Post-Colonial Eton

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.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Post-Colonial Eton

  1. mickc says:

    Rather late to this, but it is interesting that you pick Eton and “Public Schools” in general as being the worm in the UK apple.
    Surely the common thread is not the school, but the Universities. Our rulers, elected or appointed, are overwhelmingly the products of Oxbridge; the results they have achieved are far from impressive. Cameron, May and Johnson are all Oxford products, as was Blair. The only intellectual skill apparent in them was that of self promotion, together with supreme self confidence.
    Probably it is Oxbridge which should be abolished, or sold to the Chinese; they already seem to own most of the Public Schools.

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    • I was at Cambridge for 8 years, the last two of them as a ‘Fellow’; a post I eventually resigned in protest against my college’s admissions policy, which deliberately favoured Public school boys. So I can identify with what you write. (I’ve written about some of my experiences there in this blog.) On the other hand the Public school boys, and especially the Etonians, made up a sub-community of their own there, self-defining themselves against the rest of us; who could avoid it and their culture. Outside the ‘Pitt Club’ (Cambridge’s equivalent of the Bullingdon, I guess) there was a mix of cultures, including more democratic and radical ones; and including, for example, Communists. If you took the Etonians out of Oxford and Cambridge they would be more reasonable places.

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  2. John Evans says:

    Bernard,
    It is always dangerous to ascribe one overriding element as the most important ingredient in a mix of socio-economic causes of the ability of the Tory party to re-generate over generations – but, in this case, it might well be correct, since the corrosive sense of entitlement that is bred in the minds of the inhabitants of these institutions is hard to ignore. The important thing to do is to follow through the corrosion from schools into the city, the armed forces, business and of course politics…when you see that corrosive strand seeping through all these places, you realise what a terrible state the UK is….
    We should also consider whether the same corrosive thread runs through US, French, German societies…many French people might say that the products of the grands ecoles behave and develop in the same way?
    As we share the same provenance…..and which still inhabits my nightmares – you know of whom I talk – we should reflect how we have behaved in our attempts to break free?

    Liked by 1 person

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