A Classical Christian School—Two Centuries Ago

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

“But isn’t the whole point of our movement that we already are doing things the way they were done two centuries ago?”

The way we describe our own movement can sometimes be confusing. It is sometimes framed as a “recovery” of a way of education that has been lost, which would seem to imply that we are deliberately doing things more or less the way they used to be done. Before the malign influence of John Dewey, a common narrative goes, we had been doing classical education since time out of mind, and, if you exchange the chalk for dry erase markers, we are doing pretty much the same thing today.

Granted, many of the things we do in classical Christian schools today are closer to historic norms than what is sometimes called “progressive” education, which we might also call “conventional” education, since it is fairly ubiquitous outside of our little universe. But it might also be profitable to examine the differences between us and our classical Christian predecessors—the differences may give us a chance to reflect on our own priorities and the priorities of the past.

So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a student two centuries ago. We can reconstruct his academic experience with an accuracy that may be surprising. At least in some cases, we have a good picture of what his school day would have looked like, right down to the schedule of his classes and the textbooks he used. I will base the picture in this article off a piece entitled “A Short Account of the Discipline, Studies, Examinations, Prizes, Etc. of the Westminster School,” originally printed in 1833 and revised for publication in 1845. (It is freely available online, if you wish to peruse it for yourself.)

Portrait of the Westminster School in the 1830s-1840s

The Westminster School, one of the classic English public schools, was established by no less a patroness than Queen Elizabeth I. As the name would imply, it is located in the neighborhood of Westminster Abbey, very close to the Houses of Parliament.

Let’s start with the basics: what did a school day look like? The school day was actually separated into two shifts, one that started at eight in the morning and ran until noon (a break was made at nine for breakfast), and the second that began at two-thirty and ran until five. That, at least, was the schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays: Tuesdays and Thursdays were quasi-half days, with the second half of the day being a supervised study hall for boarding students (like most English schools of the time, Westminster was primarily a boarding school) or home study for day students who didn’t need help with their homework. School also was in session for a half day on Saturdays, with a mandatory service at the Abbey in the afternoon.

Just like schools today, there were breaks in the summer and holiday time. Westminster, however, broke up its summer in two halves, one three week break at Whitsuntide (early summer in the period after Pentecost, called Whitsun in Anglican parlance) and a five week break at Bartholomew-tide (that is, after the feast of St. Bartholomew in late August). The school took a full month off for Christmas. In addition to these breaks, the school celebrated red-letter saints’ days, which would have occurred about once a month in the Prayer Book calendar. Students were obliged to attend services at the Abbey on these days, however.

The way the school was organized would strike us as unusual. The whole school would be congregated in a single large room, with only imaginary divisions between the grades (called forms in English nomenclature). For almost the entire day, the student body would have been under the superintendence of two teachers, the master (or “head” master—“master” just being another word for “teacher”) and the undermaster, possibly with the assistance of one or more attendants called “ushers.” Obviously, then, work had to be organized in such a way that students were working independently most of the time.

Students did not receive “grades” as we think of them, though students were graded on their work in a far more competitive and public fashion than we might expect. Students in every form were seated according to rank, and students could unseat the students ahead of them by correcting their mistakes, a system similar in spirit to the challenge system that prevails today in orchestras. These rankings supplemented graded assignments as well as the formal examinations given to students at Christmas and midway through summer, which taken together made the difference in whether students would advance to the next form or not.

The bulk of the subjects studied were Greek and Latin. In the lower forms, time was about evenly divided at Westminster between Latin, the catechism, and a study of the gospels. Help with writing and French was also available during the second half of Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Latin work would have leaned heavily on memorization, both of grammar and model sentences.

As they advanced through the forms, Greek was introduced. Most of the mid- to upper-level Latin work consisted of writing verse in Latin, sometimes on the basis of simple model exercises, and then, as progress was made, on literary or biblical models—a psalm, say, or an English poem of Milton’s might be rendered into Latin verse. The reading also increased in difficulty, with the student covering the Greek New Testament as well as Homer, and large doses of Cicero, Vergil, Terence, and Horace in their Latin work.

Their theology work also became increasingly complex in the middle to upper forms. Grotius’ de Veritate, a Protestant apologetical compendium, was studied in Latin, as well as one of Paley’s apologetical works in English. Students also studied Bishop Tomline’s Elements of Christian Theology, what we might call an Anglican systematic theology today.

Arithmetic and algebra were introduced only in the highest forms, as Tuesday-Thursday subjects. The highest algebra studied before college was quadratic equations, which was typically the case right into the early 20th century. Euclid’s Elements was also studied in the highest form. A certain amount of history and geography were also studied, as well as introductory Hebrew.

Memorization was an intense focus at most English schools of this period, and Westminster was no exception. Students memorized at least four hundred lines of Ovid, some Homer, and probably a great deal of their theological material. At the same time, it must have required technical skill and even a certain degree of creativity to follow their intense regimen of Latin verse composition exercises.

