The scholemaster or plaine and perfite way of teaching children to vnderstand, write, and speake, the Latin tong
In his preface to The Scholemaster, Roger Ascham recounts a dinner at Windsor Castle in 1563 in the chamber of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary, with members of the Privy Council and other distinguished guests. Mention of the news of students running away from Eton for fear of being beaten turned the conversation to the proper way to teach children. Sir Richard Sackville, who was quiet over dinner, later approached Ascham, continued the discussion, and asked him to “put in some order of writing, the chiefe pointes of this our taulke, concerning, the right order of teachinge, and honestie of liuing, for the good bringing vp of children & yong men.”
Ascham was singularly qualified to write on the subject. Widely known to be an excellent instructor at St. John’s College, he left Cambridge in 1548 to become the private tutor of fifteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth. Her tutor, a close friend and former student of Ascham, had died of the plague and Elizabeth insisted on him as a replacement. Elizabeth was an outstanding student, providing Ascham the opportunity to refine further his methods for teaching Latin and Greek. Although circumstances allowed Ascham to serve as the royal tutor for only two years, he later became the Queen’s Latin Secretary and continued to read with Queen on many occasions until his death in 1568.
Ascham offers, “In writing this booke, I have had earnest respecte to three speciall points, trothe of Religion, honesty in liuing, and right order in learning.” The first part of the book sets outs the fundamental principles of education, which is to include moral training so that the scholar is brought up “to serve God & their country, both by vertue and wisedome.” Through “gentle allurementes” the wise instructor is to draw the student into love of study, as is touchingly illustrated in a short passage about Lady Jane Grey.
In the never-quite-finished second book, Ascham compares teaching methods. His preference for beginning students is double translation: the scholar starts with a passage in Latin, translates it into English, and at later time, translates it back into Latin; for the more learned student, imitatio—composition in the style of well-chosen classics. This leads to a groundbreaking discussion in English of literary theory and literary criticism. Ascham expounds upon the strengths and weaknesses of classical authors, classical versus contemporary drama, and the (lack of) need for rhyme in poetry.
The Scholemaster found attentive readers in its day, and the book has lasting value as a resource on Renaissance educational theory and practices. The book was published posthumously in 1570 and reprinted four times by 1589. The present copy is a third edition and the last published by John Day.