A lone campaigner for educational reform

     Public School expert Edward C. Mack said the poet William Cowper was a lone voice in campaigning for reform in eighteenth century English schools1. This may surprise poetry lovers who have not yet discovered Cowper’s writings on education. Cowper’s most neglected long poem Tirocinium or a Review of Schools, for instance, deals in detail with educational reform. Parents thinking of home-schooling their children as a legal alternative might care to consult Cowper who denounced the school system of his day as barbaric and developed ideas of education most acceptable to Christian parents. First a few words about Cowper’s own education.


Christian parents, the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress

     Cowper was born on 31. November 1731 (Old Style) in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. His parents were of noble blood but the poet remembered them more for their Christian testimony rather than their genetic heritage.

     Cowper was taught to read and write at home before starting school at the age of four or five. His first ‘book’ was a sheet of paper with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it, protected by a thin covering of transparent horn. He then progressed to John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Of Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’ Cowper wrote in Tirocinium:


“Ingenious dreamer, in whose well-told tale

Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail;

Whose hum’rous vein, strong sense and simple style,

May teach the gayest, make the gravest smile;

Witty and well-employ’d, and, like thy Lord,

Speaking in parables his slighted word;”


Cowper tells contemporary educators who sneered at the name of Bunyan:


“Revere the man, whose PILGRIM marks the road,

And guides the PROGRESS of the soul to God.”


Life at the local Dame School

     Cowper’s first school was the local Dame School to which the family’s gardener took him daily. When Cowper was only six years of age, his mother died after a difficult birth. Though Cowper’s father wanted to keep his son under his direct care, the local school had run into difficulties, so Dr Cowper boarded his son in a friend’s school in the village of Markyate Street on the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire border. William Pitman, the Headmaster, was a well-known Classical scholar and an Evangelical. Cowper however complained that he merely learnt “to draw in Latin and Greek trammels” with no time to “skip and frisk about”. At Markyate Street, Cowper had a most distressing time which, however, drove him to prayer and an assurance that God was with him. A fifteen-year-old pupil bullied Cowper so mercilessly that he became frightened to look the rogue in the face and could only stare at the buckles of his shoes when confronted with him. One day when Cowper was hiding in an empty classroom, frightened to go outside because the school bully might be waiting for him, a word from the Psalmist came to him, “I will not fear what man can do unto me.” At once the boy’s sorrow left him and he left the classroom in high spirits. “It was His gift”, Cowper later wrote in his Memoirs, “in whom I trusted”. The bullying ceased.


A gentleman boarder at Westminster

     The following year, Cowper developed eye trouble so his father boarded him with a married couple who were oculists and home-school teachers. Cowper was unhappy there as the couple were unbelievers. Aged ten, according to family tradition, Cowper was sent as a Gentleman boarder to Westminster. Supervision was slack and Cowper had time to explore the Thames, read, write poetry and play cricket and football at which he excelled. At Westminster, Cowper caught the smallpox but this, he tells us, turned out for the good as the specks on his eyes disappeared and he could again read without eyestrain. His favourite author became Milton whose Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained thrilled him so much that he could soon quote huge portions off by heart. Cowper with his friend Dick Sutton, also studied Homer’s Greek verse from cover to cover. The only sound teaching Cowper had at Westminster was the preparation for Confirmation which the Headmaster, Dr. Nicholl gave. As a result of this, Cowper started to pray regularly.


More liberty than was good for them

     Discipline was non-existent at Westminster. One day, for instance, teacher Vinnie Bourne had his wig set alight by young Lord March who then boxed Bourne’s ears in his pretended efforts to put out the flames. Cowper was especially fond of Bourne, who was a Latin poet of merit, and he later translated Bourne’s works giving them a Christian turn. Cowper, however, complained that Bourne was slovenly and lazy and made the boys as bad as himself. Chaotic as life at Westminster was, there were days of glory for Cowper. He became House Captain and one of the top three in his final year. His Greek work was passed from form to form by masters for everyone to admire and he received silver coins for his prowess in languages.

