful teaching, from which there emerge ninety-nine blockheads to one scholar; nor is it possible to see how this can be remedied, until headmasters awake to the fact that the attempt to teach the niceties of scholarship and the elegancies of Latin verse must ever be useless, and worse than useless, in the case of a large majority of boys. It is vain to attempt to take refuge in that ingenious after-thought, which has lately been put forward by some apologists of the old classical system—viz. that the object of education is not to learn, but ‘to learn how to learn;’ not so much to acquire actual knowledge as to train the mind so as to be capable of acquiring it; for, even if we grant this very large assumption, still the retort is imminent, that under the present system boys do not ‘learn how to learn.’ The most telling part of Mr. Walter Wren’s indictment of the public-school system, is where he disposes of this most unwarrantable claim, and from my own experience at Eton I can certainly corroborate what he says:—
You would not believe it possible how utterly ignorant are many of the public schoolboys who are sent to us. They literally do not know how to read a book. I don’t mean to say that they do not know their alphabet, and cannot read a book aloud; but that they have absolutely no idea of reading a book in order to absorb its subject-matter.
This may sound extraordinary; but it is after all only the necessary result of what is known as ‘a classical education’—an education, that is, in which a boy is allowed to grow up in perfect ignorance of the literature and grammar of his own language, in order that he may devote much time to Latin and Greek scholarship, a pursuit in which, in nine cases out of ten, he is naturally incapable of success. He devotes the time, and the time is lost; for in the end he fails to master the Latin and Greek, and has to go elsewhere to be taught something more within his powers.
Secondly, as regards the method of teaching employed at Eton, I fear it must be admitted that it is distinctly and deplorably bad. Those who are unacquainted with the inner working of the school, who see only its imposing exterior, and are impressed by the prestige of its antiquity and renown, would find it difficult to believe how utterly unscientific (to use the mildest word) is the system of education employed. To begin with, the divisions are of enormous size, seldom numbering under thirty boys in each, and occasionally over forty, and these divisions are placed in the charge of men who, whatever their own classical accomplishments may be, are wholly destitute, in all but a very few cases, of any special ability for undertaking so arduous a charge, having generally come as young men direct from the university, without any previous training for the profession of master. It is, indeed, passing strange that the duty of instructing boys ‘to learn how to learn’ should be so confidently committed to those who have themselves never been taught how to teach!
The size of the divisions is the first serious difficulty that a master has to grapple with; the next is the system of preparing work ‘out of school.’ Owing to the fact that the division masters are also classical tutors, their time is so much occupied with pupil-room work that it is impossible for them to see the boys in their division except at the fixed school-hours, which are short and not very numerous; the task of preparing school-work is therefore left in the main to the boy’s own discretion, and his fear of detection by his tutor or division master if it be neglected. It is obvious, however, that with such thoughtless and improvident creatures as boys, the passing pleasure of the moment will generally have more weight than any consideration of future penalties; work is therefore constantly neglected, and hence results a constant friction between master and boy, with punishments, and arrears of work, and punishments, and arrears again, all of which might have been entirely avoided by the simple expedient of making the boy in the first place prepare his lesson under supervision.
It will now be readily understood that though much work is set at Eton, little is really done, except of course by a few model boys who often, as I said before, find themselves positively overtasked, while others, of a less conscientious frame of mind, enjoy comparative immunity from labour. The masters, on their side, struggle courageously to exact the work, and there are a few who are so gifted by nature with the faculty of managing boys as to be able to produce some small results; the majority certainly fail unmistakably, though their failure is not much to be wondered at, as the very conditions of the struggle render success almost impossible. Each classical master meets his division on the average for three schools each day, the length of the schools being only three-quarters of an hour, in which time he is expected to ascertain if some thirty or forty boys have prepared their lessons properly, and to punish those who offend in the matter of punctuality, good conduct, and industry. In the interval between the schools the master is fully occupied in private work with his own classical pupils’ work, which, though called private, is yet absolutely necessary to be done; while the boys in his division are on their part carried into captivity by their tutors, mathematical masters, French masters, science masters, and any one else who has a demand on their time.
