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David Cameron: The PM plays down his gentlemanliness for fear of sounding snobbish 

Who is the Dr Thomas Arnold of the comprehensive schools? There does not appear to be one. Socialists and egalitarians have an unshaken faith in the virtue of the comprehensive ideal. But they have failed to call forth the inspiring figure who could offer, in his or her own school, an elevated demonstration of the ideal put into practice. It is all very well to wear a T-shirt bearing a picture of a Latin American revolutionary, if anyone still does, but Che Guevara wasn't running a school. The socialists suffer from an acute shortage of constructive heroes, which is why the Soviet Union was reduced to inventing such ludicrous ones.

But this is not just a problem for socialists. As headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1841, Dr Thomas Arnold sought to instil "1st, religious and moral principles: 2ndly, gentlemanly conduct: 3rdly, intellectual ability." The new or revived public schools of the 19th century had all sorts of practical purposes, being designed to enable their pupils to pass the exams which permitted entry to various professions, and to provide an imperial ruling class. But the education they offered was saved from becoming aridly utilitarian because they were devoted to the formation of Christian gentlemen. One of the distinguishing marks of a gentleman was that he did things because he knew they were the right thing to do, not because they would bring him personal advantage. Captain Oates was a very gallant gentleman.

The idea of a gentleman was a more inclusive one than it sounds to modern ears. One of its greatest advantages was that you could define it so as to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman, without possessing any of the social attributes which a gentleman might have: there was no need to possess a coat of arms, or a country estate, or engage in field sports, or wear evening dress. At least since Chaucer's time, there had been a distinction between the social meaning of the word, and the moral. It was evident that well-born people, who ought to know how to behave like gentlemen, did not always do so, while others sometimes did.

Philip Mason, whose perceptive study, The English Gentleman, was published in 1982, argues that "the desire to be a gentleman" runs through and illuminates English history from the time of Chaucer until the early 20th century. He suggests that "for most of the 19th century and until the Second World War" the idea of the gentleman "provided the English with a second religion, one less demanding than Christianity. It influenced their politics. It influenced their system of education; it made them endow new public schools and raise the status of old grammar schools. It inspired the lesser landed gentry as well as the professional and middle classes to give their children an upbringing of which the object was to make them ladies and gentlemen, even if only a few of them also became scholars."

This was a subject that interested so great a man as Cardinal Newman. In The Idea of a University he said that a liberal education makes "not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman", and went on:

It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University . . . but they are no guarantees for sanctity or even for conscientiousness; they may attach to the man of the world, the profligate, the heartless.

Which is why for Dr Arnold, the Christian basis of education took priority. His headmastership came at a time when the public schools were notoriously dissolute. At Eton, John Keate, headmaster from 1809-1834, sought to assert some degree of control by mass floggings. But in 1834 the Quarterly Journal of Education reported that "before an Eton boy is ready for the University he may have acquired . . . a confirmed taste for gluttony and drunkenness, an aptitude for brutal sports and a passion for female society of the most degrading kind, with as great ease as if he were an uncontrolled inhabitant of the metropolis." Public opinion would no longer tolerate this kind of thing. It looked for moral leadership, and three years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, the new headmaster of Rugby stepped forward with charismatic earnestness to provide it. Arnold's sermon on "Christian Education", preached in Rugby Chapel, begins: "This is the simplest notion of education; for, undoubtedly, he is perfectly educated who is taught all the will of God concerning him, and enabled, through life, to execute it." Arnold expected his praepostors, or prefects, to work with him, and with God, to defeat evil. 

It is difficult to disentangle what Dr Arnold was really like from the heroic legend constructed around him after his death in 1842 aged only 46. His former pupils sang his praises: Arthur Stanley, later Dean of Westminster, in The Life of Arnold, published in 1844, and Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's Schooldays, published in 1857. Many of Dr Arnold's carefully chosen staff revered him and went on to become headmasters too. His fame grew throughout the 19th century and in 1896 a bust of him was erected in Westminster Abbey, alongside one of his son, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold.

Dr Arnold's personal influence naturally diminished as those who had known him died. As Alicia C. Percival remarks in Very Superior Men, her study of some early public school headmasters: "The practical use of prefects in a school society remained . . . but the search for the Christian community —though no 19th century public school head would have wished to be considered as having abandoned it — appeared less urgent."

When Matthew Arnold wrote his poem "Rugby Chapel", he distinguished between men like his father, who were

Not like the men of the crowd
Who all round me to-day
Bluster or cringe, and make life
Hideous, and arid, and vile;
But souls tempered with fire,
Fervent, heroic, and good,
Helpers and friends of mankind.

But Arnold also recognised, in his far better known "Dover Beach", that the certitudes of his father were in retreat: 

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In 1918, Dr Arnold was one of the Eminent Victorians mocked by Lytton Strachey, in his book of that name. Bloomsbury found such earnestness ridiculous, but they were not the only writers who noticed that things had changed. In Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, which appeared in 1928, the public schools are represented by the rackety Captain Grimes, a man of whom Dr Arnold would not approve, while Paul Pennyfeather, a dim undergraduate to whom things happen, has to return Dean Stanley's Eastern Church to the college chaplain after being sent down from Oxford. Pennyfeather gets the book back when he returns to the university and resumes his life of obscurity.

