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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

ADVENTURES IN RIGHTEOUSNESS Michael McCrum, Thomas Arnold: Headmaster. A Reassessment. (Oxford University Press) £17.50

Dr Percival, headmaster of Rugby school from 1887-91 described his famous predecessor Thomas Arnold as 'a great prophet among schoolmasters rather than an instructor or educator'. Michael McCrum's new biography of Arnold is subtitled 'A Reassessment' and written specifically with a view to his performance as a headmaster. This might suggest either a deft demolition job or something unsatisfyingly external, depending on your opinion of prophets. McCrum's impeccable C.V. - boy at Sherborne, master at Rugby, headmaster of Tonbridge and Eton etc, precedes Arnold's own (less impressive) credentials at the beginning of the book. These are bolstered by the Provost of Oriel's hackneyed prediction that the private tutor from Laleham would 'change the face of public schools in England'. The prediction is hackneyed for contradictory reasons; firstly, it rehearses a language typical of such testimonials and secondly it proved to be correct.

T.S. Eliot once described Matthew Arnold as being not so much a great critic as a great propagandist for criticism. With a little juggling these remarks also serve to define his father's relationship to education. It is important not to overstress the parallel and McCrum is guilty of a clumsy generalisation when he claims the educational philosophies of the two men to be 'identical' (what about the disparity between religion and 'culture'?) The ideas of the school inspector have survived the conditions which generated them far better than those of the headmaster.

In this respect Thomas Arnold, the redundant prophet, risks becoming a ...

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