§ 10. Liberal Education

Huxley's first pedagogic paper was On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences (1854), its aim to have science taught so as to help the student who would otherwise graduate ignorant of science, cosmos, and society. The essay inspired this parody of Wordsworth by Miss Kay Kendall: "Primroses by the river's brim/ Dicotyledons were to him,/ And they were nothing more." London University quickly adapted itself to replacing primrose with dicotyledon, in 1858 originating a B. Sc. degree to students matriculating through its Faculty of Science. In his 1894 Preface III, Huxley reflected that though "On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences" contains some crudities, much of what he said later in life is to be found in germ in "this early and sadly-imperfect piece of work."

To his students at the South London Working Men's College, Huxley, Principal of that school, delivered A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It (1868). Education was finally being considered a good thing by Victorian politicians, clerics, and capitalists eager to turn out cotton goods. To Huxley, people should be educated because they "perish for lack of knowledge." He then personifies Nature as an opponent in a game of chess, the point being that our life, fortune, and happiness depend on our knowing the rules of the game, which is science. As in Science and "Church Policy" (1864) he defines morality as a kind of scientific law. In dramatic passages, he depicts the workmen whose children receive less nourishment than a rich man's dogs, and whose "health is sapped by bad ventilation and bad drainage, and half whose children are massacred by disorders which might be prevented. Not only does our present primary education carefully abstain from hinting to the workman that some of his greatest evils are traceable to mere physical agencies, which could be removed by energy, patience, and frugality; but it does worse–it renders him, so far as it can, deaf to those who could help him, and tries to substitute an Oriental submission to what is falsely declared to be the will of God, for his natural tendency to strive after a better condition." But should such an impoverished and unhealthy workman steal (bread, for example), he would violate a "moral law."

The ideal curriculum would also include geography, modern history, modern literature, and the English language. He addresses cultural illiteracy of his time and of a century later, the student never haven't heard of the 1688 revolution or Voltaire, "And as for Science, the only idea the word would suggest to his mind would be dexterity in boxing." The metaphor of Nature as a chess player was examined by R. H. Hutton in Professor Huxley's Hidden Chess Player (1868). As an elected member from Marylebone to the London School Board, he helped design British and U. S. early as well as late schooling–School Board Address (1870) typifies the work he did.

Huxley's aspirations as a reformer of education from grade school through college were noticed by contemporary periodicals:

Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches
by Frederick Waddy with Fig. Bones and Stones and Such-Like Things (1873)
Huxley on Mountin' Kids
From Hornet, 1871; see § 8 for text

To the surprise of the more subversive of the early Huxleyites, as a member of the London School Board he argued for inclusion of the Bible as a required text, mostly because students would be more famiiar with that book than with any other, and from the King James version could be exposed to literary excellence and important ethical views. For just what Huxley wanted and his later reflections on the issue, see § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible.

President BAAS
Portrait from a photograph by Elliot and Fry:
Steel Engraving in Nature, 1874, based on Illustrated London News, 1870

Universities: Actual and Ideal (1874) is his address on being elected Rector of Aberdeen University. He expressed his delightful surprise at receiving this office despite his having spent so many years "in no half-hearted advocacy of doctrines which have not yet found favour in the eyes of Academic respectability." Again advocating the inclusion of science and discussing his recommendations for a good medical education he also advocates a professorship in the Fine Arts. He recognizes a degree of success the advocacy of many years: Oxford directed 120,000 to the building of science laboratories, and Cambridge was taking the same course, "scientific culture" now being established. Nature reported on this in Professor Huxley at Aberdeen (1874). Joseph Priestley is another essay of 1874.

A review of his work appeared in The Saturday Review (August 1877): The British Association. This criticized a speaker for the "vulgar error" of having demoted Professors Huxley and Tyndall as "mere popularizers" and for an implicit censure on these professors because in their Belfast addresses (Huxley's On Descartes' "Discourse Touching the Method of Using One's Reason Rightly and of Seeking Scientific Truth" (1870)), they had gone philosophical. But that was a good turn on their part, because "the high problems of mind and matter" are more interesting than "epiblast and hypoblast" and because scientific investigation, such as on natural selection and the conservation of energy, affects our understanding of the world in which we live.

