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Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children.

Richard Mulcaster. Ed. William Barker. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. lxxxvi + 521 pp. $80.

Increasingly the sixteenth century is being seen as an age of expansion in English education. At the same time it was an age when many in Tudor government aspired to greater state control over teachers and curricula. William Barker holds that Richard Mulcaster responded to both these trends. In Positions Concerning the Training of Children Mulcaster set out to curb the self interested progress of children that he saw taking place in locally organized schools At the same time he kept his eye firmly fixed on the proposition that, together with uniformity, the central concern of any educational theory was the pre-eminence of the state.

It is this political dimension that Barker brings out most strikingly in the introduction to his new edition. For Mulcaster the classroom was a monarchy in parvo, the successful student harkening to his master as in the future he would to his country's laws. Barker shows how in his quest for uniformity Mulcaster insisted on public education for gentleman and commoner alike, as even his disquisition on sports carried an implicit argument for uniformity in public schooling. Brains were the chief factor insuring success, so much so that Mulcaster could entertain the prospect of educating girls, in whom he saw a "natural towardnesse" for learning, to the same level as boys, at least in the subjects of the elementary. As often in Positions however Barker sees a contradiction here: for Mulcaster, education is meant to serve the state, but he gives women no means by which to return what they have learned--they can be taught divinity but he will allow them no "pulpittes to preach in."

The remainder of Barker's introduction deals with Mulcaster's life and prose style and with the printing history of Positions. His biographical account generally follows the lines laid out by Richard DeMolen, to which Barker adds some new details and interesting material on Merchant Taylors' School. A defense of the style of Positions helps to justify Mulcaster's seeming prolixity by arguing that in his use of elaborate verbal devices and figures of thought he was imitating the Ciceronian ornate style. To win over readers, Positions is couched in the trappings of deliberative oratory. The result is a heady mix, with a verbal complexity that suggests weighty subject matter but an uncertain tone that vacillates at times between judiciousness and downright bossiness.

Barker's text is based on a collation of twenty-seven copies and for the most part reproduces the old spelling of the first printing, which, as he points out, often reveals meaning through Mulcaster's use of puns and other rhetorical devices. A non-specialist reader might prefer to forgo the toil and occasional confusions that such a text invites. No one, however, will want to miss Barker's extensive and useful commentary. For the first time we now have before us detailed evidence of the verbal complexity and sheer playfulness of this most unusual of the major English educational treatises.

Mulcaster's consistently secular view of education -- unusual at the time -- will doubtless attract some twentieth-century readers to Positions. Still more will be drawn, however, from the all-too-recognizable tensions embodied in it between what teachers believe ought to happen in the classroom and what the press of particular "circumstances" (in Mulcaster's word) allows to take place there.
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Author:Piepho, Lee
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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