What you want to see in the country first, put it in its schools.” I was reminded of this maxim which Dr Robert Laws of Livingstonia attributed to the Germans when I accidentally came across essays by T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) is best known as the biologist who defended Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was the son of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby school. He was a poet, essayist and a master of the classics.
In 1880, Huxley delivered a lecture titled ‘Science and Culture’ at the opening of the Science College founded by Sir Jossiah Mason. The gist of his lecture was that Arnold and his fellow humanists were wrong to say that humanities were the sole avenue to culture. He understood Arnold as believing that the literature of Greece and Rome was what mattered most for the acquisition of culture.
In his own words, Huxley wrote: “Mr Arnold tells us that the means to culture is to know the best that has been thought and said in the world. It is the criticism of life contained in literature.”
Huxley asserted that while the predominance of the humanities was justified during the Renaissance, it was not in the 19th century. He wanted the natural or physical sciences to prevail, the monopoly of the humanities to be ended.
Arnold responded in a lecture he delivered at Cambridge in 1882 titled ‘Literature and Science’. He started by saying: “I am going to ask whether the present movement for ousting letters from their old predominance in education and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural science ought to prevail”.
Arnold says Huxley’s interpretation of literature was misleading. He said: “Professor Huxley declares that he finds himself wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance if their outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science.”
Arnold interpreted literature as anything written or printed, for example Euclide’s Elements and Newton’s Principic were literatures not just the belles lettres, poetry fiction or essays.
That education in classics was predominant was reflected in appointments in the British civil service. Men who had distinguished themselves in the classics were deemed best material to hold such positions as permanent secretary.
Until about the 1960s, with the issue of the Fulton Report on the British civil service, specialists in science and medicine were never appointed to head ministries. It was assumed that only those with broad classical education were capable of holding key positions both in the church and the State.
In the wrangle between Huxley and Arnold, certain disciplines which we hold so dear these days such as social sciences (economics, sociology) and business management were not considered.
It was when the British realised why they were losing their traditional dominance in international trade that, like the Americans, Germans and Japanese, they began to teach subjects that have to do with national prosperity.
The debate between Huxley and Arnold has some relevance to educational policy and history in Malawi. In establishing the Kamuzu Academy, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda made it clear that he wanted Greek and Latin languages as well as ancient history to be taught. This was pure intellectualism. In the solution of economic problems, subjects like natural sciences, social sciences and modern languages matter more.
There is a campaign of sorts in Malawi to make the teaching of mathematics and science predominant because it is believed that they can lead to the industrialisation of Malawi.
We need educational theorists such as Hebert Spencer to guide us. To what extent is the advance of East Asian countries due to the mastery of science subjects and mathematics? We hardly hear of Nobel prizes being won by sages of the Pacific Rim.
In his autobiography My Early Life Winston Churchill wrote that while his classmates were mastering the classics, he was concentrating on English. He became Britain’s great war time leader. It is from the humanities that a nation draws leaders in politics and business. I am not aware of great leaders who had emerged from faculties of science and mathematics.
In short, I would say science subjects and humanities are both necessary for the progress of our nation.