     Though fun, games and hours of leisure predominated at Westminster, chiefly through private study, Cowper was able to leave Westminster with a thorough grounding in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Philosophy, Literature, Mathematics, History, Geography and Science. Indeed, Cowper took with him from Westminster a great thirst and capacity for learning which caused him to become one of the best-read men of his day. Cowper, however, always said that he could always express his deepest thoughts in poetry rather than prose. It took Cowper thirty-six years before he decided to publish ‘Tirocinium’ on the shadowy side of public school life.


Cowper’s ‘grown-up’ experience of education

     How Cowper became a lawyer and an author of satirical prose; how he was President of the Thursday Club which attracted radicals such as John Wilkes and artists such as Hogarth; how he had a tragic love affair, became mentally ill and was finally converted are facts available in over fifty biographies. Most lack, however, information concerning Cowper’s continued interest in education. In his letters, he discusses well over seventy contemporary books on educational themes, character building, the reformation of manners and the Christian way of life. He studied all the Ancients on education and found Xenaphon particularly helpful. He studied Rousseau’s educational reforms with a mixture of amusement and disgust, finding his protégé ‘Emil’ nothing put a stuck-up prig. Rousseau’s ignorance of a child’s mind caused Cowper to vent his humorous criticism on the Frenchman’s naivety. Rousseau taught that it was deceitful to tell children fairy tales and stories about talking animals. Cowper asked what child was ever deceived by such stories against the evidence of his senses and responded with his fable Pairing Time Anticipated which starts:


“I shall not ask Jean Jaques Rousseau,

If birds confabulate or no;

‘Tis clear that they were always able

To hold discourse, at least in fable;

And ev’n the child who knows no better,

Than to interpret by the letter,

A story of a cock and bull,

Must have a most uncommon skull.”


     Cowper enjoyed reading literary critic Professor Hugh Blair, and Dr James Beattie, the moralist but he could not accept their evolutionary theory of language. They maintained that early man was speechless but after learning to grunt developed the complicated languages of modern times. Cowper rejected this theory as contrary to observation and Scripture, teaching that the older the languages, the more highly inflected they are and modern languages have devolved from them. Homer, for instance was one of the greatest poets ever, yet later poetry does not reach his greatness. Modern literature is a mere imitated and simplified form of the Ancients and has produced no new genres.2


Cowper’s experience as a home teacher

     Cowper searched for his own ‘Emil’ to teach but as he had no family, the task was difficult. His first attempt failed. In 1764 he found a seven or eight-year-old alcoholic boy, Richard Coleman living with His drunkard father. Cowper rescued the boy and instructed him. Although Cowper looked after Coleman until well into manhood, he remained addicted to alcohol and a host of other malpractices and proved a great burden on Cowper’s patience and pocket. Cowper’s other three protégés were brilliant successes. John Unwin was the son of his close friend William Unwin for whom Cowper wrote ‘Tirocinium’. William became a school governor and home-schooled his own children on Cowper’s methods. Next came Samuel Rose who became a famous lawyer. Cowper’s third ‘Emil’ was John Johnson, a young relative who became a Doctor of Theology and tenderly cared for his tutor in his old age.


Cowper aids Unwin on educating his children

     In September, 1780 Unwin solicited Cowper’s help in educating his son. The poet sent him a series of instructions, the first being:


1. John must master English first.

2. Latin and Greek (i.e. foreign languages) must not be forced on John too soon. Schoolboys of 5-7 can often read and compose Greek lines on Aesop but not write simple English letters.

3. Do not be too hard on the child. Give him time and show him patience with his lessons.

4. Make sure he has plenty of time for play.

5. For the first two years John should be taught reading and writing, mathematics and geography. This should not be passively introduced but via inter-active lessons, learning games, puzzles, map-reading and other visual aids.

