Britain did not establish a national system of education until the year 1870. Until this time, education for the masses was not centralized, but separated by class. Local authorities, philanthropists, and religiously affiliated societies usually provided education for the poor. Meanwhile, middle-class and upper-class children were either sent to public schools or home-tutored. No until the year 1862 and the formation of the New Castle Commission would education start to become more standardized, though slowly. The reformists argued the necessity of teaching rudimentary skills in basic subjects, especially to the working class. Education at home became less common, and women were no longer taught only domesticity, but academic studies as well.
Despite all of these advances, it was not until the year 1870, when the Elementary Education Act was passed, that education became standardized in England. Not only was a secular national system set up but, by the year 1880, school attendance had be come obligatory for anyone under the age of ten. Affluent children attended denominational and public schools, while less affluent children attended England's national schools. By the end of the century attention was then shifted to secondary education.
The majority of Thomas Hardy's education took place prior to any attempt at standardization, and therefore, the brunt of this responsibility fell upon his mother and acquaintances he made as a small boy and young man.
In the fall of 1848, at the age of eight, Hardy entered his first school at the Stinsford Parish, where he learned mathematics and geography. It was run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Establi shed Church.
Hardy's mother, as always, was concerned with and had more ambitious plans for Hardy's education and supplemented his readings. She withdrew Hardy from the conformist school, and in 1850, she enrolled him at a school in Dorchester, run by the noncon formist British and Foreign School Society under the respectable headmaster, Isaac Last. At Last s school, Hardy learned Latin and mathematics. At the age of 15, he began learning French as well, and in 1856, at the age of 16, Hardy became an apprentice to John Hicks, an architect in Dorchester. During his apprenticeship, Hardy became friends with Horace Moule, who served Hardy as an unofficial tutor, and influenced his reading. In April of 1862, at age 22, Hardy decided to move to London, and with the help of a family friend, John Norton, got a job as an architect with Arthur Bloomfield. Hardy began to question the wisdom in becoming an architect; as his intellectual pursuits increased in intensity, his interest in the field of architecture dwindled .
In The Return of the Native (first published, 1878), Thomas Hardy illustrates the complexities that surrounded the debate on educational reform leading up to 1870. Hardy accomplishes this by presenting the contrast between a practical and uneducated lower-class, and an idealistic and educated middle-class.
Although, Clym Yeobright's intention to raise the intellectual level of the heath people to a serene comprehensiveness is sorely out of place for a people whose profession requires only rigorous physical effort, Hardy does not dismiss the ideal of an educated population, nor does he deny the need for it in an age of advancing technology (III, ch. 1). The heath people represent that class of citizens for whom education is still uncommon, but not so useless as to be completely ignored.
In contrast, Clym is a man who can not imagine a fulfilled life without education. He does not represent a leisure class, but rather, Clym is a product of an education similar to Hardy's, and which a middle-class boy could expect prior to education al reform. Clym s education is described: At the death of his father a neighboring gentleman had kindly undertaken to give the boy a start (III, ch. 1)Thus, Clym was a product of a system of philanthropy. Clym comes home with the intent of returning the good will he had received, but on a massive scale, and therefore makes the argument for a modernized system of standardized education. Hardy makes no last stand in favor or against reform; he allows the heath people's sensibility to accompany Clym's drive to uplift the lives of his fellow citizens.
Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
Haigh, Christopher. Secondary Education. The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland. 1985.
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. London: Penguin, 1978.
Novo, Laura. Education, Elementary. In Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York; Garland, 1988. 241-243.
Williams, Merryn. Thomas Hardy and Rural England. London: Macmillan, 1972.