Gentlemanly Power: British Leadership and the Public School System
When I left an English public school, I wanted to like every person I met and find the good in every place which harbored me. Exclusiveness seemed to have been the trouble. My first private boarding-school, where I went at the age of eight, was actually separated from the village school by a towering wall with a chicken-wire battlement; over it came only blind-launched missiles of the country limestone and impotent cries of hate in an accent we could not understand. On the eve of the 1945 general election, one of our masters told a group of us that a Socialist victory would immediately bring workmen round to knock the wall down, and submerge us beneath the strange children with stone weapons who would come screaming through the breach. At first I believed this. Later, at a public school proper, that wall of exclusion came to seem the decisive enemy; in reading, I escaped to the primitive equalities of barbarian Europe, and dreaded the long lessons on the Glorious Revolution, or the eighteenth century, in which every decade seemed to lay another course of stones between classes of men.
Liking everybody, organizing a conspiracy to like and know where one was encouraged to withdraw and avoid, seemed to be a genuine way of revolt. Gradually, doubts crept in. There was a corporal from Glasgow who listened to a colleague boasting about his women and said with contempt: “He’s like Jeesuz, he loves evrabody!” Then there were friends who had escaped public school education, and whose mental energies went into the rebellion against tolerance and into the building of new ramparts of exclusiveness to protect what they did find tolerable. Incredulously, one was brought to realize that uncritical tolerance was itself a public-school reaction, an invisible wall lying beyond the palpable wall of custom whose very function seemed to be to keep rebellion against the system within harmless limits.
Mr. Wilkinson is not interested in the private school system and its relation to political power is both a sharp analysis of the schools themselves since the Arnold reforms in the middle of the last century, and a less sharp attempt at a comparative study. As a survivor himself, he knows how hard it is to escape the deceptively mild and vague views of the world which are put forward there. “A political system which maintains order by ethical restraints rather than by law has certain tendencies…to become totalitarian.” He knows too, I think, the inclination of resentful victims to mutter on eternally about the topic, as if the public schools cast their Perpendicular shadow across the entire nation. This exaggerating is the rattle of the slave’s chain. The public school myth thrives upon it, and perhaps the main value of Mr. Wilkinson’s comparisons to Japanese, Jesuit, and Confucian methods of educating a governing elite is that they deliberately punch a hole in the precious notion that the British apparatus is “unique.”
Mr. Wilkinson is not interested in the medieval foundations of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.