Matthew Arnold was a Victorian poet, critic, humanist, school inspector, and self-professed “liberal tempered by experience.” He wrote frequently and influentially on the topic of education, and his work challenged the traditional notions of society, education, and the way literature is taught.
With contemporaries such as Tennyson and Rosetti, he viewed poetry as the highest criticism of life. In his seminal work Culture and Anarchy, he adds to the scholarly discussion of politics and culture and their interrelationships. Acting as a critic of his own society, Arnold attempted to make the one-sided nature of the political and intellectual debates hyper visible, with the hope of achieving a more just society as well as better schools.
From 1851–1886, Arnold served as Inspector of schools and became Chief Inspector. With this work, he traveled to inspect nonconformist schools as well as several European schools, and he reported his findings (as did Horace Mann). An underlying theme in all of his work on education is his desire for education to be better organized. In addition, for Arnold, education was the bulwark against anarchy, and he thought it should be a national matter, not just a local one. Significantly, even in the current time, he challenges the routinized and industrialized view of teaching (such as teaching to the test, which he considered “anti-educational” and “narrow”) and the lack of a core curriculum that he thought would render forth better critical thinking skills.
He emphasized the humanities in university education, and his work led to better teacher education for elementary teachers and influenced what became the university core curriculum as well. His three most profound essays are “Democracy,” “Equality,” and “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.”
- Arnold, M., & Collini, S. (Ed.). (1993). Culture and anarchy. London: Cambridge University Press.
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