Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

By George L. Fox

The well-known chaotic character of the English system of education makes it difficult to give a satisfactory account of the scope and methods of teaching history in English secondary schools. There is great lack of system and of uniformity of method. In France and Germany, order and symmetry prevail in the educational system, as it is controlled and determined by the State. A reasonable uniformity therefore results, and whatever assertions can be safely made about a few representative schools are likely to be true of most of the schools. In England, on the contrary, the secondary schools are almost entirely under private control, and are generally free from State supervision. Indeed, the secondary school supported wholly or partly by public taxation and under the control of the State and local governments, like the high school in the United States or the lycee in France or the gymnasium in Germany, does not exist in Great Britain, although some secondary-school subjects are taught in the higher grade board schools and the evening continuation schools.

When English secondary schools are discussed in this report, the expression is to be understood as referring chiefly to the so-called public schools of England, of which Winchester, Eton, Harrow, and Rugby are the familiar type. These institutions are, in most cases, endowed schools, controlled by a board of governors, in which the course of study and the methods of teaching are determined by the head master. The pupils, when they enter these schools, are usually between 12 and 16 years of age, and they have received their previous education either from private tutors, in local grammar schools, or, more commonly, in small boarding schools, scattered over England, called preparatory schools, which are private venture schools-that is, are owned by private individuals. In these schools they have usually studied the elementary English history and, to some degree, Greek and Roman history in the same way.

There is another reason, also, why it is not easy to give an exact account of the teaching of history in the English secondary schools. That is, because of the difficulty which the visitor has in seeing the teacher actually at work in his class room. The visitor to French or German schools, if he has the proper authorization from the State authority, finds at once ready entrance to every class-room. But no such “open sesame” makes easy the pathway of the visitor to the English secondary schools. There seems to be an unwritten law that an English master’s form room is his castle, and it is not an easy thing to see the actual work of teaching. The writer of this report saw less than a dozen recitations in history in English schools, and the statements which are made are based on such limited inspection, the perusal of courses of study and examination papers, and on conversation with different teachers of history. While the course of study and methods are largely determined by the head master, he is limited in., his decisions by the requirements of the higher educational institutions, for which most of the pupils are preparing. The English public school is commonly divided into two departments—the classical side and the modern side—which correspond, roughly, to the classical and scientific courses in our schools. The ultimate aim of the boy on the classical side is entrance to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The goal of the boy on the modern side can not be so definitely stated, but it is either business life, the engineering and scientific professions, or the army colleges. This last class, who intend to be officers in, the army, are a considerable proportion in the boys on the modern side, and their needs are especially recognized by a subdivision in the later years of this course called “the army class.” The limitations which are likely to govern the course of study of the army class are the requirements imposed by the Government for admission to the military colleges of Woolwich and Sandhurst, one of which educates officers for the artillery and engineering, the other for the infantry and cavalry branches of the service. Among these requirements English history only finds a place as an optional subject, for which the maximum allowance is 2,000 marks in a total of 14,000.

While in the secondary schools of England the State has no direct influence in determining the course of study, the influence of the universities in this respect is most important and effective. This influence is most directly exerted through what is known as the Oxford and Cambridge schools examination board, which is made up of representatives of both universities. This board conducts examinations at the close of the school year at most of the leading schools in England and issues certificates of proficiency to those who have successfully passed the examinations. These higher certificates give exemption, under certain conditions, from the earlier examinations in the university course, known as “Smalls” at Oxford and “The Little-go” at Cambridge. The subjects of the examination are classified in four groups: (1) A language group, including four subjects-Greek, Latin, French, German; (2) a mathematics group, divided into two subjects; (3) an English group, divided into scripture knowledge, English, and history, and (4) a science group, divided into six subjects.