6. Latin and Greek may be started on at eight or nine years of age, thus beginning a seven years’ course. Natural sciences should be added including theology, philosophy, physics and astronomy

7. William’s aim should be to prepare John for university entrance at between fifteen and seventeen years of age.


     Cowper’s demands for a systematic teaching of English before foreign languages, lenient discipline, learning by playing, the use of visual aids and instruction according to abilities were new. Teaching arithmetic, science and geography was still a rarity at the time.

     Cowper organised his reforming ideas into verse around 1781. The result was Tirocinium  which Cowper sent to the printer’s along with The Task and John Gilpin. Tirocinium was the word used by the Romans to describe a soldier’s initial training and had come to be used for the training of boys at school.


The aims of education

     Cowper starts his treatise by asserting that English schooling has neither a basis nor a goal. Man has been created by God, the High King of Heaven, as the Earth’s steward, so education must start on this premise and seek to make man worthy and capable of his task. Thus Cowper teaches:


That we are bound to cast the minds of youth

Betimes into the mould of heav’nly truth,

That, taught of God they may indeed be wise,

Nor, ignorantly wand’ring, miss the skies.”


     He argues that as Adam’s fallen offspring are lost to their true calling, education has three goals. To teach the pupil his high calling; to show that he has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and with this his own; and to lead the pupil back to his rejected Lord. Thus the future-orientated task of the school is to see that boys:


……………. learn with wonder how this world began,

Who made, who marr’d, and who has ransom’d man:

Points which, unless the scripture made them plain,

The wisest heads might agitate in vain.


     In other words, schools need a textbook equal to the curriculum’s task and this can only be the Scriptures first and foremost.


Education is wrong which neglects Christian culture

     Cowper claims contemporary schools teach much ‘mythologic stuff’, but little of God’s plan of creation and new-creation. Realising he would face hefty criticism, Cowper explains that he does not condemn information concerning heathen religions, but the neglect of the pupil’s own culture which makes him ignorant of the gospel.


Education is wrong which neglects family life

     School education, Cowper argues, is an artificial substitute for the natural family. Classrooms and dormitories full of boys of the same age is an unnatural social form. They need parental care and loving and experienced examples? Small boys soon learn the pranks and tricks of older adolescents. Thus their aims in life become merely raiding local gardens, taking part in escapades against the town youths, getting drunk and visiting harlots. Thus Cowper asks parents:


“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;?

If so, they should send their boys to a ‘mob’ school!

     Cowper now addresses parents’ negligence in looking after their children. He remarks that upper-class fathers spend hours a day training their horses and dogs, rather than commit them to strangers’ hands. Yet they send their sons off to a badly administered ‘menagery’ to receive a far inferior dressage than their own colts and pups.


Education is wrong which ruins one socially

     Cowper realises that many parents do not send their sons to public schools to gain “small skill in Latin and still less in Greek” but to hob-nob with sons of the right people. Indeed, “The parson knows enough who knows a duke” says Cowper sarcastically. Those were the days when the eldest son inherited land and titles, the rest had to be content with finding a living as a clergyman or take up some administrative office in the growing colonies.

     The spirit of rivalry was said to help boys exercise their fullest potentialities. Cowper claims rather that envy, hatred, jealousy and pride become the dominant factors in competing for honours at school. What use is success to a man when he has ruined his character gaining it? And what about the hurt failures experience on the way?

     Cowper condemns the myth that public schools fit boys out to live a sociable adult life and play their parts in a mixed society. How can one train boys for society by isolating them from it during the transformative years of their lives? He told Unwin in 1780 that public schools make the bold bolder but the shy shyer and it was this argument that convinced Unwin not to send his son John to a public school.


Education must be interesting and useful

     After showing the ‘work to the clock’ deficiencies of most teachers, he argues that most fathers would make better teachers and then their sons would have a “father, and friend, and tutor, all in one” and lessons all the more interesting and useful. Cowper now presents a curriculum for fathers ‘blest with any brains’ which can be used to ‘combat atheists with in modern days’. Sadly, most of today’s fathers have so little education that they cannot coach their children through nature study, science, theology, astronomy, the deeds of ancient times, sport, healthy hobbies, health and cleanliness. Cowper gives tips of how it, nevertheless, might be done.


