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Matthew Arnold, Thomas Huxley, and Liberal Education: A Centennial Retrospective

by Bruce A. Kimball - 1985

A review is presented of the differences between Matthew Arnold's and Thomas Huxley's views on liberal education. (Source: ERIC)


In his speech “A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It.” delivered in 1868, Thomas H. Huxley, the famed defender of Darwin and natural science, posed this question to a London audience: “Above all things, what is our ideal of a thoroughly liberal education?—of that education which, if we could begin life again, we would give ourselves—of that education which, if we could mould the fates to our own will, we would give our children?“1 That same year, Huxley (1825-1895) first met Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian humanist, with whom he would soon develop a bond of respect and affection as for “very few people in the world.“2 The friendship would be strengthened by marriage between the families and by mutual opposition toward dogmatic religionists of their day, as Huxley later wrote to Arnold while praising his St. Paul and Protestantism.3 This friendship lasted until Arnold’s death, and yet the question posed above marked the beginning of a fervent debate in letters, speeches, and essays that would culminate in 1885 when Arnold published his lectures from a speaking tour in North America, having delivered his final response to Huxley in colleges, universities, and lecture halls in twenty-nine cities.4

One hundred years later, many of those same places—Toronto, Dartmouth, Harvard, New York, Washington, Richmond, Oberlin, Michigan, Wisconsin, St. Louis—and, indeed, the entire continent are still debating the meaning of liberal education and the relationship of “Science and Culture” and “Literature and Science,” those tensions by which Huxley and Arnold entitled their major addresses.5

True, some current observers hold that no such tensions exist, just as there are those, both past and present, who assert: “The often-mentioned controversy between Arnold and Huxley was nothing more than an amicable clarification, the shoring up of a basic agreement.“6 No less confidently, others claimed that “Huxley . . . the prominent populariser of science . . . contemptuously relegated literature to mere belle-lettrism, an ornament or embellishment to life” and that his “strident demand for more science in the schools was opposed by Matthew.” 7 Yet another commentator, echoing participants in the current debate in higher education, argues that “superficially” Arnold and Huxley agreed on the relationship between science and humanities in liberal education, but “a fundamental difference” existed beneath the surface.8 In view of this century of differing interpretations, it may be appropriate to reexamine the debate between the Darwinian biologist and the Victorian literary critic not only in the hope of understanding how and why differing opinions may arise about their controversy, but also with the thought that this understanding may inform similar kinds of discussions today.

The ambiguity between similarity and contrast extends to the lives of the two men. Educated through private tutors, Winchester, Rugby, and Oxford, Arnold successively gained reknown as a poet, literary critic, social critic, and religious controversialist. Meanwhile, from 1851 he held an appointment as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools, a tenure interrupted by service as a member of the Royal Commissions studying education on the continent and as a professor at Oxford.9 In a sense, these varied roles and interests were facets of Arnold’s unitary concern that the Victorian middle class—those “Philistines” on whom he saw the modern imperium falling—should educate themselves in “culture” in order to civilize the working classes.10 As one of his eulogists declared: “‘Make life beautiful.’ That was his first message: the gospel, the good news of universal culture.“11

In contrast, Huxley noted in his autobiography that “my regular school training was of the briefest, perhaps fortunately.“12 He did receive a Bachelor of Medicine at London University in 1845 and then joined a research voyage to the South Pacific, publishing his findings and establishing his reputation as a biologist by the early 1850s. With the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Huxley began writing and delivering lectures “translating the high questions of science into popular forms of expression, without sacrificing accuracy and introducing error,“13 while he also served on the faculty at the Royal School of Mines in London. In the course of these efforts, he inevitably found himself engaged in controversy with theological and political leaders, such as William Gladstone. At the same time, it was only natural that he should write on schooling and education.

The year after Huxley delivered “A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It” at South London Workingmen’s College, Arnold published Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, in which he introduced or further explicated certain phrases and concepts that came to have great currency in association with his work: “culture,” “criticism,” “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” “sweetness and light.“14 Later in 1869, Huxley sent a jesting note to Arnold alluding to the preface of Culture and Anarchy;15 subsequent correspondence indicates that Arnold meanwhile was reading and commenting on works by Huxley, such as an essay on Descartes.16