A candidate is usually required to pass in four subjects in not less than three groups. If he offers history, he may choose between Greek, Roman, and English history. The whole field of each country’s history is not necessarily included. Often a period covering less than three centuries is prescribed, together with a special knowledge of a smaller period included within it. In 1897 the general period in Greek history was to 323 B.C., while the special period extended from 403 B.C. to 362 B.C. In Roman, history the general period was from 72 B.C. to 180 A.D., while special knowledge was required of the period from 14 A.D. to 96 A.D. In English history the examination covered from 1485 to 1660, with a special knowledge of the period from 1555 to 1603. These specific instructions as to periods to be studied are changed every two or three years, but seldom is a period of English history prescribed later than 1815. The two points. to be noted in these requirements are, first, that the shorter period for study is included in the longer period, and, second, that in each subject the examination covers only a portion of the nation’s history.

The colleges at both the universities of Oxford and Cambridge also endeavor to strengthen the instruction of history at the schools by establishing history scholarships, which yield from $250 to $400 a year to the successful candidates. These scholarships are either offered by single colleges or by two or three colleges combined. As is well known, this is a method characteristic of the English universities for promoting interest in any branch of learning, and serves to introduce into the schools a tendency to have a promising pupil in the upper classes specialize upon some subject for which he has a strong bent. The two most prominent of the Oxford colleges in awarding history scholarship are Balliol and New College who hold the same examination for the award of history scholarship.

The examination for this purpose held on November 16, 1897, consisted of (1) an essay written in the examination on some historical subject; (2) two language papers showing candidate’s knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, or German; (3) a general paper; (4) two papers either in ancient history or in mediaeval history (including English history), or in the history of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (including English history), at the option of the candidate. The regulations prescribed that the knowledge required for the general paper could be obtained from such books as the following: Guizot’s Civilization in Europe, Hallam’s Middle Ages (chapter IX), Bagehot’s English Constitution, Maine’s Ancient Law, Macaulay’s Essays, and Walker’s Political Economy. These books, naturally, a successful candidate would be expected to have read thoroughly, although one of the Balliol examiners told me that it was not wholly acquaintance with books but signs of promise shown by the candidate that determined the award. Most stress is laid upon the essay and general papers, which test natural ability. It should be said that these scholarships at Oxford are open to all candidates who have not been in residence more than eight terms, or two years; so that a candidate fresh from a public school may compete for a scholarship with students who have been for more than a year at the university. But still a few boys in the highest forms of the best schools will usually be found in training for these scholarships. They will receive especial attention in history work from one of the masters, will be excused from some other subjects in order to give time to collateral reading, in which they are tested from time to time by the special master.

The certificate examination and the scholarship examination illustrate the two classes of pupils whose wants are considered in the colleges and schools of England, viz, the average pupil and the pupil of unusual ability in any direction. Because of this distinction there exist, side by side, at the universities, the pass and the honor examinations. Of course the needs of the latter class are not considered except in the higher forms of the school, but there they are very distinctly considered. Small classes of able pupils receive special instruction to fit them for the scholarship contests in different subjects. The eagerness to win these scholarships and thus to gain distinction forms a powerful incentive to earnest and wide reading in history, although, in the opinion of some critics, the scholarship system is one of the baneful features of English education. These two classes of pupils must be borne in mind in considering the teaching of history in English schools.

With regard to the field of history that is covered in the schools, the course of study in most schools includes, on the classical side at least, Greek history, Roman history, and English history. In most cases the pupils will give at-least one hour a week to history throughout the course, from the age of 12 to 19. A boy who has passed through all the forms of the secondary school will very likely have taken up these subjects twice, first in an elementary way with a brief text-book, such as Gardiner’s Outlines of English History or Ransome’s smaller book; then, at a later stage of the course, comes a more thorough treatment of the subject, with a more extensive text-book and possibly collateral reading.