In the perplexity and confusion of this complicated system there are of course many opportunities for an idle boy to play off one master against another, and shirk his work altogether; it is certainly a very disheartening and up-hill struggle for a master who wishes to perform his duty thoroughly. I have often known it happen that the same boy is ‘sent for’ after school by several different masters, all desirous of extracting from him some arrears of work; while the offender himself, with an impartial forgetfulness of all, and remembering the old proverb ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ quietly betakes himself to the playground, and gives himself up to complete, though only temporary, enjoyment. In the meantime his tutor is fuming with impotent rage in pupil-room, or perhaps laboriously correcting the weekly copy of verses which the truant will soon be expected to show up, signed and corrected, in school.
This reminds me to mention what is perhaps the most startling feature of the Eton system of education—the way in which the bulk of the work is made to fall on the shoulders of the tutor rather than the pupil. Vicarious labour is in great vogue at Eton, for not only does the ‘out of school’ preparation give unexampled opportunities for copying and getting help from other boys, but the whole arrangement of pupil room work is such as to entail a maximum of trouble to the master and a minimum to the boy. As the most glaring instance of the faulty methods of the old Eton system, and its utter disregard of the value of time, it may be worth while to describe as briefly as possible the manner of teaching Latin verse which is actually in use at the present time; though it is understood that the new headmaster will shortly modify some of its most objectionable details.
Every week a copy of verses is set by each of the fifteen or sixteen masters who take fifth-form divisions, and these verses have to be done by the boys as best they can, and shown up for correction not to the master who set them, but to the classical tutors. The tutor corrects the verses, eliminates ‘false quantities’ and all other mistakes, in the course of which operation he has himself to compose a good deal of Latin poetry, and then returns the copy to the boy, who writes a fair copy out of school, and finally shows up both copies to the division master at the end of the week. Now it is a very doubtful question (or rather, most people will say, it is not a very doubtful question!) whether Latin verses are worth teaching at all. Verse composition may be called ‘the Sick Man’ of classical education, and the period is probably not far distant when, in spite of all the nostrums and remedies prescribed by the Sick Man’s friends, in the way of improved verse-books and English-Latin dictionaries, remedies which have at least the merit of soothing the patient’s last agonies, and rendering them less grievous to those who are compelled to stand round his death-bed, it will go the way of all flesh, and be consigned to the oblivion suitable to all antiquated lumber. But, assuming for the present that verses must be taught in our schools, we shall all be agreed that they ought to be taught as efficiently as possible. Yet, when we examine the Eton method, we find that it is so curiously contrived, so marvellously and wonderfully made, as to be in every respect most useless and unprofitable, and to involve a ruinous waste of time to the master, with every facility of being idle for the boy. In the first place, unless the verses are done under supervision there is no safeguard against copying; in fact it is notorious that many boys habitually get their work done for them, and in some houses there are regular verse-makers—accommodating poets who turn their natural gifts to some account for the public welfare. Secondly, the labour thrown upon the tutor is out of all proportion to the benefit derived by the boy; for the task of reading, understanding, and correcting copies of verses, the subjects of which were set by other masters, and are therefore quite strange and often very puzzling, is a herculean labour from which even the ancient grammarians might have shrunk in dismay. Thus two masters are set to work to get a copy of verses from one boy, and even when they have got it, they cannot feel certain it is not done by somebody else! All this folly would be saved, if the verses were done entirely in school, and left wholly to the correction of the master who set them. Nothing but waste of time can possibly result from the exercise being taken to the tutors; indeed this is obviously done solely for the purpose of creating tutorial work and maintaining the raison d’être or the tutorial fee.
These, it seems to me, are the chief defects in the Eton method of education, and they are nearly all connected with one fatal error—the idea that it is wise to allow boys to choose their own time and place in preparation of their lessons. Well may those who are taunted with being professors of the ‘cramming system’ retort on their public-school adversaries that the ‘shamming system’ is still more injurious. For I fear that ‘shamming’ is the chief result of that ‘Liberty’ which is the pride of Eton boys, above all others, to possess, and on which they are often congratulated from the pulpit of the college chapel under the well-known phrase of ‘the liberty of this great public school.’ There is always a fascination in the mere name of liberty; yet the liberty to be idle is a privilege which it is decidedly unwise to allow to school-boys, who are certain to abuse it. Indeed it is inconceivable that the original founders of the Eton system had a deliberate intention of giving their boys any such liberty; but no doubt through the growth of the school, and lack of efficient organisation, it became more and more difficult to enforce a proper preparation of work; whence arose what may aptly be called the voluntary system of education, which, by a happy afterthought, somewhat similar to the discovery that learning is less important than ‘learning how to learn,’ was glorified under the name of liberty. Under this system many boys learn the art of doing the minimum of work required, with the least possible trouble to themselves, at the cost, I think, of a good deal of self-respect and straightforwardness of character; others make an honest attempt to do their duty, but, owing to the immense amount and the perplexing nature of the work, they are generally discouraged by the sheer impossibility of the task set before them, and finally succumb to the surrounding atmosphere of athleticism. Few who are conversant with Eton will venture to deny the truth of Sydney Smith’s remark—‘The boy who is lexicon-struck in early youth looks upon all books afterwards with horror, and goes over to the blockheads.’