In 1874, Arnold’s Report on Higher Schools and Universities in Germany appeared, a republication of much of an earlier report about his 1865 visit to the Continent, with a new preface bemoaning again the fact that so few in England went on to higher education and culture as compared with Germany and France. Two years later, it was Huxley’s turn to revise an earlier writing, when he delivered the inaugural address at the formal opening of Johns Hopkins University: “Address on University Education,” in which he criticized the unwillingness of universities to adapt their pedagogy and curriculum to new developments and new disciplines. Returning to England, Huxley took up Greek in 1878 and, being thoroughly familiar with the writings of David Hume, wrote a book on his life and philosophy in six weeks of that same year.17

Finally, after more than a decade of cordial relations with Arnold, Huxley delivered “Science and Culture” at Sir Josiah Mason’s Science College in Birmingham, the talk that directly initiated confrontation with Arnold. Testifying to their friendship, Huxley was respectful in discussing the humanist’s position and immediately sent him a copy of the address.18 A reply was incumbent on Arnold, who waited until mid-1882 to deliver “Literature and Science” as the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University.19 Early in 1883, Huxley essentially restated his position in “On Scienceand Art in Relation to Education, An Address to the Members of the Liverpool Institution,“20 while Arnold was negotiating a trip to America.

To be sure, he had never liked the place, writing as early as 1848 to his mother about “American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social.“21 The problem was that Arnold detested, while he had also pinned his hopes on, the middle class, with “their passionate, absorbing, almost blood-thirsty clinging to life”; and America, more than anywhere else, was full of this “Puritan and Hebraising middle class,” which equates culture with religious revivalism.22 Nevertheless, one could make money in America, and Arnold arranged a lecture tour in hopes of earning enough to pay off several debts. He spent four months of late 1883 and early 1884 in Canada and the United States: the land under “the bondage” of “Das Gemeine,” as he later wrote to Charles ‘Eliot Norton.23 The three major lectures delivered on this tour were published in 1885 as Discourses in America and included a revision of “Literature and Science,” which Arnold characterized as “in general my doctrine of Studies as well as I can frame it."24 Indeed, it is reported that he later told a friend “that Discourses in America was the book by which, of all his prose writings, he should most wish to be remembered.“25

“Science and Culture” and “Literature and Science” may, at first impression, appear to offer a clear and unmistakable conflict in opinion. Huxley criticizes “the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education” (p. 137), while Arnold replies negatively to the question “whether, to meet the needs of our modern life, the predominance ought . . . now to pass from letters to science” (pp. 79-80). However, as has also been repeatedly noted,26 both the poet and the biologist took great pains to identify the basis of some agreement with each other.

Arnold had affirmed the importance of scientific learning in his earlier reports on Continental education, and he reasserted this in “Literature and Science”: “There is, therefore, really no question between Professor Huxley and me as to whether knowing the great results of the modern scientific study of nature is not required as a part of our culture, as well as knowing the products of literature and art” (pp. 94-95). And Huxley did maintain both in 1868 and 1880 that “I am the last person to question the importance of genuine literary education, or to suppose that intellectual culture can be complete without it.“27 Moreover, his “On Science and Art in Relation to Education” in responding to Arnold’s Rede Lecture was largely a restatement that he did not exclude any field of learning from liberal education.

But if both Arnold and Huxley were willing to grant the necessity of the other’s field of studies for liberal education, why the fuss and where the dispute? For one thing, Huxley’s “Science and Culture” opposed the exclusivist position that “culture is obtainable only by a liberal education; and a liberal education is synonymous, not merely with education and instruction in literature, but in one particular form of literature, namely, that of Greek and Roman antiquity” (p. 142). Huxley specifically excused Arnold from this view; but he also argued that “for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education” (p. 141), a view to which Arnold could scarcely assent. For, while the humanist did assert that neither literature nor science was sufficient in itself and that each was necessary for liberal education, he consistently maintained that the former was preeminent; and he interpreted Huxley’s words above to be a claim for the preeminence of the latter (pp. 98-100).

Subsequent commentators have understood Huxley in this way as well,28 pointing to his repeated affirmations of the importance of modern and scientific studies for understanding the world: “This distinctive character of our own times lies in the vast and constantly increasing part which is played by natural knowledge.“29 Arnold, however, turned this argument on its head. Precisely because science has come to predominate in the modern world, he held, the typical citizen will learn it by osmosis. But this will not occur with “humane letters,” which have grown increasingly remote from common life: “If then there is to be separation and option between humane letters, on the one hand, and the natural sciences on the other, the great majority of mankind . . . would do well, I cannot but think, to choose to be educated in humane letters rather than in the natural sciences” (pp. 125-129).