Of course the chief object of the elementary course should be not only learning of the main facts of history, but also an awakening of interest in the subject, which creates a thirst for individual study. Whether these ends are realized depends very much upon the character of the teaching and the enthusiasm of the teacher. Haileybury College, in Hertfordshire, one of the youngest and less known public schools, has won especial distinction in this respect through two of the masters who are keenly interested in teaching the world’s life of the past. The lecture room is fitted with all necessary appliances for using the stereopticon in the daytime. Thousands of slides have been made by these masters from photographs of places, costumes, relics, armor, weapons, etc., and authentic illustrations in books, such as those in Gardiner’s History of England or the illustrated edition of Green. Thus the imagination of the boys is stimulated and the past is made to live before their eyes.

Two dangers of this method they seem to have avoided at Haileybury. One is the disposition of a live boy “to take advantage of the darkness necessitated by the use of the lantern to riot or to sleep;” the other is to look upon it as a pleasant diversion and amusement for the hour only, leaving no permanent absorption of knowledge in the. pupil’s mind. At Haileybury the pupils are required to hand in reports of the lectures, and their knowledge is tested by viva voce questioning. The same method is utilized with the higher forms, where the history of the French Revolution is illustrated with contemporary portraits and caricatures thrown upon the screen. I doubt if in any school in the world so extensive and efficient use of the stereopticon in history teaching is made as at the old college of the East India Company, now a public school, where Malthus was a teacher and John Lawrence fought many a battle with his fists.

I have spoken of the limited fields of history prescribed by the Oxford and Cambridge certificate examinations, but the schools naturally do not limit their courses of study by their requirements. In a number of them a prescribed cycle of history is laid down. This system is championed by some masters and condemned by others.

A specimen of such a cycle may be taken from the calendar for 1896 of Winchester College, the oldest public school in England, founded in 1387. The fall term at Winchester is known as the short half, the winter term as common time, and the term following Easter to August 1 as cloister time. Common time and cloister time together form the long half. The highest class is known as the sixth book, for which there was the history cycle covering four years.

Long half: Hallam’s Middle Ages.
Short half: Greek history to 435 B.C.

Long half: The Reign of Henry VIII.
Short half: Roman history, 133-31 B.C.

Long half: The Reign of Charles I.
Short half: Roman history, 31 B.C.-305 A.D.

Long half: English history, 1215-1327.
Short half: Bryce’s Holy Roman Empire.

It is hard to make out much orderly sequence or deliberate teaching purpose in such an arrangement, and it would seem that a pupil following such an order would get a confused impression of the course of the world’s history. But probably, like many other things in the English school curriculum, it is a traditional growth and not founded on any distinct pedagogical purpose.

Much easier to understand is the cycle for the other classes in the school as follows

1896—Short half: Greek history after 432 B.C.

1897—Common time: Roman history to 200 B.C.
Cloister time: Roman history after 200 B.C.
Short half: Student’s Gibbon to Justinian.

1898—Common time: Student’s Gibbon from Mahomet.
Cloister time: English history, Tudor period
Short half: English history, Stuart period.

1899—Common time: Greek history to 432 B.C.

It has been said that the fields of history usually covered in the English public schools are Greek, Roman, and English history. It should be added that in many schools there is considerable teaching of Biblical history under the head of scripture knowledge, as well as the outline history of the English church.

European history, except where it is in close contact with English history, is not formally and generally recognized in the school curriculum. Occasionally a school will be found where the enthusiastic interest of a master has secured for his form some recognition of a particular period of European history apart from English history. To what extent this casual and incidental teaching of history goes on depends upon the enthusiastic zeal of the master and the disposition of the head-master to encourage or discourage it. In the year 1893-94 the upper bench of the Sixth at Rugby took Seebohm’s Era of the Protestant Reformation, and part of Oman’s The Dark Ages. Indeed, in this somewhat irregular way, the pupils learn considerable history outside of the stated and formal curriculum. The form masters in the higher forms on the classical side often lay stress upon the writings of Livy, Cicero, Tacitus, and Thucydides as history, as well as literature or philology. At Harrow, under Mr. Bowen, the master of the modern side, the books read are often distinctly of a historical character. Books like Lazare HocheCampagne de RussieCharles XII, and Beresford-Webb’s German Historical Reading Book, are cases in point. They are studied not only from a language point of view, but also with regard to the study of history.