Though Huxley was not fond of the phrase "liberal education," he was fond of a curriculu m that would incite reading of "noble" English literature: "That a young Englishman may be turned out of one of our universities, 'epopt and perfect' so far as their system takes him, and yet ignorant of the noble literature which has grown up in those islands during the last three centuries, no less than of the development of the philosophical and political ideas which have most profoundly influenced modern civilisation, is a fact in the history of the nineteenth century which the twentieth will find hard to believe"–Letter on University Education (1891)

Of Eton College, 1879, Bassano photograph, 1880
Henrietta Huxley
Professor Huxley, F. R. S.
Photograph by Elliot and Fry in year of Huxley's retirement as Professor, 1885
THH - 1881
From Appleton's Collected Essays

Huxley often presented his views on a liberal education, as for example refusing to yield to anyone in his "respect and love for literature," though he also refused to yield to anyone in his disapproval of "gerund grinding" and of the school's presenting Virgin and Horace as being "made up of verbs and substantives"–this appearing in an address at St. Mary's Hospital (1866). Returning to Birmingham for the inauguration of Sir Joseph Mason's college, he mentions in his address Science and Culture (1880) that he had six years before been there to honor Joseph Priestley, who would have been much pleased at the Mason educational plan. For Huxley, an exclusively scientific education is at least as good as an exclusively literary education. Matthew Arnold, "the chief apostle of culture," for example, claims that "to know the best that has been thought and said in the world" is based on knowing the literature of Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity.

Agreeing that culture implies more than knowing just technical skill, that it should supply a complete theory of life, Huxley disagrees that literature alone can achieve that. "I should say that an army, without weapons of precision and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life." Physical science has shown that ancient beliefs are incredible: the earth is not "the chief body in the material universe," "the world is not subordinated to man's use," and authority is inferior to the study nature as a source of our knowlege. Science "warns us that the assertion which outstrips evidence is not only a blunder but a crime."

Arnold's reply is Literature and Science (1882). He quotes himself as well as Huxley and argues that for him literature is not just belles lettres, but includes science. Genuine humanism is scientific in its method of study. But science ought not to be the main part of education.

Huxley's lecture to the Eton Volunteer Corps, Unwritten History (1883), unravels the puzzle of Egypt's history, relying upon Herodotus, tracking events of Marathon and Thermopylae, the expedition of Alexander, the Crusades, the struggle in the region between religious antagonists and between racial antagonists. Huxley's exploration of rivulets caused by rain ploughing the land and of the rise and fall of the Nile provided him with "a capital lesson in physiography." Similar historical and physiographical surveys pervade From the Hut to the Pantheon, published in the U. S. magazine The Youth's Companion (June 23, 1887), and he refers to a similar tour of his thirty-five years ago, that to Torres Straits in 1848. In the 1890s, he wrote no essays on education, but several letters recollecting earlier events in education, a couple of these published: a letter on university education arguing for attention to be paid to the study of English literature: Letter on University Education (Pall Mall Gazette, October 22,1891); to Lankester, on the medieval versus the future university: April 11, 1892; and to Donnelly, on the state and education: October 1, 1892.

An undated doodle has Huxley and two companions bowing before Queen Alma Mater: Homage to Alma Mater. Its verse reads:

Behold you know who
Performing the kotoo
And making as a gift
As much as he can lift
Of frankincense and spice,
And such thing as nice is.
     don't stare
But hear his prayer.
       Oh alma mater
Mother dear
Now in thy fifth year
Please to forgive this nonsense
And take it as a symbol
That my head's as empty as a thimble
     Or else I'd send a better
Birthday letter.