Each therefore claimed sufficiency for his own field only if such a choice were forced on him. On the other hand, when Huxley and Arnold granted the necessity of both science and culture and literature and science for liberal education, each then argued that his own field was more necessary than the other. At least, this is the interpretation of those who argue that the two “seemed almost in total agreement” despite “a real difference in emphasis between them.“30

Beyond the question of priority, however, it is perhaps more important to consider, as Arnold did in “Literature and Science,” “how needful it is for those who are to discuss any matter together, to have a common understanding as to the sense of the terms they employ—how needful and how difficult” (p. 85). In this regard, he had a specific complaint that he included in “Literature and Science” after having written it by letter to Huxley in reply to the copy of “Science and Culture” sent to him in 1880. Huxley unfairly or unwittingly reduced the meaning of “literature” to belles lettres, said Arnold (p. 90), whose response actually addressed three different points, and more commentators have applauded it31 than questioned it32 without sorting out the different arguments.

Arnold maintained that Huxley incorrectly and unfairly reduced the meaning of “literature” to either (1) Greek and Latin literary texts as opposed to all Greek and Latin writings, or (2) Greek and Latin classics as opposed to modern literary texts, or (3) literary texts as opposed to all valuable writings of any sort (pp. 82-95). An additional point, understated in Arnold’s response, was that the degenerate state of instruction in classics in the schools and universities of the time lent advantage to Huxley’s general position; and the latter had noted this point in 1868 while citing Essays on a Liberal Education (1868), written by fellows of Oxford and Cambridge and masters of secondary schools.33 However, Arnold had also been writing for years that the classical curriculum amounted to “a smattering of Greek and Latin. . . . No serious man would call this culture or attach any value to it, as culture, at all.“34This fourth point was not, therefore, at issue, although it did put Arnold at a disadvantage.

Huxley’s first objection to literature was that ancient “classics” ought to include not only classical poetry and essays but classical science as well (p. 152): and this, Arnold replied, he had never disputed: Literature obviously includes all of ancient civilization (p. 91). Second, Huxley had objected from 1868 to 1880 that “education and instruction in literature” seemed always to mean education “in one particular form of literature, namely that of Greek and Roman antiquity.“35 Yet, on this issue too, Arnold had been writing just as long that both classical and modern authors should be included in “literature.” 36 Third, to Huxley’s overarching objection that a liberal education in literature meant omitting science, Arnold replied: “Literature is a large word; it may mean everything written with letters or printed in a book. Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia are thus literature. All knowledge that reaches us through books is literature” (p. 90).

If Huxley’s first two objections are perhaps reductionist, one must question Arnold’s third response, notwithstanding the approbation of various commentators over the past century. 37 As in the very title of his address, Arnold employed “literature” in contradistinction to “science,” exactly as Huxley did. Thus, the critic’s third charge of reductionism is actually a rhetorical sleight of hand, which Arnold implicitly acknowledged by proceeding to argue that literature accomplishes something quite different from science and that this difference is what Huxley did not understand.

That particular accomplishment of “poetry and letters” is “to exercise the power of relating the modern results of natural science to man’s instinct for conduct, to his instinct for beauty” (p. 121). Science, or knowledge, therefore remains inert until animated by literature, which unites “the two noblest of things, sweetness and light” and thereby results in “culture.“38 This process has been understood as “imaginative reason,“39 but nowhere in his writings does Arnold actually explain how or why letters uniquely exercise the power of the heart or soul. In fact, he explicitly states that “I do not know how they will exercise it but that they can and will exercise it I am sure” (p. 122); and he goes on to defend Latin and Greek letters as the best poetry and eloquence for this role. These judgments, he claims, do not rely “on any weak pleadings of my own. ” But what he actually offers for proof is simply his own testimony that poetry and eloquence can and do animate knowledge and that classical writings accomplish this best of all (pp. 122-135).

Whether or not Arnold proved his point, Huxley certainly did not understand the issue, and it is in this respect that the foregoing charge of belle-lettrism is justified. Confirmation lies in the fact that Huxley is vague in his own thinking right at the point where Arnold finds the highest role for literature. This is not to say that Huxley neglected the aesthetic and the ethical, although some of his most famous metaphors would suggest this:

That man, I think, has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order; ready, like a steam engine, to be turned to any kind of work, and spin the gossamers as well as forge the anchors of the mind; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of Nature and of the laws of her operations.40

For Huxley did also argue for the necessary animation of knowledge:

Education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws.41

However, Huxley offered little insight into how to identify the standards for “men and their ways,” norms that Arnold forthrightly drew from the classics. True, the biologist was clear about how not to do this. On the one hand, he thoroughly opposed any effort to found morality in theology, religion, or metaphysics. On the other hand, despite the fact that he often veered toward Spencerian, deterministic materialism— “there lies in the nature of things a reason for every moral law, as cogent and as well defined as that which underlies every physical law”42—in the end, he always shied away from identifying the social and civil law with natural law. Specifically, the evolutionarily fittest are not necessarily the ethically best.43 But given that neither science nor religion can be trusted to animate knowledge toward beauty and conduct, Arnold seemed to respond, where else do we turn except to literature, which always has accomplished this? To that, Huxley had no reply.

If the semantic question about literature indicates an important difference in their views on the goal and curriculum of liberal education, it is also important to consider the same kind of question about “science,“ a point that has received little consideration.44 Of course, Arnold had explicitly raised the issue of the meaning of literature, and Huxley did not do the converse. Still, I think it can be shown that misunderstanding over the meaning of science is no less important than that of literature in appreciating the significant disagreement between the scientist and the poet. Another way of stating this is that Huxley and Arnold meant entirely different things when they agreed that liberal education means “criticism of life.”

In the first chapter of Essays in Criticism, Arnold had described “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”; and Huxley quoted this well known work in “Science and Culture”: “ Mr. Arnold tells us that the meaning of culture is ‘to know the best that has been thought and said in the world.’ It is the criticism of life contained in literature” (pp. 142-143). Huxley agreed “that a criticism of life is the essence of culture,” precisely because “culture” or “criticism of life” or “knowing the best that has been thought and said in the world” must mean, he thought, “the free employment of reason, in accordance with the scientific method” (pp. 143, 152). Along these lines, Huxley recalled a talk that he had given in 1874 in honor of Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian chemist whose “life leaves no doubt that he, at any rate, set a much higher value upon the advancement of knowledge, and the promotion of that freedom of thought which is at once the cause and the consequence of intellectual progress.“45 Appropriately, Huxley’s pantheon of philosophical heroes included most prominently Socrates, Descartes, and Hume, who exalted and employed profoundly criticial rationalism.46

“Criticism” for the Darwinian biologist therefore denoted the unending criticism of the scientific method, proceeding forever without absolutizing or dogmatizing any realized achievements, insofar as “the Nemesis of all reformers is finality; and the [Renaissance] reformers of education, like those of religion, fell into the profound, however common, error of mistaking the beginning for the end of the work of reformation” (p. 149). Paradoxically, Huxley’s enthusiasm on this point led certain observers, such as the president of Cornell University (a twofold irony, in view of what Arnold had to say about that institution”47, to claim that “he had the dogmatist’s immovable confidence that his creed was the only orthodox doctrine.“48 Far more often, however, he was taken to task for being a skeptic and “agnostic.”

As a member of the Metaphysical Society, Huxley had coined the term “agnosticism ” in order to express how he was at a loss to decide on his own views and simply wanted to reserve judgment about all the “isms” proffered by their advocates.49 Huxley’s “cowardly agnosticism” and praise for Hume’s skepticism were severely criticized by advocates of the Scottish School of Common Sense, such as the president of Princeton, and by defenders of traditional Christian orthodoxy.50 But Huxley did not flinch. He maintained that “criticism of life,” culture, science, agnosticism, Hume, Priestley, and liberal education had as a common denominator “the free employment of reason, in accordance with the scientific method” (p. 152).

This understanding of Huxley obviates an interpretation portraying him as “a scientist and a utilitarian” who equated scientific knowledge with technology, scientific method with utility.51 Various commentators have argued thus, and it is true that Huxley applauded the technological advances derived from scientific discoveries. But such an interpretation cannot account either for Huxley’s views cited above or for the fact that he specifically denounced “practical men” who would constrain scientific research due to their sense of its utility (p. 137). On the other hand, the fact that Arnold did repeatedly associate utility and sciences52 suggests that he had a very different definition in mind.