Certain questions in their examinations seem to demand a good memory and analytical skills working in tandem with considerable linguistic ability. Take, for example, this one of a long series of questions on a theological exam at Westminster: “Confirm the truth of the following prophecies in Luke xxi. by the testimony of uninspired writers: ἐγερθήσεται ἔθνος ἐπὶ ἔθνος — πρὸ δὲ τούτων ἀπάντων ἐπιβαλοῦσιν ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶν καὶ διώξουσι — καὶ τισοῦνται ὀνόματι μαχαίρας καὶ αἰχμαλωτισθήσονται εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔθνη. How do such passages support the truth of the Christian religion?”

Religious exercises at Westminster were, it seems, of two main types: services at the Abbey, which the school joined on Saturday afternoons and saints’ days, and also a liturgy of school prayers at lunch and in the evening, which were in Latin. An informal lay sermon was also regularly given on Sunday evenings at the home of the headmaster. Other extra-curricular activities included elective classes such as fencing or drawing, for which families made direct arrangements with teachers of these subjects. An annual play in Latin presented around Christmas time was a Westminster tradition that persisted well into the 20th century.

A Few Observations

It should be sufficiently clear from this short sketch that the classical curriculum as exemplified by a school like Westminster aimed to do few things and do them well. First and foremost, it aimed to produce fluent readers of the Greek and Latin classics (especially the Scriptures) in their original languages. This was supplemented with a thorough overview of theology from a distinctly Protestant and Anglican perspective and basic mathematical literacy. It made no attempt to impart to students the current state of scientific knowledge, nor was it concerned in any primary way with English literature.

At most, students would have been exposed to the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Milton, and Shakespeare—come to think of it, not the poorest literary foundation by any means!—as well as the aforementioned theological treatises by Paley and Tomline. There were no classes in English grammar, logic (a study that, along with metaphysics, would have been a collegiate subject), music, or economics, and only a minimal course in history and geography. Composition was also part of the language curriculum and not taught as a separate subject. There were no formally organized sports, minimal drama, and minimal extracurriculars.

Though the single-minded focus of a school like Westminster might give us pause, it is hard not to respect their accomplishments in teaching languages, theology, and classical literature especially. If we have substituted better things for these accomplishments, we have no cause for regret, but otherwise we need to consider what is worth sacrificing, because we certainly cannot do everything. Multum, non multa was a pedagogical principle clearly in practice at Westminster: much of one thing, not many things.

It is sometimes objected that, after all, such schools catered to the elite. No school of ordinary mortals could expect to live up to their attainments. Undoubtedly no school of the 19th century corresponded exactly to our modern ideals of social equality, though more was done than most people might expect to bring in students who did not have the means to pay the regular fees.

These fees themselves were substantial but not exorbitant. Adjusted for inflation and currency exchange, they were about $14,000 a year for boarding students and $7,000 for day students, roughly equivalent to fees at a classical school today and nowhere near the tuition demanded today by many top private schools (which have much larger faculties and much pricier facilities, as well as an ever-expanding cadre of administrators).

In any case, there is good reason to doubt that the student body at Westminster was limited to the abnormally brilliant. An observed tendency called the Flynn Effect seems to imply that average IQs have gone up over time, so there might be no reason to fear that even the average student of today lacks the cerebral horsepower to go toe to toe with the elite of two centuries past.

But even if this explanation were true—if it were true, that is, that we could accomplish the same things as Westminster today, but not unless we isolated the clever and really put them to work—that at least should give us pause when people say things like, “Don’t worry about the clever kids in your school, because they more or less educate themselves; teach towards the middle.” Apparently we should worry about the clever kids, if they could be doing things like reading Vergil and Homer and the Scriptures in the original languages, and they are doing something else instead. Whether we have the resources or the will to help those students may be a separate question, but that they are not being made to do all that they are capable of should be acknowledged.

A Few Reflections

What we have seen should be enough to demonstrate that, though there are family resemblances between the classical school of the past and our movement today, there are also important differences in organization, content, and method, which can be traced back to fundamental differences in priorities. To a master from Westminster, our movement would seem to have a lot more in common with conventional progressive education than would be readily apparent from our vantage point.

This hardly means, of course, that Westminster must be the ideal and we necessarily fall short. Education is conditioned by our goals, and goals must respond to the needs of the time and the place. It might very well be that our schools are better because they are better adapted to what we need to accomplish.

At the same time, Westminster could claim a high degree of continuity with curriculum and methods that went right back to the Elizabethan era and schools that can claim among their alumni some of the great lights of the past, not least our Founding Fathers (among whom actually were some Westminster students). Looking to the past may be a valuable chance to contemplate our fundamental priorities and shape the future accordingly.

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