Small beer;Leading Article;Opinion

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Would you your son should be a sot or dunce, Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once; Train him in public with a mob of boys ...

There shall he learn, ere sixteen winters old ...

That pedantry is all that schools impart But taverns teach the knowledge of the heart.

William Cowper, Tirocinium (1785)

The news that one in seven sixth-formers in public schools drinks the equivalent of 14 pints of beer a week may alarm teetotallers, but will hardly shock social and educational historians. Before the 19th-century reforms of Thomas Arnold and the growth of organised games, public schools were seen by Henry Fielding, and many others, as "nurseries of all vice and immorality".

It is harder to be sanguine about the statistics on drug-taking generated by the same survey - around one in ten public-school pupils is said to use drugs regularly. Nevertheless, by comparison with some of their forebears, the "young gentlemen" of today seem positively sober.

There are many aspects of modern life that are worse than before: traffic jams, increased crime and the absence of really good fish-and-chip shops. But we should save our moral panics for the most deserving causes.

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