In condemning the so-called liberty of public-school education, I do not of course mean to imply that there is any merit in the contrary extreme of personal interference and constant supervision at every point of a boy’s school career; for it is doubtless a wise plan to put all reasonable trust in a boy’s honour and to avoid irritating him by petty and unnecessary restrictions. In the case of boys in the highest part of the school who have proved themselves trustworthy, and are old enough to work satisfactorily by themselves, greater liberty as regards the time and manner of their work might confidently be allowed; nor is there any reason why those exercises which are really voluntary, such for instance as are done in competition for a prize and involve extra work beyond the ordinary routine, should not be left entirely to the boy’s own judgment and discretion. But in dealing with ordinary boys, and in the case of work which is held to be an integral part of the regular school teaching, it is surely right to see that what is set is done; it cannot strengthen a boy’s character, but must have the contrary effect, to give him a ‘liberty’ which will probably inure him to habits of procrastination and carelessness at the very time of life when he is supposed to be learning regularity and obedience. It is curious to observe, that as long ago as the year 1800, De Quincey had noticed this defect in the Etonian character, which he contrasts with that of his fellow-students at the Manchester Grammar School:—
The grave kindness (he says) and the absolute sincerity, of their manner (at Manchester) impressed me most favourably. I had lived familiarly with boys gathered from all quarters of the island at the Bath Grammar School; and for some time, when visiting Lord Altamont at Eton, with boys of the highest aristocratic pretensions. At Bath and Eton, though not equally, there prevailed a tone of higher polish; and in the air, speech, deportment of the majority could be traced at once a premature knowledge of the world. They had indeed the advantage over my new friends in graceful self-possession; but, on the other hand, the best of them suffered by comparison with these Manchester boys in the qualities of visible self-restraint and of self-respect.
This failure of the Eton system to produce satisfactory results in the way of education is the more deplorable, on account of the undeniable excellence of the material of which the school is composed. Every year some two hundred new boys are entered, a large proportion of them finely bred, active little fellows, thoroughly good-tempered, docile, and anxious to give satisfaction. Some have excellent intellectual ability; others of course are very stupid; but it should be remembered that many of these latter, though apparently hopelessly dull in the peculiar classical curriculum which is alone recognised at Eton, would develop unexpected powers if a wider and more liberal choice of subjects were allowed. At any rate the boys, previous to their entry at Eton, have had no experience of the voluntary or the vicarious system of education; they have been made to learn their lessons thoroughly, and have not acquired the art of neglecting their work or getting it done for them by their schoolfellows. In this healthy state of body and mind they are brought in shoals at the beginning of each school-time by their anxious parents or guardians, who are determined to obtain for them the best possible education, and launched into that great vortex of which I before spoke. At the end of four or five years they emerge; and what is then their condition? I speak only of intellectual acquirements: possibly, as is sometimes urged, the social advantages of Eton outbalance educational defects; but as far as learning or ‘learning to learn’ is concerned, I fear the average Etonian has fared but indifferently.
