Educating the whole person in Victorian Oxford

It has been a quiet Christmas with family this year. I did find a chance, though, to do some (admittedly not-so-light) reading – and recently I came to the end of a very interesting book dealing with the topic of academic life in nineteenth century Oxford. I wanted to jot down a few findings and arguments I came across while reading it, as it certainly left an impression.

The book is a kind of biography – its subject the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, a major figure in the academic and administrative life of his university – which offers also a history of ideas and debates about the aims of education in the Victorian university. It’s written by HS Jones, a History professor at Manchester, and I was fortunate to find a cheap copy used on Amazon, as it’s an expensive – if excellent – book only available as a hardback (as here). From reading the book, I think Pattison is a figure whose ideas deserve attention in the context of debates that continue to surround the subject of education today.

The Victorian period was a time of much pioneering activity and growth in British education, and this was true too of Oxford. It was, for instance, a time when many Oxford dons found a way to bring the benefits of university education to workers, putting together extension courses and classes for those of limited education and limited means to attend university in the conventional way (link here). This is just one example of the commitment to extending the field of operation of the university that characterised the thinking of many leading Victorian educationalists. The world of Victorian education could be (and was – and sometimes continues to be) crudely – if not unjustifiably – caricatured as one of punctilious strictness, brutal corporal punishment and endless, mandatory Greek and Latin to be learned by rote. Certainly it was one in which significant economic, educational and indeed religious barriers blocked many from receiving a higher education altogether. However, it is demonstrable that this world was also characterised by the thoughtfulness, lucidity and intellectual courage of many of its leading denizens.

Mark Pattison was one such case. I warm to Pattison partly because, for him, academic teaching was less a matter of pedagogical technique and more a matter of personal encounter, whereby the student comes to see the character and intellectual interests of a teacher and is formed by this experience. This might sound a bit like the beginning of an argument in favour of amateurism or some kind of cult of personality. But Pattison – in the words of his contemporary John Henry Newman, whom he admired but later dissociated himself from – saw it rather as an important guarantor that the process of educating a mind could not resemble ‘a foundry, a mint or a treadmill’: it must be personal rather than simply mechanical.

I like Pattison’s sceptical view of ‘mechanical’ instruction, and his insistence on the necessary human element that must lie at the heart of true education. That instruction may run the risk of being mechanical, he suggested, is partly a consequence of examinations. Formal university examinations in Oxford had been introduced only recently, in 1800. Pattison feared that ‘the ascendancy of the examination was creating a new formalism in which outward attainments…would be valued at the expense of the real intellectual qualities the examinations were supposed to test’. The love of learning, he thought, ‘was degraded if it depended for its operation on the offer of external rewards’. Love of learning, of self-improvement, should be its own reward: ‘to enforce study by examination is much on a par with compelling morality by public discipline, or restraining private extravagance by sumptuary laws’. The principal defect of examinations, he argued, is that ‘the best contrived examination can only reach knowledge and acquirement; it cannot gauge character’. True enough.

Knowledge, he went as far as to say, should be sought ‘not for itself, but as a means for enlarging and building up the character’. This statement represents a clear and thought-provoking clash with a prevailing tendency in 21st century educational thinking, where knowledge of what is on a particular syllabus is presented virtually as a ‘good’ in itself, offering a means to secure exam-based qualifications.

In common with many Victorian educationalists, Pattison thought that an overriding aim of an education was to build character. Unlike a good number of his contemporaries, however, he didn’t think this could be straightforwardly achieved through the cultivation of ‘manly virtues’ in the context of athletic activities. For Pattison, it was intellectual life (properly conceived as the love of learning for its own sake) that did most to build character – and in advancing this view, he knew he would have to make his case. On the one hand, he saw that athletic pursuits do indeed help cultivate some honourable virtues: ‘keenness, vigour, boldness, skill, enterprise, readiness, hardiness, determination, solidity’. These he regarded as ‘the manly virtues of a trading and speculating people’. On the other hand, he suggested that these virtues were in danger of being ‘too exclusively honoured’, that they tended to thrust out of sight the softer virtues of ‘humility, patience, self-abnegation, prayer, devotion, charity’. (Pattison later disavowed his Christianity). Here too, I think, he has something important to say.

