What were Matthew Arnold's views on education and democracy?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Matthew Arnold's view on education and democracy are very complex.  They are representative of a world in flux.  Arnold recognized that there was a fundamental shift in cultural consciousness that was happening. He also understood that its form was not necessarily absolute, but rather fluid. The best that Arnold hoped for was to ensure that some form could be given to something that seemed to, in Arnold's mind, defy containment.

Arnold recognized that there was a fundamental shift towards democracy.  He noticed this most demonstrably in America and England.  Arnold understood that democracy created a setting whereby previous institutional barriers were suddenly absent:

. . . It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely,–nourished, and not bound by them.

Arnold felt a fundamental attraction towards one of the most basic precepts of American democracy that sought to "let people do as they liked."  

However, Arnold also understood that this sense of pure freedom could allow individuals to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  For Arnold, pure freedom could lead to anarchy or debasement of individual identity.  Arnold was affectionate towards the Classics.  However, he was keen enough to understand that the new premise of democracy sought to undermine the basic premise of "higher and lower" tastes intrinsic to Classicism.  It is in this light where Arnold suggests that one can still embrace democratic notions of the good while equally holding true towards a position of "culture."  Arnold is passionate in defining what he sees as culture: "Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection."  It is in this light where Arnold believes that education serves its greatest good.  It is designed to refine the individualized notion of culture, so that they will voluntarily strive for that which is seen as "perfection."  Education in the democratic setting must facilitate this perfection, what Arnold deliberately defined as "sweetness:"

. So, while we praise and esteem the zeal of the Nonconformists in walking staunchly by the best light they have, and desire to take no whit from it, we seek to add to this what we call sweetness and light, and to develop their full humanity more perfectly. 

The idea of wanting to develop humanity in a "more perfect" is intrinsic to Arnold's construction of education within the democratic setting.  It was a vehicle to merge Classical notions of perfection within the freedom intrinsic to democracy:

The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light. He who works for sweetness and light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light.

Through this understanding, one can see the nuanced position that Arnold attempted to identify.  He did not want to stand in the way of the zeitgeist that was liberal democracy.  However, he did not believe that democracy was incompatible with a love for the Classical notion of unity and perfection.  For Arnold, education was the means through which synthesis between both was possible.  It is through education where "culture" and "sweetness" can find a home in the modern individual.