For Waugh, Christianity could no longer be the great animating principle that it was for Dr Arnold. I do not want to exaggerate this change. Much of the life of the Church of England, and of the other churches, flows underground, or at least quite unnoticed. To some people and some schools, perhaps more than we realise, Christianity remains of defining importance. But as a rallying cry, it will not do. Secular intellectuals inform us that even to use the expression "Christian name" is offensive to members of other faiths.

Something similar has happened to the idea of the gentleman. It too flows on underground, which makes it hard to estimate how much strength is left in it. I would guess that at least half the present Cabinet think of themselves as gentlemen. The prime minister is clearly a Christian gentleman. His Anglicanism is an essential part of him, and one that few of the political commentators now writing have the faintest hope of understanding. Nor if they understood it would they approve of it. No wonder he tries to modernise himself, and shed any trace of  being a starchy, old-fashioned upholder of marriage, by informing us at every possible opportunity that he is also in favour of gay marriage. What an Anglican concession that is to the spirit of the age: faintly painful to himself, at least until he gets used to it, a self-mortification which shows how genuinely willing he is to compromise, but which also starts to look a bit obsessive.

David Cameron's gentlemanliness is, he fears, an even worse political handicap. If it were generally recognised that he is a gentleman, this would be taken by ill-natured people, including the columnists mentioned above, as conclusive evidence that he is snobbish and out-of-date. There would be a wilful confounding of the social and moral senses of the word "gentleman", by chippy individuals who have never been elected to anything, not even the Bullingdon Club.

So the prime minister yields to the temptation to play down that side of himself, with the unfortunate result that he sounds, as we nowadays say, less "authentic". The late Shirley Letwin argues, in The Gentleman in Trollope, that there is an unselfconsciousness about a gentleman's morality, and wonders: "Can an inherited moral practice maintain its character once it is reflected upon self-consciously?" Dr Letwin compares this morality to "a language which has long been spoken by people who do not themselves recognise its grammar, who even lack the concept of grammar". In her book, she identifies with marvellous discrimination the grammar of the gentlemanliness found in Trollope's novels.

It is impossible to think of a modern novelist whose work would reward such study. There is a gap in our culture: we have lost the gentleman without replacing him. That, perhaps, was part of the difficulty with comprehensive schools. They were meant to bring about greater equality, but we did not quite know, at the individual level, what they were aiming to achieve; what kind of men and women they were hoping to produce. I am not, incidentally, seeking to imply that in the days when the Christian gentleman was a recognised type, everyone behaved well. Christians are not always Christian. Crimes, follies and misfortunes will always occur. But to have an elevated standard of conduct increases the chances that some people will live up to it, as well as the danger of failure and hypocrisy.

It is not my contention that comprehensive schools are necessarily useless. There is a charm in the idea of educating the members of a community together. But the purposes of that education cannot be reduced to a string of mushy platitudes, framed in such a way that nobody is offended and hardly anyone falls short. Nor, now that we are taking steps to tighten things up, can we achieve this by setting targets. Five good GCSEs are no doubt preferable to five bad GCSEs, but that sort of approach leads if we are not careful to a barren utilitarianism, with every moral or spiritual consideration forgotten in a race to see who can jump through the largest number of utterly tedious hoops: a death of the soul which can afflict fee-paying schools too, as selfish parents urge their over-burdened children  forward.

The gentleman has retired from the fray, but we still need an ideal of good conduct: something that is not the same as Christian behaviour, but which helps to raise us above boorish self-seeking; an ideal which includes modesty, magnanimity and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, especially those who are weaker. 

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November 29th, 2012
2:11 PM
Why is it so hard to develop a basic set of character traits from an agnostic cosmology, not dependent upon either revealed or mystical bedrock, using minimalist epistemological standards? This leaves room to both admire the old gentlemanly virtues and valuing their many accomplishments, while still holding him, and his false and, for many, offensive sense of certainty, to task for his many, many faults. Why do we seem so stuck between zero credibility for individual morality and 100% certainty on our current pabulum collectivism? It’s starting to look like the Weimar Republic here in the USA with the Bolsheviks inside the gates busy writing checks with my and my child’s future as though we were cogs in their machine. Is my choice their way or their way, force or force, faith or faith, the “old gentleman?” (backed by a cop with a stick) or the new technocrat (backed by a cop with a gun), swine or swine? Ugg & Dispair!