Learning by imitation and experience

     In his home-school curriculum, Cowper combines the best of the public school activities with his own reforms. British schooling had not changed since the Renaissance where the emphasis was on dead languages and pagan literature. Since the Reformation, however, Christians such as Durie, Hartlib, Comenius, Hervey and Romaine had emphasised the importance of science, history and geography. Cowper, himself, worked diligently with his microscope and specimen box and was a keen botanist. Cowper stresses that science is a handmaid of God and can be used to show God’s glory in creation. He teaches that learning by example, learning by imitation and learning by experiencing are more valuable than learning by rote. Sport should not be left out as exercise of the body is essential for the correct functioning of the heart and head.


Cowper advises parents with little time or ability

     Cowper has hitherto addressed Gentlemen of leisure who lived off their estates and fortunes. He now turns to fathers who have no time or ability to instruct their children. They should seek out private tutors willing to coach one or two boys. This person should be neatly, though plainly dressed. He should be articulate but not a chatter-box, prone to laugh but equally prone to be serious when the occasion demands.  He should be no jester but able to discourse lively with rhetorical skill. He should have the ease of a Frenchman rather than the stiffness of an Englishman. He should be a man of letters and morals and many parts. Cowper only lists one ‘should not’, he should not be patronised and treated as a servant. He should be regarded as the treasure he is and an important member of the family and take part in their family life. Facing the question, ‘Where are such ‘super-tutors’ to be found? Cowper argued that a good man, given the right encouragement, is like a gas – able to fill any form he is put in. He also believed in the law of supply and demand, writing that if schools were abolished, there would be more available home-teachers.


     Cowper now turns to neglecting parents whom he likens to ostriches saying,


“The ostrich, silliest of the feather’d kind,

And form’d of God without a parent’s mind,

Commits her eggs, incautious, to the dust,

Forgetful that the foot may crush the trust;”


     This is the obscene mouthed heavy drinking glutton whose table-talk is all of vice planned or already committed. His card-playing wife goes from one late evening party to another, spending the day in bed. Cowper begs these parents to board their sons out with some trusty clergyman and spare them the double plight of being influenced by their wicked family background and being corrupted in a public school.


     The social group Cowper had most in mind for his educational experiment were the


. . . . tenants of life’s middle state,

Securely placed between the small and great,”.


     He felt the Middle Class were the backbone of England and devotes the next hundred lines to them. Abuses of the public school system are heaped one on another as Cowper factually but very emotionally lays before these parents their Christian duty to their sons. In his final argument he uses the simile of the shepherd and the hireling asking their parents if they would pay good money to a careless hireling to keep their flocks when they know he will spend his time sleeping and let the lambs run away.


Cowper led educational thought in his day

     Few if any have used the same caustic, scathing, critical language against the public school system. John Sargeaunt, the Westminster historian, scoffs at the Christian faith and romanticises the corruption of youth. He accuses Cowper of dishonesty in outlining the educational weaknesses of the public schools but his list of the evils of neglected youth he condoles as boys being boys are far worse than Cowper’s.3.


Applying Cowper’s criticisms to today’s schools

      Nowadays public school curricula have been reformed to include many of the methods Cowper recommended. Today’s Westminster, especially, is a world apart from Cowper’s Westminster. So, what would Cowper think of the largely state owned and controlled educational systems which have supplanted public schools?