The seventy Collegers and a handful of industrious Oppidans may keep up appearances by gaining university scholarships and the like, but the rank and file of the school are hopelessly and irretrievably unintellectual. They know little; they hate books; they regard scholars with good-humoured indifference or neglect; they worship athletes with an ever-increasing veneration: to mention the Newcastle scholar of the current year would be to the majority a painful effort of memory; the Captain of the Boats, or the Captain of the Eleven, is a deity ever present before their minds. I protest that in my experience of Eton I have known nothing so sad as to watch the gradual process of deterioration in the industry of a new boy. For the first fortnight or so all is perfection; the boy is punctual, diligent, eager to do his work conscientiously; then comes a period when he begins to look about him, and to note with a mild surprise the indifference of other boys to their lessons, and the inability of the masters to enforce thorough diligence; finally he yields to the temptation that everywhere surrounds him, eats of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (or rather Ignorance), and gradually sinks into a state of mental inactivity. An amusing story used to be told of two brothers, members of a well-known Etonian family, which, whether apocryphal or not, will serve to illustrate what I have been saying. The major was being severely rated by his tutor on account of his idleness at Eton, and his more industrious minor was held up as at once a pattern and reproof. This unjust aggravation of an admitted offence was more than he could bear, and he hurriedly and earnestly pleaded, in perfect simplicity, and confident of thus instantly righting his injured reputation, that his minor had only lately entered the school, while he had been an Etonian some years. ‘The last shall be the first, and the first last,’ is a prophecy which has its daily fulfilment at Eton.
What then can be done to remove the various obstacles that at present bar the way of educational success at Eton? I believe the first, the most indispensable, change must be the abolition of the tutorial system. This change may perhaps be effected quietly and gradually, but unless it be done thoroughly, and by one who is farsighted enough to see the full import of his measures, no true reform is possible. For I think that all who are interested in the cause of education will admit that reform at Eton, if we are to have any, must be effected by means of some such measures as I will now proceed to indicate, the most important of which will be seen to be quite incompatible with the present system of tuition.
1. The attempt to teach many subjects at the same time should be given up. If mathematics, science, history, geography, and modern languages are to be successfully taught, we must recognise the necessity of dropping some portion of the classical work; and instead of being all forced into the classical groove, boys must be allowed to choose those subjects which they are naturally most capable of mastering. In other words, a ‘modern side’ must be established, and classics must be deprived of the supremacy they have so long enjoyed. This, which at most other schools might be a simple and natural arrangement, would involve a really momentous change at Eton, because it would necessitate the abolition of the special privileges at present held by the classical masters. For if a large number of boys ceased to study classics as the main branch of their education, what would become of the classical tuition, the ‘construing’ and the ‘verses’ and the ‘private business,’ for which every tutor at present receives twenty guineas per annum for each pupil? It is obvious that this money could no longer be paid to the classical tutors, whose assistance would no longer be required; it is consequently not difficult to understand that any depreciation of the value of classical learning is very unpopular among the most influential Eton masters. A modern side means practically the abolition of the tutorial system, and the abolition of the tutorial system means the readjustment of the whole question of salaries, which in a competitive and anomalous state of affairs such as prevails at Eton must of course be very distasteful to the most prosperous, and therefore most powerful, of the tutors.
2. All the regular schoolwork, except perhaps in the upper part of the school, should be done under supervision, instead of being left to the boy’s discretion as to the time and method of preparation. It would seem at first sight as if this arrangement might be made to harmonise with the tutorial system, but this is not the case, for in proportion as the work is taken out of the hands of the tutor and done under the direction of the division master, there is less and less necessity for keeping up the old tutorial system. The saving of time and labour that would be effected by any such change must tend more or less to throw the tutor out of work, and necessitate at any rate a reduction of the tutorial fee. Accordingly we find that any thoroughgoing plan of this kind, though in itself perfectly simple and demanded by the plainest dictates of common sense, has hitherto found no favour whatever with the authorities at Eton. The plea of boyish ‘liberty’ has been put forward, and the corrupt old system perpetuated year after year, the solemn farce of leaving boys to prepare their own work at their own time being religiously played out, in order that existing institutions may not be interfered with.