October 24th, 2012
7:10 PM
In this discussion I am much reminded of George Orwell, who compared the picaresque popular literature of the Edwardian Era to that of his own by setting "Raffles" against the works of James Hadley Chase, and came away from it by saying that Raffles was obviously a criminal and not to be admired, but because he had a sense of "gentlemanliness," a sense that certain thing were just "never done," Raffles at least acknowledged that there were certain virtues that in his case were in fact honoured rather in the breach than observance, but that they did objectively exist. Chase, on the other hand, featured protagonists for whom "anything went," who would laugh at the idea of a Raffles. Orwell found this to be telling as far as the British concept of what's "done" and "not done" having evolved in 40 years and not for the better. Orwell seemed to think that, while most people probably did share raffles' cultural assumptions, the fact that a Chase could write the stuff he did and have it be popular spoke to some dark place in the British nay human soul. Apropos of probably nothing, in connection with the concept of aspiring to be a more virtuous person than you think you otherwise would be without the effort to be so, let me conclude by paraphrasing Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law: "Are we not gentlemen?" may be a mantra we should like to employ to resolve all doubt as to how to deal with things when we have the time and foresight enough to do so.

September 25th, 2012
6:09 PM
Is there any real difference between the term “gentleman” and “traditionalist” in this article? I'm not sure we can equate being a gentleman with just being old-fashioned, and even if you could, it would be a good idea - most people want to inhabit the age they live in, not the one that came before. For the gentleman to continue into the present century, I think it's essential that people re-envisage what that term might mean for themselves. Probably not a very original interpretation, but for my money, I'd say that a gentleman – as the term suggests – is just a person who is gentle; regardless of the artificial boundaries of religion, politics, or class.

September 20th, 2012
12:09 AM
One aspect of being a gentleman is chivalry which requires physical toughness and fighting skills in order to protect a lady's honour. Historically gentlemen were taught boxing and fencing. The problem is now that many men lack the physical toughness and fighting skills to defend's a lady's honour. The old saying " I do not want to fight but I will I have to " which was based on an ability to fight but a preferance to settle disputes peacefully is very rare nowadays.

September 13th, 2012
12:09 AM
A gentleman or gentlewoman is a person who always strives to to the right thing even if it doesn't serve their own direct interest. Polite, considerate, not unkind. Many religious creeds may encourage these virtues but an athiest is just as worthy of the attempt. Nationality, colour, wealth, education are all equally irrevalent. But no real gent could ever claim to be one, the accolade is given by others

Gerald Howard
September 12th, 2012
6:09 PM
A voice from America: My late and adored father- in-law J. Randall Williams was a man who could best be described as a "gentleman." He had every quality one might ascribe to the type, including dignity, sagacity, kindness,courage, learning, ability and wit. It is to the point that he was born in the early years of this century in an "old" Philadelphia family (in other words, a WASP), and educated at the elite Episcopal prep school St. Paul's, and did a year's graduate work in education at Oxford before entering the publishing profession. Something rare and irreplacable went out of the world when he died five years ago. We shall not see his like again, etc. Now, is this a lament for the almost vanished WASP ascendancy in the United States? Not entirely, as I am myself an Irish Catholic and the meritocracy has been very kind to me. But my father-in-law in so many ways was a distillate of all that was valuable in his class, and we could sure use some of that now.

Feargus D
September 12th, 2012
11:09 AM
and, should any reader quibble quietly that Christian is at least applicable as a cultural category to many names derived from biblical tradition, they must face down insistence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Josephine, Mary and Elisabeth should properly celebrate their poorly pronounced Hebrew (and others their Greek, Aramaic or German, etc.). There's a lot in a name. Narrowing it down is not so innocent.

Nitish Dobhal
September 8th, 2012
6:09 AM
The Gentleman is the sole flame of the world. He burns himself up to give light to the world. But please notice he burns. A Gentleman is supposed to not let his mind sway towards his emotions. He is supposed to always set an example of unbiasedness through his own sufferings and sacrifices. A Gentleman though lives for only one thing and that is, to be known as The Gentleman.

Feargus D
September 8th, 2012
12:09 AM
I enjoyed this, being more habitual a reader of rags like the Guardian, but I was thrown by the close of that paragraph on Christianity. Do we really need secular intellectuals to inform us that labeling as 'Christian' a non-Christian's given name could likely give rise to umbrage fairly taken? Insisted upon, I should call such obtuse chauvinism ungentlemanly. But I doubt you'll find an apostate or heathen bothered by an actual Christian's espousal of the epithet. My suspicion is that what's at issue is the common, say, liberal (minded) criticism of a generalised category, say, for forms that need filling in by any number of unspecified individuals. In that instance, it were simply a matter to be decided between pragmatic insistence on a mean/median/mode norm (your average Englishman probably is at least of Christian stock), and affording a more careful, artfully mannered hospitality to accommodate a relatively vast set of outliers, or just others. Surely the gentlemanly, indeed, the Christian choice in that case is clear? The latter seems the only option if one essays adherence to a much needed and noble ideal of good conduct.

Taeho Paik
September 7th, 2012
1:09 PM
The English Gentleman was someone who, upon knicking the ball to the wicketkeeper, walked off without looking at the umpire.

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