I wonder whether the current nightmare the British are suffering under Boris will get them any closer to the abolition of his ‘Public’ school, and of the rest of them? It certainly ought to. As a result of the inanities of Boris and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and before them of the smooth David Cameron, Eton College has become a laughing stock among the general public, who are beginning to question not only whether it doesn’t give an unfair and undemocratic social advantage to those whose parents can afford to send them there – we’ve always known that – but also whether the academic education it prides itself on is really up to scratch.
Most of it appears to be heavily based on the Greek and Roman ‘classics’, which can test memory but not necessarily intelligence, and which of course can have almost no relevance at all to the present day. (Sorry, Mary Beard!) I’ve written to the guy at Eton who appears to be in charge of ‘History’ there, asking him how much modern history they teach, but without getting a reply. I can’t see any modern history either in Eton’s published syllabus. I can only conclude that History for them stops in around 400 AD; which may help explain Rees-Mogg’s recent book on The Victorians, which the Daily Telegraph reviewer (no less) characterised as a ‘clichéd, lazy history’ that ‘often reads like it was written by a baboon’. (For the range of reviews of this book, nearly all of them awful, see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/19/jacob-rees-mogg-book-the-victorians-12-titans-who-forged-britain.) Boris’s ventures into history are hardly any better.
The ‘great’ Public schools, however, never claimed to be tops at academic education, which generally came very low in their list of priorities. Intellectual pupils – ‘swots’ – were often bullied. Heroes were the ‘sporty’ ones, or ‘jocks’. The schools mainly existed – overtly, anyway – to develop ‘character’, among boys who would grow up to be ‘leaders’, either at home or in the Empire. In the 19th century ‘character’ embraced a number of qualities, including honesty, bravery, selflessness, modesty, and the old feudal principle of noblesse oblige: doing good for those ‘beneath’ them, socially. I always had a sneaking admiration for them historically, and even imperially; at their best (and they weren’t always at their best) they served to rub down the sharp edges of capitalist exploitation in the colonies, and so to preserve the illusion that imperialism was a selfless and humanitarian enterprise. That was one of the major roles of the Public schools then.
But of course it wasn’t to last. The need for noblesse oblige largely disappeared with the fall of the Empire, and as the resurgence of free marketism – the mortal enemy of all the old feudal values – crushed it under Thatcher. (The noblesse were her ‘wets’.) Which left the Public schools without their previous moral and social justifications (if I’m right about these), and relying now only on the husk of ‘prestige’ that they had built up during their golden age, with its real value hollowed out. They became simply hives of privilege, for those whose parents were rich enough to afford them, and who were therefore unlikely to want their sons educated in ‘obliging’ ways that might strike at the sources of their richesse. The schools lost their souls; with Boris being one of the results: privileged, self-regarding, amoral, dishonest and dim.
Eton must bear some responsibility for this. The whole country would benefit enormously from the destruction of this school, and others like it, and of their post-imperial spawn.