In “Literature and Science,” Arnold spoke about “liberal education” in “poetry and eloquence” as “the criticism of life by gifted men” (p. 124), while he also employed key phrases and concepts from Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy that Huxley had mentioned: “In our culture, the aim being to know ourselves and the world, we have, as the means to this end, to know the best which has been thought and said in the world” (p. 82; emphasis in original). In this fashion, he affirmed that liberal education, culture, and “the best which has been thought and said in the world” are identified with, as he had already repeated in Essays in Criticism: “a critical effort; the endeavour in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is. “53 This critical effort extended to society and politics—every aspect of culture—as well as to literature; and in all these arenas, the attempt “to see the object as in itself it really is” relied on Arnold’s notion “that not only the modern poet but also the new critic wants a standard, a perpetual reminder, an authority. . . . Such a guide or authority he [Arnold] found through an intensive study of the Ancients.“54

This kind of “criticism” is far different from that intended by Huxley, a distinction becoming even more pronounced when Arnold discusses “science.” Into this word, he seems to incorporate three characteristics. First, science is “the habit of dealing with facts” involving verification, usually of an empirical or inductive sort. Thus, in science, “not only is it said that a thing is so, but we can be made to see that it is so” (p. 97). Second, science means “learning lists of exceptions, or accumulating items of facts” (pp. 87-88) in a systematic way. Accordingly, “all learning is scientific which is systematically laid out and followed up to its original sources. . . a genuine humanism is scientific” (pp. 104-105). It follows that natural science, for Arnold, means that “one piece of natural knowledge is added to another, and others are added to that, and at last we come to propositions so interesting as Mr. Darwin’s famous proposition that ‘our ancestor was a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits”’ (pp. 109-110). From this perspective, it is not surprising that those who defend Arnold’s appreciation of “the spirit of the new science” point to his desire for more precise descriptions and categorizations of flora and fauna.55

The third characteristic of science for Arnold seems to be that scientific conclusions are precisely and absolutely true. In repelling attacks on literature from “the friends of physical science” and “the chief people in the religious world,” he holds these two groups to be allied against “the vague and inexact instrument” of letters because they are “in favour of dogma, of a scientific and exact presentiment of religious things.” He later reaffirms the point by arguing against “dogmatic theology” and, in the same breath, equating science with mathematics and logic. 56 Conversely, Arnold demonstrates his great distance from Huxley’s sense of scientific method when he ironically much more than he intends—apologizes for his “tone of tentative inquiry”:

In differing from them [the friends of physical science], however, I wish to proceed with the utmost caution and diffidence. The smallness of my own acquaintance with the disciplines of natural science is ever before my mind. . . . The tone of tentative inquiry, which befits a being of dim faculties and bounded knowledge, is the tone I would wish to take and not depart from. (pp. 99-100)

The irony in this view of science and scientific attitude extends as well, and very appropriately, to their mutual esteem for Socrates. For Huxley, this Athenian was “the first agnostic,” whose words expressed most keenly the “antidogmatic principle” of agnosticism. 57 In fact, not unlike Socrates in the Apology, Huxley repeatedly rebuts the charge that such an unbelieving outlook is a destructive or mischievous force in society.58 In contrast, Arnold, who “was not a subtle thinker but . . . a brilliant rhetorician according to some,“59 maintains in Culture and Anarchy: “In my opinion, the speech most proper, at present, for a man of culture to make . . . is Socrates’s: Know thyself!“60 This Socratic dictum appears frequently in Arnold’s writings; and in “Literature and Science,” he holds the Diotiman monologue of the Symposium to mean that knowledge must be related to beauty and moral goodness, rather than to explain the distinction between sophia and philosophia and to extoll the endless pursuit of truth.61 Presumably, Huxley would have followed the latter interpretation, and in this respect, the Victorian humanist and the Darwinian scientist can be viewed as reenacting the long-standing debate between orators and philosophers in the history of liberal education: Isocrates versus Plato, Boethius versus Isidore, Orleans versus Paris, and so forth.

In fine, Arnold claims to respect science in liberal education; and he does, to the extent that any generous soul could respect science as he understands it. But his science is emphatically not “the free employment of reason, in accordance with the scientific method” of agnostic Huxley, just as the biologist does not truly appreciate Arnoldian literature in liberal education precisely because he has not carefully asked himself the questions that such literature is to answer. Each wanted to agree with the other, his good and eminent friend; and they found some words— “criticism of life” —to assent to, but it is true that they “never fully realized how deeply they were at variance.“62 Given the failure of many commentators to understand this point and its significance, one wonders whether the “two cultures” appreciate it yet, a hundred years of liberal education later.63


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 3, 1985, p. 475-487
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 919, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:03:13 PM

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  • Bruce Kimball
    Yale University

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