A curriculum for gentlemen

By 1715, socio-economic class appears in discussions of the correct content of education for a gentleman, for example in The Gentleman’s Library, Containing Rules for Conduct in All Parts of Life: the author answers the hypothetical objection that ‘the refin’d Education’ he is recommending ‘is calculated but for One Class of People: That I have accommodated my precepts to the Rich alone, and neglected to sute them to the Children of the Piebean’. He answers that every father should ‘consult his Fortune and Circumstances’ and Cut his Coat according to his Cloath’.ib The volume assumes a classically educated reader: its Latin and Greek quotations from a wide range of authors are often untranslated.

The modish new syllabus prompted many publishing ventures. John Pointer’s new textbook Miscellanea in Usum Juventutis Academicae of 1718 provided everything a schoolmaster might need—instructions for ‘Reading the Classick Authors’, ‘A Chronology of the Classick Authors’, ‘A Catalogue of the Best Classick Authors and their Best Editions’, information on pagan mythology and Latin exercises. The maturing discipline in turn prompted the publication of a new genre of book designed to help the teacher in his tasks. These involved not only the grammatical, syntactical and rhetorical explication of the texts but also the classroom discussion of the myths, religion and geography to be found in them and occasionally even their aesthetic value and material objects and artworks which could illuminate them.’7 And, by 1736, we find the term ‘class’ in its modern, socio-economic sense being used alongside ‘Classics’. It occurs in a polemic questioning the point of asking boys to spend such a large proportion of the hours available for education on acquiring proficiency in the ancient languages, when reading relevant material, such as newspapers, had a more obvious application to the aspiring businessman.38

Teachers are “as capable of contributing to the Welfare or Prejudice of a State, as any of the several Classes of Men of which it is composed” .... Learning Latin, especially how to compose verses in Latin, inculcates no skills useful to business. Better to read newspapers instead: several famous writers “spell and write English perfectly (better than others who have read the Classics), tho’ they are quite ignorant of Latin”.

This adventure in lexical history leaves us with a question: why did Classics/the Classics acquire its new name, identity and function in this precise period of British history, when a new ruling order was being created?39 One factor is that education was being discussed with a new self-consciousness. The thinkers influential in the 18th century were united in stressing the importance of education, whatever their views of what its contents should be, from Locke to Rousseau, Shaftesbury to Johnson. But British educators, while imitating the French, were also keen after the Glorious Revolution to distinguish the new Anglican gentlemanly classical curriculum from the Continental model, especially the French one. The French querelle between the ancients and the moderns was transformed to suit local English literature,40 and the rise of the Classics and Dryden’s translation of Virgil are inseparable from that cultural dispute. There was also a debate on whether boys should be educated at home or at school. The Spectator’s educational expert, Budgell, found Locke’s preference for home-schooling unrealistic.41 Swift strongly favoured school education.42 Even the liber-aristocrat Lord Chesterfield sent his son to Westminster for three years. But the most significant factor was socio-economic: the rise of a new Whiggish mercantile segment of the ruling class. This process, which was beginning to transform Britain, is often subsumed by historians under terms like ‘emergence of the bourgeoisie’: it entailed the appearance of the anonymous-exchange market and the evolution of what Jiirgen Habermas defined as the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ (bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit), accompanied by an explosion in printed communication and accelerating urbanisation.43

Most importantly, the Whiggish sons of tradesmen and the Tory sons of hereditary nobles were increasingly being schooled together.44 Classics emerged to provide a curriculum which could bestow a shared concept of gentlemanliness upon them all. The 18th century saw exponential growth in private boarding schools, mostly small and run by Anglican priests, offering a classical curriculum aiming to provide the patina of gentlemanliness and access to Oxford and Cambridge.45 In early 17th-century England, the sons of gentry had often been educated beside merchants’ children at town grammar schools, but after the Restoration they were educated at home by tutors, or sent to one of the tiny group of richly endowed public schools.46 Divisions had become very visible in education. A fresh tone and model of manliness was required for the new and heterogeneous audience after the Bill of Rights 1689.

A new species of gentry among the merchant sector bought land and wanted prestige and a high ‘class’. In this context of the contestation of status and social mobility, substantial wealth had become attainable by a wider sector of the literate population and they wanted cultural capital and the status of gentlemen to match:

In a society which has become more superciliously class-conscious than in earlier centuries, those already privileged to belong to this class, guard its frontiers with a fastidious sensitiveness to the subtleties of class distinctions; at the same time, an increasing number of new aspirants made attempts to climb into the privileged territory.47

And once they had made it, they usually began to exclude those who had not, to ensure themselves safe positions high up the social hierarchy.

