"Public Schools 'tis Public Folly Feeds"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Cowper, a descendant of John Donne, was primarily a poet of rural life; he was the last English poet who belonged to the "cult of simplicity." Trained for the law and called to the bar in 1754, he was forced to abandon this career by attacks of insanity; the first of these made it impossible for him to marry the cousin with whom he had fallen in love, and another drove him to attempt suicide. Following his convalescence, he retired to the country and eventually settled at Olney, where he lived with friends in quiet seclusion. He did not begin to write poetry as a serious recreation until he was fifty. His first volume, Poems (1782) was followed in 1785 by his greatest work, The Task. The latter work was written at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen, who had also given him the topic–a sofa. Beginning with this unlikely subject, Cowper allowed the poem to grow into a lengthy description of the countryside in winter, the simple routines and pleasures of the day, and his thoughts and meditations on life and the distant outside world. When The Task was published a few other poems were added to round out the volume, among them his famous humorous poem, John Gilpin's Ride. Another such inclusion was his commentary on the education of boys, Tirocinium. Cowper was deeply religious; his Calvinism both comforted him and entered into his fits of melancholia. It also encouraged him to moralize, and some of his poems are akin to sermons. In Tirocinium he considers the divine origin of man's intellect and the need of spiritual uplift in contemporary schools, where a harmful and worldly training is received instead. Cowper had been a slight and sensitive child who had lost his mother at an early age, and he had been bullied unmercifully in school; now he condemns conditions that lead young men to sneer at simple spiritual truths they have learned as children, and he attacks educational systems which, he feels, breed depravity. He is arguing for private education by a tutor and against education in the great public schools of his day.

Would you your son should be a sot or dunce,
Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once,
That, in good time, the stripling's finish'd taste
For loose expense and fashionable waste,
Should prove your ruin and his own at last;–
Train him in public with a mob of boys,
Childish in mischief only and in noise,
Else of a mannish growth, and five in ten
In infidelity and lewdness, men.
There shall he learn, ere sixteen winters old,
That authors are most useful, pawn'd or sold;
That pedantry is all that schools impart,
But taverns teach the knowledge of the heart;
There waiter Dick with Bacchanalian lays
Shall win his heart, and have his drunken praise,
His counsellor and bosom-friend shall prove,
And some street-pacing harlot his first love.
. . .
Such youths of spirit, and that spirit too,
Ye nurs'ries of our boys, we owe to you!
Though from ourselves the mischief more proceeds,
For public schools 'tis public folly feeds. . . .