The English educator Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) was a headmaster of Rugby School, and through his efforts it became the model for other English public schools and for boarding schools throughout the Western world.
Thomas Arnold was born in West Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, on June 13, 1795, the seventh child of William and Martha Arnold. His father was the postmaster and customs agent for the Isle of Wight. Arnold received his early education from his mother and an aunt. He attended the preparatory schools Warminster and Winchester from 1803 to 1811, prior to his admittance to Corpus Christi College of Oxford University. He graduated first class in classics in 1814. Through the influence of a friend he became a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford University, in 1814—a position he held until 1819. While there, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1818.
Arnold married Mary Penrose in 1820. He taught in several preparatory schools until 1827, when he became headmaster of Rugby School. He retained this post until his sudden death on June 12, 1842. Arnold also held a position in the senate of the University of London during 1836-1838 and was appointed a lecturer in history at Oxford in 1841.
Arnold was very much interested in Church reform. A radical in terms of religious thought of the day, he sought a simplified base on which to build a reunited Christian Church. He entered into a well-publicized dialogue with John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman over the nature of the Christian Church and what it ought to be. Arnold's religious ideas influenced the way in which he approached his job as headmaster of Rugby. He assumed the duties of the chaplain when the post became vacant, and he was noted for his sermons to the student body, later published. He emphasized the "Christian scholar" and "good character."
Social reform also interested Arnold. Although he maintained that the class structure of England was essentially natural and unchangeable, he actively sought to improve the lot of the lower and emerging middle classes. His convictions regarding the aristocracy centered on its responsibility and duty to do what was "right." In short, he wanted a useful aristocracy and a polished middle class. During the height of Parliament's debate over the reform bills of the early 1830s, Arnold published the Englishman's Register, a weekly journal supporting reform; it lasted only 3 months.
It is as headmaster of Rugby that Arnold is primarily remembered, however. The whole tone of the school was improved during his tenure. He is credited with broadening its curriculum, improving living conditions, raising the status of the masters, and inaugurating administrative reforms (for example, masters' conferences and student involvement in school affairs). What was once regarded as one of England's worst schools was, by the time of his death, famous for its successful graduates.
Further Reading on Thomas Arnold
T.W. Bamford, Thomas Arnold (1960), provides new insight into Arnold's life and work. More traditional views of the head-master's influence are in Joshua G. Fitch, Thomas and Matthew Arnold and Their Influence on English Education (1897), and Norman Wymer, Dr. Arnold of Rugby (1953). For a work written by one of Arnold's own students see Arthur P. Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold (1844).
Additional Biography Sources
McCrum, Michael., Thomas Arnold, headmaster: a reassessment, Oxford England; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn, The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, New York: AMS Press, 1978.