The process whereby youths from landed and mercantile families are fused into a collective of gentlemen by reading Classics is literally enacted in the Reverend Thomas Spateman’s three-part play for use in schools, The School-Boy’s Mask (1742). This traces the careers of a group of men, born into aristocratic, professional and business backgrounds, from their schooldays to old age. The boys who don’t read their Classics at school or in young adulthood (Rakish, Tinsel, Wild-Rogue, Fondler) become boorish louts who mix with prostitutes, acquire debts and die miserable early deaths in drunken squalor and poverty. The aristocrat who models himself on the heroes of Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos (Lord Grand-Clerck) founds a charitable infirmary and is rewarded with a dukedom. Bookish and Goodwill excel in Oxbridge classical studies and eventually become a Bishop and Lord Chancellor, respectively. Even their less talented friend, Rival, by working hard at his classical books and eschewing vice, lays the foundations of a successful career as a Doctor of Medicine.48 The moral of the tale is brought out most explicitly by Lord Grandclerck, who says that classical education, the qualification of the true gentleman, needs to be difficult. The entrance to the ‘delightful Land’ of Learning is surrounded by thorns, ‘to keep off the great Vulgar, and the small;’ its fruits ‘are too delicious to be gather’d by those who are not willing to be at some Labour to obtain them’.49

The concept of the gentleman was ambiguous. It might denote status, moral behaviour, or wealth (but only if invested in landed property); at other times the focus was refined manners and the good taste and ‘polite’ education becoming inseparable from education in the Classics.50 In his 1742 novel Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding directly asks whether a low-born man with a noble character and refined education was not as admirable as one who was genteel by birth: ‘But suppose, for argument’s sake, we should admit that he had no ancestors at all ... Would not this autokopros have been justly entitled to all the praise arising from his own virtues?’51

It emerges that it was only for the sake of argument that this possibility has been raised. Joseph is refined in conduct and principled, but can never, as an autokopros, become a gentleman. The term autokopros (never instanced in ancient Greek), invented by Fielding and glossed by him as ‘sprung from a dunghill’, links failure at gentlemanly status with a failure to know the ancient Greek language. Only someone who knew Greek could be familiar with the term he is imitating, autochthon, the Athenians’ own title glorifying the antiquity of their bloodline and its intimate relationship with the land they occupied. So only someone who trained in the gentlemanly classical curriculum could even understand why Joseph Andrews could never be a true gentleman after all.

In the 18th century, ideas about good breeding, honesty and good character were scrutinised in fiction as they shaped the revised concept of the ‘Gentleman’ as intimately bound up with education in the Classics, and thus different from the gentlemanly consummate courtier of the Renaissance.’2 Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753) ‘is a systematic attempt to devise every conceivable kind of situation in which an English gentleman may be called upon to display his gentlemanliness’,53 an aim which Richardson explicitly formulated in his preface. Fielding portrays depraved town gallants and brutal country ‘gentlemen’, but set against them a range of middle-class heroes—Parson Adams, Dr. Harrison, Squire Allworthy—whose moral characters, civility and kindness qualified them, even if they were not highborn, for the soubriquet of ideal gentlemen. Both Smollett’s titular heroes Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle desire to establish themselves as gentlemen, in novels where the author fulminates ‘against the depravity vulgarity and sycophancy’ of the born-and-bred upper classes of both Bath and London.’4

From 1711 onwards, Addison, along with his collaborator Richard Steele, influenced the idea of the gentleman profoundly. Addison wanted The Spectator to proselytise for good breeding and for ‘wit tempered with morality’, ‘effective among all the different sections of a rapidly growing middle class, as well as among the established upper class’.55 He targetted the whole male reading public, including longstanding rivals and antagonists—men of the court, the town, the city and the country. These values were discussed and promulgated in public coffee houses and private clubs.56 Simultaneously, the idea of taste emerges—a strange fusion of the aesthetic and the ethical, but tied to new forms of consumerism, including the book trade, the burgeoning entertainment industry,’7 the grand tour and the taste for the antique in architecture and internal decor. The 18th-century passion of the titled and rich for collecting classical or alantica sculptures to grace their Palladian and neoclassical interiors, gardens, and alcoves was partly ‘self-conscious expressions of refinement on the part of the owners, consistent with Lord Shaftesbury’s idea of civic humanism: that to be truly virtuous one must display such refinement to spur like-minded individuals to honourable action’.’8 The visual arts of the ancient world were accessed in Britain through new compendia of prints, such as Domenico de Rossi’s Raccolta di statue antiche e moderne (1704) or Jonathan Richardson’s An Account of Some of the Statues, Bas Reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy (1722), which served as a handbook for well-off grand tourists for centuries.59

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