‘Stone of Venice’ Reading Group 2

Information on the discussion group can be found here

Vol. II. Chapter VI. The Nature of Gothic

Leader: Jonathan Memel

PhD Candidate, University of Exeter


John Ruskin's real and false Griffins

John Ruskin’s appendix to The Stones of Venice, ‘Modern Education’, provides a number of discussion points for Victorianists interested in education, training and democracy.

Ruskin begins by attacking a model of education which prizes classical learning over applied, practical knowledge. He states that teaching should better prepare students for their role in the world. He hopes for a time after educational reform where an ‘Eton boy’s mind [is] as sensitive to falseness in policy, as his ear is at present to falseness in prosody’. A discussion of vocational-focused education and training would be fruitful here, with reference to Victorian notions of ‘useful knowledge’ and Ruskin’s role at The Working Men’s College.

Ruskin goes on to argue against one standard of education being applied universally. ‘Among all men, whether of the upper or lower orders, the differences are eternal and irreconcilable’: this insight informs Ruskin’s view that schooling should be as varied as possible. Education’s purpose is ‘making what is best out of them’, and this ‘best’ depends upon learners existing aptitude and circumstances. This connection between one’s born situation and learning provision is, I think, worth challenging against the egalitarian view that connections between classes and their established sectors of work are better ignored in the schooling process. Online contributors may disagree, arguing that Ruskin is more radical in this chapter; seeking to profess the skills and ways of life of the working classes over that of the educated, governing elite. After all, he ends the piece by asserting that ‘millions of peasants are therefore at this moment better educated than most of those who call themselves gentlemen’.

Chapter can be downloaded from here.


  1. There’s such a lot to be said about this passage in terms of ‘Modern Education’ today; Ruskin would be a man to have onside against Gove’s various ideas. What I found especially interesting, though, was Ruskin’s emphasis on the importance of interdisciplinary dialogues. If life is a quest romance (in which man must know ‘where he is’, ‘where he is going’ and ‘what he has to do, under these circumstances’) it is guided by scientific knowledge. Man discovers what he is through his past, and the world’s past – expressed here as natural history – and he can unveil his future through his ability to interact with the people and the world around him – or a training in Politics, as Ruskin has it. To progress, man must establish what world – or class – he is in, but it is as crucial for him to identify the ways in which the boundaries between his ‘world’ and another are fluid. If man can’t understand how the ‘great universe rolls upon its course in heaven’, he can’t roll upon his best course in his world. In other words, man must be able to identify the relationship between the universe – science – and heaven – or classical education, including but not limited to theology. So, classical education might contain science, but it cannot be suitably applied in a relevant way to the real world without scientific knowledge. Furthermore, this knowledge should not be a general thing – it must be suited to the individual learner’s lifestyle and circumstances. This, I think, is Ruskin’s most crucial point, because although he begins (and ends) by talking about ‘the poor’ and their other worlds, his primary assertion seems to be that the metaphorical drop must be taken out of the ocean in order for it to be put to its optimum use. The world is the sum of its parts, and each part must be uniquely cared for in order for the world to continue on its progressive journey. There’s a lot to be said here about Victorian educational values versus modern ones.

    On a slightly different note, I was really struck by the final metaphor in this passage: that education should be dispensed carefully, whereas ‘at present we pour it upon the heads of our youth as the snow falls on the Alps, on one and another alike, till they can bear no more, and then take honor to ourselves because here and there a river descends from their crests into the valleys, not observing that we have made the loaded hills themselves barren for ever’. If the Alps – the reigning metaphor for sublime experiences from Thomas Gray onwards – are hidden, then the sublime is likewise concealed. Education is thus killing the creative and imaginative capacities of youth; education strips individuality, uniting the ‘youth’ into an infertile oneness. Without their individuality, they cannot locate their own sublime experiences, so they cannot appreciate the most heightened experiences of the world around them. Could the ‘loaded hills’ be a comment on industrialisation – it’s failure to discover the hidden treasures and uses of the young and educated, even whilst it strips the natural world bare?

  2. Thanks Jo. That’s certainly an intriguing image – pouring knowledge onto childrens’ heads like the snow falls on the alps.

    I like your suggestion to think about this in terms of the sublime, with its association with the vastness of our capacity to imagine.

    Matthew Arnold was another figure in this period concerned by the stifling effect of a modern education. He was particularly concerned at its effect upon spiritual feeling. He opposed Lowe’s Revised Code (1862) and its legacy, which encouraged schools to teach ‘the three R’s’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) and neglect the rest.

    In ‘Our Victorian Education’, Dinah Birch understands Arnold’s ‘Memorial Verses 1850’ in this context. There’s a gloomy fear of this loss of feeling in these lines:

    But where will Europe’s latter hour
    Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
    Others will teach us how to dare,
    And against fear our breast to steel;
    Others will strengthen us to bear—
    But who, ah! who, will make us feel?
    The cloud of mortal destiny,
    Others will front it fearlessly—
    But who, like him, will put it by?

    Any reactions to this, or any other point that Jo raised?

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