This incidental teaching of history in some schools takes the place of practice in writing Greek or Latin verse, and is known as verse equivalent. In 1897, at Rugby, the boys of some of the forms who were excused from verse-making were compelled to take as verse equivalent the three following books in the Lent term, Seeley’s The Expansion of England; in the summer term, as appropriate to the Diamond Jubilee, McCarthy’s Short History of Our Own Times, and during the winter term, Bosworth-Smith’s Rome and Carthage. In one exercise a week the class is tested on its knowledge of about thirty pages of the text-book, with comment by the teacher, and at the end of the term an examination is held on the work which has been covered. At Eton a similar system prevails, under the name of “extras,” which, according to the syllabus, provided an interesting study of some historical and political questions.

With regard to English history, I found that comparatively little attention was paid to the history of Great Britain during the present century, or, to speak more accurately, since the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. This is unfortunate, and is hardly in accord with the Jubilee spirit in 1897, which gloried in the Victorian era. Verily, the social and constitutional progress of England during the present century makes it one of its most interesting and important epochs, especially with regard to colonial expansion and social betterment. Yet the pupil at the English secondary school does not receive much instruction in this important era of the nation. None of the Oxford and Cambridge examination papers that I have examined since 1890 specify any period of English history later than 1815. The same is true of the examination papers of a number of schools in which little was found touching upon the Victorian era, save in the case of Malvern and Clifton, two of the newest schools. When I asked for an explanation of this fact, one reply given was that a careful study of the period would rake up burning questions, on which family and inherited prejudices were very strong. For this reason it was thought best to avoid anything that would lead to wrangling disputation.

Possibly it may be due to the same insufficient reason that the study of what is called in this country civil government is almost entirely neglected in English secondary schools. It is not mentioned in their courses of study, and the only instance in which I found it pursued as an independent study was at Haileybury, where a small class was taught by one of the teachers of history already mentioned, who was using with his form Miss Buckland’s little primer, Our National Institutions. This seems to be a very serious defect of the secondary school course in England, as compared with Germany, France, or the United States. In support of this statement I may quote from a striking address on “The teaching of civic duty,” by an Englishman for whom citizens of the United States have a high regard, the Hon. James Bryce:

Boys leave our so-called secondary schools at 16, 17, and 18, leave even some of the greatest and most costly schools in the country, having received no regular instruction in the principles and working of the British constitution, much less in their own system of local government, wherein many of them as local magnates are soon called upon to take part.1

Professor Bryce’s noble plea was delivered to an audience of elementary schoolmasters, but it is a trumpet call to public schoolmasters, as well as to the audience before which it was spoken. The admirable syllabus on “The life and duties of the citizen,” which is prescribed by the national educational department in the Evening Continuation School Code, might well be followed in the great public schools.

The time allowance for the regular teaching of history in most English schools shows less consideration for the subject than in France or Germany. In few schools are more than two hours per week given to class-room work in history; but at least one hour a week is given to history in each year of the school course, which in the case of most public schools covers five or six years. The order of teaching the different periods of history varies very much, and as in the cycles from Winchester, already quoted, seems not to have been arranged on any distinct pedagogical plan.