A final point about Pattison’s perspective on education that struck me is his view of research. Pattison is known as a key Victorian figure who threw his weight behind the (German) model of the research university, according to which a primary focus of academic life is on producing original academic studies and publications. It was therefore surprising to find out what Pattison thought the point of academic research actually was. Research, he thought, is what enables scholars to be ‘actively engaged in a process of self-culture’. This ensures the presence of a ‘philosophical temper’, which in turn is a prerequisite for meaningful teaching. In short, the point of research, he thinks, is self-development with a view to being the best sort of teacher.

Clearly this is a vision that differs profoundly from some of the standard ways in which the raison d’etre of academic research is now conceived: that is, as a means to add to, or to dispute matters relating to, the common stock of knowledge; as a means to obtain professional status; as a means to discuss or solve real-world problems. These common ways of thinking about what academic research is for belie an underlying scientism (and presentism). But this scientizing (and presentist) lens, one might insist, is not the only valid way of conceiving the point of research: in the humanities, for instance, it is arguably a cause of ongoing damage. Pattison – while stressing the importance of research – offers a different perspective on why it might be of value, both to the researcher themselves and to their pupils.

Quiz Answers from the last post:

  1. B – no donkey is mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the nativity.
  2. C – the arch was that of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, who became emperor briefly himself from 79-81.
  3. D – Hercules is the correct answer.

Rugby Time

2018 rugby

A major feature of my school week this term is rugby, out on the school playing fields, come rain or shine, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (for training) and Saturday afternoons (when we usually have our fixtures). For the past two years, I have been coaching the U15C team (pictured above, after a recent hard-won victory). It’s a role I’ve enjoyed, even as I’ve struggled at times with travel sickness on trips to away games. My own brief career as a rugby player ended at 16, up until which point I’d played as a flanker for my own school team. Twenty years later, I’ve discovered that coaching the game is not just fun, but a good learning opportunity too.

Sociologists of sport suggest that team sporting contests play out in microcosm the dynamics of war between the competing participants. Team sport can thus be conceived as a training in soldiery – the quip that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ being just one well-known illustration of the point.

The Victorian schoolmasters who oversaw the introduction of large-scale team sporting contests into the timetables of their public schools appreciated this. But, for many of them, there was a good deal more at stake in team sports than the development of reliable soldiers for the British empire. Participation in a sport such as rugby was widely thought also to offer an education in ‘character’ – an elusive but cardinal nineteenth century British virtue. Something of this ethos, albeit in a transmuted form, lives on in my own twenty first century training sessions and match days out on the rugby field.

Rugby time is not just an opportunity for the boys I teach to do some exercise, but to develop some understanding of rugby tactics and strategy, while mastering the basic skills needed to play the game. Linked to these is the question of teamwork (an echo, perhaps, of the Victorian esprit de corps) – and this is where I think the meat of the matter vis a vis ‘character’ really lies.

For teamwork involves appreciating one’s role and responsibility as an individual within a group, while being realistic about what you have to offer in terms of skills, accepting what you need to do in terms of duties, and appreciating what you are reliant on others for. At its heart, then, is the need for a sense of realism but also of recognition. Team members must recognise that no one can stand apart as an island (if things are going to work well for the team), and to recognise also that everyone in the team has something of value to bring to the table. Sometimes, this might involve the humble recognition that others have more to offer than you do in a particular area. Always it is about learning to see and to trust the good in others. Meanwhile, learning to appreciate that your own desire for personal glory should only be realised if it best serves the interests of the group is, for some boys, a challenging (not to say ongoing) experience.

On match days, I try to ensure that victories are an occasion not just for congratulation but for calm and constructive feedback. There’s plenty of scope for improvement in an U15C team, just as there is in most teams: matches aren’t just about getting the win – they are an opportunity to learn and reflect. Equally, I aim to offer equanimity in the face of defeat (admittedly there haven’t been many of those this season!): defeats usually happen because of a mis-match of quality or some bad luck. Best to appreciate this as objectively as possible, calmly learn from the experience, and move on.

Even if the Victorian language of ‘character’ no longer comes naturally to many, then, it seems clear to me that the psychological and educational benefits of participation in team sport still matter. It’s a privilege of my working week to try to foster these.