Approaching retirement on his sixtieth birthday, Huxley delivered prizes and an address at the Liverpool Institute–On Science and Art in Relation to Education (1882) goes nostalgic, recalling his Rattlesnake visits to Papua and Australia. A good summary appeared in Nature (February 1883)–Professor Huxley on Education. While "Savagery has its pleasures," there was no pleasure in the visit to Rotherhithe of London's East End, and little in his childhood reading of "detestable books which ought to have been burned by the hands of the common hangman." Like Dickens in Hard Times, Huxley picks on one of these books for its defining a horse as Equus caballus of the order Mammalia. Observation and experiment, he asserts once again, is better than "taking words for knowledge." On the importance of science in education, see § 11. Scientific Education; on the importance of drawing as well as writing, see § 12. Unity in Diversity.

In answer to Matthew Arnold, he then proceeds to narrate his boyhood affection for Bach's fugues, for Shakespeare's songs. The goal of educational reform is not to have science or the humanities predominate, but to combine them. And he adds to his ideal curriculum the study of Latin and German. "Many of the faults and mistakes of the ancient philosophers are traceable to the fact that they knew no language but their own, and were often led into confusing the symbol with the thought which it embodied. I think it is Locke who says that one-half of the mistakes of philosophers have arisen from questions about words; and one of the safest ways of delivering yourself from the bondage of words is, to know how ideas look in words to which you are not accustomed." A published letter of his in October of 1891 returned to the value of English writers as part of the liberal arts (a term he didn't adore) curriculum–Letter on University Education, Pall Mall Gazette (October 22, 1891)

In this essay, he also comments on the importance and difficulty of writing good elementary science books for children. In 1869, Huxley undertook a series of twelve lectures on physical geography to the pupils of the London Institution. These appeared in 1878 book Physiography: An Introduction to the Study of Nature. In the preface, he puts his preaching into practice, starting with what's close to the student, such as the Thames, and moving to remoter terrain, such as the Ganges. Several positive reviews appeared of his lectures and his book. For example, Professor Huxley on Geography, Saturday Review (April 1869) commends Huxley's procedure of beginning at home and then moving abroad and the clarity of his discourse, which could be understood by teachers in the audience as well as by children. "His language was as clear as the Thames water doubtless one day will be, and at times his audience must have felt that a certain quiet humor and eloquence may be found even in a lecture on geography." J. W. Judd, in Huxley's PhysiographyNature, January 3, 1878, focusing on the teaching of the teachers, notes Huxley's "admirable skill," "accurate and elegant language," his "happy analogies and telling illustrations," his book as a model, not a crib.

Huxley's fame was acknowledged in 1879, with Cambridge giving him an LL.D., in which ceremony, an auditor observed, Huxley "was evidently the favourite of the galleries," "greeted with thunders, which kept up continuously for five or ten minutes. Browning, I think came in for second place." (W. B. Scott, as reported in L. Huxley "An American student," 1934) Physiography had a big sale, of 50,000 copies. H. G. Wells read it. He had taken a biological course under "Professor Huxley–the great Professor Huxley, whose name was in the newspapers, who was known all over the world!" Wells received an A in the course, as Huxley had received an A for the book.

Huxley did not promote the aesthetic or educational value of poetry, though one of his companions aborard HMS Rattlesnake was Dante, though he studied Milton and much enjoyed Tennyson and Browning, and though he did compose a few poems, one of which was published (these and other poetic attempts are in To Tennyson (1892)). If the student were to have models, those should be not from classical writers but from the English eighteenth-century, Defoe, Swift, Hobbes being of primary beauty and importance–Epopt and Perfect (1886, sel). He did reflect on how good prose writing and good speaking and good drawing are to be achieved, as for example in

For this, see § 12. Unity in Diversity.

Inventor of Protoplasm
Men of the Day Vanity Fair, January 28, 1871, With famous, often-reproduced, cartoon, "A great Med'cine Man, among the Inqui-ring Redskins"



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden