Cowper's Tirocinium

Category: Education | Type: Historical | Title: Mansfield Park (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter XLV

An affecting quotation to describe her anticipation of returning home after seven years. The line comes from "Tirocinium, Or a Review of Schools" (Latin tirocinium means rawness or lack of experience in a body of recruits), a poem of some 920 lines published in 1784 and attacking the practice of sending boys to "public" boarding schools such as Westminster, which Cowper attended. Far from improving a boy, he maintains that large schools "corrupted," or as the novelist Henry Fielding said, the great public schools are "the nurseries of all vice and immorality." So violent and uncontrollable were the 18th-c. public schools that Eton was not the only one to which the militia had to be sent to recapture the school from rebellious students. 

Cowper maintains that the experience of being away from one's parents also denied a boy "Parental confidence and companionship." Nor, Cowper argues, did these revered schools educate well. The course of study was drearily and he believes mistakenly limited to a classic curriculum of Latin, translation, and memorization. The matter and the manner were inadequate to modern life; the curriculum should include for instance "the study of nature." He urged for the "middle ranks" a tutorial education at home instead of the presumed character-building, brutal and sometimes sadistic, that the public schools fostered.

The philosopher John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) helped spur what was to become throughout the 18th c., spurred by the emerging theories of psychologists and philosophers, a growing national debate over education. This became quite clamorous by the time of MP. Abstract theory was complemented and sharpened by the beginnings of secular autobiography in which people such as J.-J. Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, and Cowper reflected upon their childhoods. During Austen's life new, unconventional pedagogies such as Bell's Madras system and Lancaster's Monitorial systems surfaced to compete with traditional methods of teaching. The monitorial system employed under supervision bright, more advanced students to teach the others. This enabled schools to become cheaper and more efficient. They expanded to include more pupils, especially those who could not afford a conventional school. (Jeremy Bentham and James Mill employed something of this in having the brilliant John Stuart Mill teach his younger siblings.) The expansion of education and its increasing emphasis on mathematics and science were critical to the industrial revolution's opportunities for inventors, entrepreneurs, and the so-called "rule-of-thumb" men and challenged the more traditional humanistic education. the emerging theories of psychologists and moral philosophers, including Bentham. The debate continued throughout the 19th c. and involved luminaries such as John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Henry Huxley. The long debate crested with the Education Act of 1870.  

Cowper's explicit subject, the illustrious public school, is still very much alive two centuries later in the 1968 movie If, which takes place at one of the great public schools and ends.... The title is that of a Rudyard Kipling poem that describes the transition from sonhood to manhood and extols the resolve, decency, and manliness the public schools (see the earlier novel by Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays) supposedly inculcated:

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

On the subject of movies and the public schools, the 1984 film Another Country argues that the elite public school was also the breeding-ground for a number of upper-class British Cold War traitors. Hating the schools as bastions of the English ruling class and as offering a mix of privilege, humiliation, sadism, and homoeroticism, some of the boys turned on the country, specifically upon the Establishment. 

return to text