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  • Clockwork Education: The Persistence of the Arnoldian Ideal
  • Geoffrey Sharpless

For boys follow one another in herds like sheep, for good or evil; they hate thinking and rarely have any settled principles. . . . it is the leading boys for the time being who give the tone to all the rest, and make the School either a noble institution for the training of Christian Englishmen, or a place where a young boy will get more evil than he would if he were turned out to make his way in London streets, or anything between these two extremes.

Tom Brown’s School-days, 151

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

A Clockwork Orange, 1

Critics conventionally position Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange within the sub-genre of futuristic dystopias without considering its nostalgia for a version of masculinity best understood as typical of the Arnoldian public school. This misprision is natural, since the Russianized argot and Dionysian “ultra-violence” of Alex the droog do not immediately evoke Tom Brown’s School-days—or any other portrait of the public school boy. Nonetheless, juxtaposing these narratives, which are separated by more than a hundred years, throws important illumination on A Clockwork Orange, and redirects critical attention to the persistence of Arnoldian masculinity in twentieth-century British literature.

“Arnold’s Rugby” achieved such astonishing conceptual closure over elite education that it must be considered a unique chapter in the history of Western culture. Rightly or wrongly, Thomas Arnold is usually credited with four innovations in pedagogical praxis: the introduction of competitive sports, uniform dress, and science in the curriculum, and an emphasis in schools on “moral scrutiny” or “character.” Thomas Hughes emphasizes this last feature, writing in Tom Brown’s School-days, “In no place in the world has individual character more weight than at a public school” (TBS, 151). Whether Rugby School ever existed as portrayed by Hughes, or any of his adherents, or even whether Thomas Arnold would have considered it faithfully Arnoldian is moot. The artistic, intellectual, legislative, commercial, and martial activity of its broad alliance of graduates—the ideal schoolboys of “Arnold’s Rugby”—became an unsurpassed tool by which to produce and measure masculinity and culture, as well as a means to govern their mutuality. This class of public school males succeeded, for generations, in representing its interests as the general interest in Britain and around the world—thus fulfilling a Marxian prescription for political dominance (Marx, 53).

Burgess’s critics might have been more alert to Alex’s matriculation in an Arnoldian program had they considered more carefully Time for a Tiger, the first piece of Burgess’s Malayan trilogy. This novel, about the difficulty of exporting Rugby-like schools to the minions in Britain’s empire, depicts an educator who abandons the Arnoldian ideal, and is absorbed by the exotic country he goes to convert. This might itself have been sufficient to establish that Burgess had an overt interest in public school pedagogy. The hero of A Clockwork Orange, however, is an unequivocal practitioner; even his resistance is characteristic. Indeed, Alex’s remarkable fraternity with the Arnoldian product suggests a complete triumph for the latter’s pedagogy. This similarity holds even for the most optimistic and influential version of the public schoolboy, Tom Brown, whose story “made the modern public school” (Mack & Armytage, 100).

This pairing of Tom and Alex would be unusual if only because Alex seems to be one of the most evil representations of boyhood ever forwarded popularly and Tom—for another era—one of the most virtuous. As Coleridge observed, however, opposites are but farthest apart of the same kind—and, rather than incommensurate, prove to be the two sides of the same coin. Reading Alex and Tom as twins, it does not take long to discover even in Hughes’s happy fantasy of Rugby that his Arnoldian telos of self-control, heterosexual love, moderation, and upright morality is interpenetrated with perversity, pederasty, a fetishization of style, Machiavellian management training, an interest in hand-to-hand combat and blood-letting, and, ultimately, a conviction that adult heterosexual manliness smacks of death.

Forgetting the debt that modern British versions of masculinity owe to...

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