The Old School Tie: The Phenomenon of the English Public School
I once visited the remains of the camp at Auschwitz with a party of British journalists. Afterward we continued our journey in total silence. Our Polish guide, also speechless, passed around a bottle of Georgian cognac as the car droned on across that greenish-gray Silesian plain. Some twenty minutes went by. Then one of us stretched his arms, like a man wakening from an uncomfortable dream, and drawled: “I was never so glad to leave anywhere since I left my public school.”
This remark tells nothing about Auschwitz, but it has always seemed to me to say a very great deal about the public schools of England and their products. Even if we allow for the wild hyperbole, it’s significant that the public schools can evoke in the mind of an expupil other places of confinement and forcible indoctrination supported by the sanction of inflicting physical pain. The remark also reveals that easy arrogance of spirit which instinctively brushes off any intense emotion or any attempt to make an impression undertaken by people who are not “our sort.” It also, of course, belittles the agony of alien human beings, in order to keep cold air out of a sealed, comfortably heated room.
The history of the public schools is the history of English continuity (Scotland, Wales, the Irish dominions came in the last century to be the sites of a few public schools, but they remained mere outstations of another culture). It is the history of how rising social classes were absorbed not without effort, into the mores and the general outlook of much older ruling groups with quite different forms of property; in other words, of how the son of a self-made cotton manufacturer from Victorian Lancashire could take on his father’s business while possessing the mental furniture of a landed aristocrat. It is a great part of the reason why England never underwent a proper bourgeois revolution (given that the events of 1688-1689 were not comparable to the revolts of the new industrial bourgeoisie against the old regimes in the rest of Europe, which began a hundred years later). To some writers, like Correlli Barnett, the English public schools and their monopoly of educating the elite are the main reason for the decline of the British state in our own times.
English education began in a normal European pattern. The Church selected clever boys and taught them, to ensure its own future generations of scribes and priests. In the later Middle Ages, some of the rich and the Crown itself began to found schools. These had some charitable motive, in that the “scholars” were required to be poor. But, especially in the case of royal foundations like Eton (1440), there was also the intention to rear up an embryonic central bureaucracy, a corps of educated royal servants on whom the king could rely in his struggles against the centrifugal challenges of his barons. The fact that the seventy scholars at Eton had to be “poor” was …
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