The subordinate position of history in the school courses is indicated not only by the small time allotment, but also by the fact that not until recently was this subject taught by specialists, viz, by men who had been specially trained in the subject of history and had devoted themselves very largely to teaching that subject. The spirit of the English secondary school is against specialization in teaching, except in the case of science, modern languages, and mathematics. The form master usually teaches Latin, Greek, scripture, English, and history, while in the latter subject he has had no especial training. A welcome reform in this respect has already begun, which it is to be hoped will probably gain ground and improve the history teaching in the schools. Several of the larger schools have now on their staff a history master, who has won distinction in the honor school of history at Oxford, and will naturally bring to the teaching of this important subject the enthusiasm and skill which are likely to win a larger recognition for this subject in the school curriculum in the future. It is also to be hoped that it may win individual recognition and a place on the printed course of study, and not, as is often the case at present, be classed under English with English literature. Then the searcher after knowledge will be able to tell more easily what is the average time allotment for history, and this worthy subject will gain something in estimation by being classed by itself, separate from other English branches.

As to methods of teaching history, the system in the lower form generally consists of the thorough study of a reliable, but not elaborate, text-book. The work of the pupil is more often tested by written work than by oral questioning. The custom of “fluent” recitations on an assigned topic, which I have seen admirably carried on in German gymnasia, is not at all common in English schools. Certainly one of the valuable benefits of studying history ought to be the development of the power of oral expression, which such methods promote. Equally valuable also is the mental discipline and acuteness to be derived from rapid and incisive questioning and prompt answers, a system of cross-examination, which is sometimes known in this country under the phrase “quiz.” The absence of this system of fluent recitation of historical facts is probably due to the prejudice so common in England against fluency of speech as a possible indication of superficiality or lack of scholarship.

The system of teaching known in the United States as the “library method,” or the “laboratory method,” viz, the use of several books in the study of a list of topics, is seldom found except in the highest forms where pupils are making special preparation for the history-scholarship examinations at the universities. At this stage of the course the text-book work is supplemented by lectures by the teacher, so that the pupils attain facility in taking notes, and by collateral reading, so that they learn how to consult with permanent profit the books in a library. In this way, to use Dr. Arnold’s phrase, “they learn how to read.” They thus become acquainted with the methods which will be of great service to them when they go in for honors in the School of History at Oxford or the Historical Tripos at Cambridge. This power of going to the heart of a book and securing a deposit of its contents in their minds is a characteristic of the best boys in the sixth at a great public school; for hard and thorough reading is the essential condition of success in winning a school exhibition or an entrance college scholarship, which are the intellectual honors crowning an able boy’s career at school. Such reading, however, is generally confined to secondary histories. The earnest use of the sources with secondary-school pupils is very rare in England, and not much used with the average student at the universities. Essay writing on historical subjects is very commonly followed in the higher forms with success and profit, not only for its own sake as a means of culture, but also as a means of preparatory training for this work in the university, inasmuch as in the honor school of history at Oxford one of the most important and valuable means of training is the essay work with the tutor.

In conclusion, it would hardly be proper for a visitor with so limited an experience of the actual teaching of history in English schools, to give a general judgment as to the quality of the teaching of this important subject in the great public schools. He may be permitted to quote instead the public testimony on this point of three Englishmen who are competent judges. The first is Professor Bryce, who in the article already referred to, says: “History is of all subjects which schools attempt to handle perhaps the worst taught.” The second is an eminent teacher and writer of history and an old public-school boy. He says, “The teaching of history in the English public schools is not nearly so efficient as teaching in other branches of knowledge.” The third is the editor of the London Journal of Education and master of the modern side in the Merchant Taylor’s school. His words in the issue of February, 1899, are: “It is generally admitted that the teaching of history is exceedingly bad in our schools-with, of course, marked. exceptions.”

Secondary education is at present the burning question among educators in England, and a great change in the relation of the schools to the Government draweth nigh. Doubtless the next few years will see a general improvement in history teaching, especially if the classicists will be willing to surrender to the historians a little of the time allotment which they now demand for the ancient languages. Yet, with all the deficiencies of the present situation, the writer, in his admiration for the work of the English public school, feels it but just to say that the history teaching reflects the general characteristics of the whole school system—thoroughness and virility.

Next section: Appendix VI

  1. Contemporary Review, July, 1893, 64, p. 14.Forum, July, 1893, 18, p. 552. []