3. The size of the divisions should be greatly reduced. The task of teaching and maintaining discipline over more than thirty boys is one which very few masters are capable of discharging efficiently; indeed it may be doubted if anything exceeding half that number is not likely to endanger real excellence in teaching, such as one might surely look for at the first of English public schools. The difficulty of managing troublesome and unwieldy divisions is, and has always been, one of the most fruitful causes of failure in the Eton system; yet whenever the question is brought forward, and remonstrance made, the answer is always the same—that the School Fund is not prosperous enough to warrant the appointment of more masters. It should be remembered, however, that the School Fund would be prosperous in the extreme the moment the tutorial system were abolished or even modified. At present some 18,000l. are annually devoted towards the payment of the tutorial fees alone; if this money were paid directly to the School Fund instead of going indirectly to classical tutors, it is evident that not only might a much fairer and more equitable plan of salaries be devised, but that there would also be a considerable margin to be used for the appointment of more masters, and the consequent lessening of the number of boys in each division. The large divisions are in fact merely the necessary outcome of an anomalous system of payment, by which individuals profit largely at the expense of the community. The plea of insufficient funds is quite fallacious; the real difficulty here, as in every other question of reform, lies in the existence of the tutorial system, and the stubborn opposition of its votaries to any real change.
4. Lastly, I would urge that the system of teaching might be made much more efficient, if some accessory improvements were carried out in certain minor, but by no means unimportant, matters. Leave of absence to visit parents and friends should not be granted in the indiscriminate manner which at present prevails. Instead of allowing each boy to take his exeat at any time he chooses, to the constant annoyance of division masters, and great detriment to work, there should be one fixed time in the half which might be a true holiday to boys and masters alike. The length of school hours should be increased, and the absurd habit of having three half-holidays in the week should be at once dropped, together with the still more amazing custom of observing saints’ days and certain other days as whole holidays. It is not so much the mere loss of time thus occasioned that is to be deplored, though that too is considerable, as the fact that these constant interruptions in the school routine distract the attention of the boys from all literary occupation, and give opportunities for endless matches and athletic contests, which foster the spirit of athleticism at the expense of all other considerations. It will hardly be believed by some of my readers, when I state that the number of whole and half-holidays in the summer school-time of 1884 was forty-four, exclusive of Sundays, while the ‘whole school days’ numbered only thirty-five. How is it possible that boys who are turned out to run wild from midday, or at any rate from 3 P.M. to 9 P.M., on more than half the days in the week, can become otherwise than indifferent to their work? It is useless to plead that they have plenty of work set them to prepare in their rooms, if they choose to do it. The fact remains that the majority do not choose to do it, or at any rate to do it properly; and it is small consolation to know that a few conscientious boys have enough, or too much, to do, while the others are enjoying immunity from labour. Still less satisfaction is it to remember that many of the idlers pay the penalty for their thoughtlessness by being compelled to write long ‘punishments,’ and clear off arrears of work at unseasonable hours, for all these penalties would be almost entirely unnecessary if only a rational and practical method were adopted, by which the boys might be made to do their work, instead of being merely told to do it.
There is nothing new in the proposal of these remedies; they have often been suggested before, and will probably have to be often suggested again, before Etonian patriots condescend to consider them. For let there be no mistake as to who are the real opponents of such reforms. It is not a fact, as is often wrongly stated, that the parents of the boys, in their complete content at the satisfactory management of the school, would be made uneasy by any alteration in so perfect a system. I am sure the parents are much maligned on this point; for the majority of them are fully aware of the defects in the teaching at Eton, and would welcome any change which would make the education a real and not a nominal one. But there is a minority of parents, men who were themselves educated at Eton, and fully imbued with all the prejudices of the place, who more frequently visit their old school and keep up a closer connection with it, and thus pose as representatives of the parental class, and make their own opinions pass for those of the less demonstrative majority. It is these men, Etonian to the core, and determined to see no fault in what they have always understood to be perfect, who encourage the authorities of the school in their resistance to all changes, and make any real reform impossible. Their sentiments are admirably expressed by Sydney Smith in his essay on ‘Methods of Teaching Languages’—‘Aye, aye, it’s all mighty well—but I went through this myself, and I am determined my children shall do the same.’ These are the parents who delight to think that their sons are engaged in the same boyish freaks which they themselves used to perpetrate; who rejoice to hear of their being ‘swished,’ because that is a proof that they are idle, and idleness is one of the characteristics of a gentleman’s education.
But while this noisy and patriotic minority are loudly asserting that savoir-faire is better than book-learning, there can be little doubt that the great body of parents are at heart discontented at the lack of efficient teaching and stringent government. Unfortunately they are scattered over the country, unable to combine together through having no bond of union as the Etonians have, and therefore despair of obtaining any redress. And certainly it would be useless, and worse than useless, to look for any substantial reform from the governing body, or staff of masters of Eton as at present constituted.