Modern reading methods need correcting

     Cowper would harshly condemn the way children are prevented from reading early and correctly in today’s schools. Parents are even scolded for teaching their children to read and write before entering school. Cowper would see this as a further neglect of family life and abuse of family privileges and duties and thus a form of child abuse. He would accuse the schools of adopting an evolutionary approach to language learning, drilling in arbitrary sounds, syllables, morphemes and phonetics instead of teaching words in a sense context. This is an unscientific attempt to substitute grunts for language and thought. For Cowper, the best way to learn to read was the ‘story’ approach, whereby children are confronted with complete sense units such as The Lord’s Prayer or a parable or short Biblical account. Old Lob and Mac and Tosh carried on the ‘story’ method during the early nineteen-forties, but the post-war period went to extremes in experimenting with impractical systems. Happily, the story method is again being introduced into schools throughout Europe. Learning by meaningless sounds, syllables and phonetic fantasies has failed.


Viewing children as empty vessels is wrong

     In Cowper’s day there were many learned autodidacts such as John Newton the great preacher, Thomas Scott the commentator, William Carey the missionary and Professor of languages, Captain Cook the mathematician and explorer, John Gill and John Brine the Baptist leaders. Newton learnt mathematics and Latin by writing in the sand during his slavery. Scott taught himself languages whilst working as a grazier, Carey learnt whilst mending shoes and Cook gained his schooling through practical experience. Modern education rules out such learning completely as pupils are seen as vessels to be filled rather than organisms able to nourish themselves given the right means. Fed with seven or eight lessons a day, children cannot find the muse and leisure for independent thinking and growth. Each child is taught to write in the same way, to read in the same way and to take in the very same facts. Often, only when school ends for the day do they begin to think for themselves. Many are then too exhausted to bother or homework destroys their coming to grasp with what they have learnt. School guidance nowadays means absolute control and the pupil has no liberty in dealing with the curriculum forced on him. He must like it but cannot lump it.


Public education creates pagans

     One day, Cowper discovered a harsh criticism of John Newton in the Monthly Review for modelling his life on the Bible. Cowper wrote at once:


“These critics, who to faith no quarter grant,

But call it mere hypocrisy and cant

To make a just acknowledgment of praise,

And thanks to God for governing our ways,

Approve Confucius more, and Zoroaster,

Than Christ’s own servant, or that servant’s Master.”


     Today, Christian teachers are refused posts because they will not place Christ on a par with Buddha or Mohammed. Science teachers are penalised for comparing creation with speculative evolution. School curricula in many regions cater for Muslims but ignoring the needs of Christians. Children are taught to criticise Christianity but are reprimanded if they show preferences against other religions.


Education should put pupils first and ‘subjects’ second

     Cowper campaigned for a school that put pupils first and ‘subjects’ second. Forming and recreating boys in God’s image was his aim. A balanced syllabus was a necessity. Nowadays lessons are rarely fact orientated. Geography, History, Scripture, Literature, Poetry and Music are disappearing from our curricula and the three Rs are called fossils of the past. A local trade school teaches illiterate adults two and a half years long how to make a multi-media video film by rote, using extremely expensive equipment which they would never see again outside of school, but they are not taught to read and write. The school does not realise that reading and writing are the basic means of acquiring further knowledge and also imparting it. Nowadays many school-leavers cannot fill in job application forms. The more the pupil absorbs information but is denied the means of expressing what he has learnt, the less useful that person will be either to himself or society and he will know nothing of the meaning of life. Even university examinations today use multiple choice questions and each illiterate candidate marks his cross in a box.

     Cowper would still argue that present day education is groundless, aimless and therefore meaningless. Where is the Minister of Education who is prepared to agree to Cowper’s high views of God and man? Where is the educator who is prepared to accept Cowper’s educational aims – the rebirth of a child and his integration back into God’s plan for him? Where is the school syllabus that makes any attempt to define mankind and his purpose in life? Should we not rather consider Cowper’s solutions once more?



  1. Public Schools and British Opinion 1780 – 1860, 1938.
  2. See, for instance, Cowper’s letter to Hayley, June 27, 1792.
  3. See Sargeaunt’s lecture on Cowper given at Westminster on 25th April 1904. Published by ’The Cowper Society’. Also his ‘Annals of Westminster School’, Methuen, 1898.