Cricket bats, fishing poles, footballs, and other sports equipment clutter every corner of Tom Brown's Schooldays. Appropriately so, for Thomas Hughes believed sports, particularly team sports, played an important role in secondary schools for exactly the same reasons that they often receive support today: First of all, they give the student (like Tom Brown) with average, or below average, academic interest, ability, and accomplishment something in which to take pride, even to the point of providing a reason to work hard enough to remain in school. Another value of such activities, as the headmaster of a boarding school explained to me more than a half century ago, is simply that it keeps students busy and therefore out of trouble — a point that I am sure both Thomas Hughes and his idol, Thomas Arnold, were well aware. In addition, team sports, as Hughes emphasizes, provide an important form of socialization because they teach participants the value of individual sacrifice for the sake of a group.
In Tom Brown's Schooldays, Hughes employs one of the oldest of all literary devices — the positive judgment of something by an impartial or even potentially hostile observer — to emphasize this third important educational value of team sports at secondary schools. In The Iliad Helen points out the Achilles's power and beauty; in this schoolboy novel, one of the teachers at Rugby admits that now that he has begun to understand cricket "scientifically," as he puts it," he can see "What a noble game it is, too!" Tom, who certainly agrees, responds that "it's more than a game. It's an institution," and his young friend Arthur goes farther, proclaiming, probably partly tongue-in-cheek, that is also is "the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men." Ignoring their more extravagant claims, the teacher states what has become the standard praise of team sports:
"The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think," went on the master, "it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn't play that he may win, but that his side may."
"That's very true," said Tom, "and that's why football and cricket, now one comes to think of it, are such much better games than fives or hare-and-hounds, or any others where the object is to come in first or to win for oneself, and not that one's side may win."
Although such views of organized athletics might seem obvious or old-fashioned today, such was not the case when Hughes wrote, though they perhaps came to Rugby earlier than other Public Schools. Histories of Eton and other schools make clear that students had both very light academic workloads and a great deal of unsupervised free time that they devoted to, among other things, drinking, gambling, bullying, fighting, and poaching game. The authorities either ignored organized sports or, in the case of competitions between schools, prohibited them to the point of threatening participating students with expulsion. Rugby, imbued with Thomas Arnold's muscular Christianity, seems to have pioneered what became the standard approach to school athletics in late Victorian England.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.
Last modified 26 June 2006