It is notorious that the majority of the governing body are tinged with the old prejudices in favour of a classical education; while the preponderance of classical masters at Eton and the superior influence they exercise ensure the rejection of any scheme of reform which would he likely to injure the interests of the dominant party. It is only through public opinion that any change can come; and public opinion can only be moved by non-Etonian parents making known the causes of their discontent and exposing the anomalies of the system.
The newly elected headmaster, in spite of his strong conservative tendencies and previous dislike of innovation, is credited in some quarters with a determination to make the school-teaching really efficient. It is understood that the main features of the system he will shortly inaugurate are briefly these: An increase of the number of hours devoted to mathematics and French; the gradual introduction of German; and, on the other hand, a slight, it is to be feared a very slight, diminution of the work at present most unnecessarily entrusted to the classical tutors. The verses are to be partly done in school, and then taken for correction to the tutor, who, however, will only underline mistakes, instead of practically rewriting the copy, as is now done. All this is excellent as far as it goes; but, unless I am greatly mistaken, it will not be found to go very far. It is evidently the result of two conflicting tendencies which have each influenced the headmaster’s action: one, the desire to do something to allay the grave dissatisfaction which undoubtedly exists in non-Etonian circles; the other, a strong predilection for the tutorial system. It is to be feared that the latter feeling will, for the present at any rate, prevent any chance of a real and radical reform; indeed the forthcoming changes recall, ominously enough, those made by the late headmaster on his appointment some fifteen years ago, which were then regarded by some people as of great importance, though the results have entirely falsified all such expectations. For surely it is obvious enough that the mere addition of hours to the teaching of modern subjects is in itself of little use unless boys are allowed to drop some portion of their classical studies. Modern languages cannot be successfully taught without the establishment of a modern side, if only for this one reason, that it is absolutely impossible for boys to learn everything at once. The attempt to teach a smattering of everything must always result, as now, in a very Babel of languages and medley of sciences. The position of M. Jourdain amidst the conflicting claims of his various teachers—the maître de musique, the maître d’armes, the maître de danse, and the maître de philosophie—was not one whit more perplexing and deplorable than that of an average schoolboy at Eton or elsewhere compelled to work at the old curriculum of Latin and Greek, and also to give his attention to modern languages, mathematics, science, history, and geography!
To the questions, why is not Greek dropped? Why is not a modern side instituted? Why are Eton boys allowed to prepare, or not to prepare, their work as they please? Why are the divisions so large as to preclude the possibility of efficient teaching?—one answer, and one only, can be given. It is because the old tutorial system cannot by any ingenuity be adapted to modern requirements, and because the authorities at Eton are determined to bolster up that antiquated institution as long as they possibly can do so. The best that can be said of recent and forthcoming changes is that, however slight in themselves, they must perforce tend in the right direction, and, by leaving less and less excuse for the existence of certain anomalous interests, prepare the way for a thorough and drastic reform. A headmaster, determined to carry out a really liberal scheme, would find much to encourage him at Eton—a fine soil, though overgrown with many weeds; good material to work upon, though hampered by rusty and antiquated machinery; ready assistance from the non-classical and non-Etonian masters, who see clearly the defects of the system and are anxious to reform them. It may be thought that the headmastership of Eton would not be a pleasant post for a true reformer, as he would soon bring a nest of hornets about his ears, in the form of injured interests and indignant patriots; but, on the other hand, there should be no lack of inducement to a strong man to undertake a work which would be supremely interesting and supremely useful. One thing is quite certain—that, unless some change for the better be somehow brought about, the Poet Laureate’s eloquent denunciation of a degraded university will soon be found to have a special applicability to Eton:—
Therefore your halls, your ancient colleges,
Your portals statued with old kings and queens,
Your gardens, myriad-volumed libraries,
Wax-lighted chapels, and rich carven screens,
Your doctors, and your proctors, and your deans
Shall not avail you when the day-beam sports
New risen o’er awakened Albion—no,
Nor yet your solemn organ-pipes that blow
Melodious thunder thro’ your vacant courts
At morn and eve; because your manner sorts
Not with this age wherefrom ye stand apart;
Because the lips of little children preach
Against you—you that do profess to teach,
And teach us nothing—feeding not the heart.
Published: The Nineteenth Century, January 1885