Public schools (so-called) are getting a pretty poor press today, at least on the political Left, because of their privilege, their socially divisive influence, and products like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg. But it wasn’t always so – or didn’t need to be.
Originally of course the most venerable schools were founded to provide education for poor boys (never girls) – hence the ‘Public’. Later they were taken over by the rich, usually as boarding schools, partly – one suspects – in order to keep their children out of their hair. For a long time this did little for their reputation, with their becoming notorious for bullying and cruelty, usually older boys against younger ones – see Tom Brown’s Schooldays – and occasionally for fighting with militia in the streets. These gave rise to a series of reforms in the early and middle 19th century, which effectively created the Public schools as we would recognise them today: finishing schools for upper-middle class boys with wealthy parents, or – more often – for middle-middle class parents who aspired to entry into the upper-middle class by this means.
That was because of the ‘aristocratic’ patina which attached to these schools, often emphasised by their ancient origins, either genuine or invented, by their antiquated ‘classical’ syllabuses, and by their styles of architecture, modelled on mediaeval or classical castles, mansions or palaces. In an increasingly ‘modern’ and ‘capitalist’ age these might seem to have been curious models to draw on; but there was a reason for it. For Victorian Britain was not uniformly capitalist, even economically, and certainly not in her culture and spirit; and indeed could still be considered ‘feudal’ in many respects. I’ve described her before as a ‘hybrid’ country: part modern, part ancient. The ancients tended to look down on grasping money-makers, with their lowly class origins and their materialism, philistinism and crude regional accents; and to dominate ‘high’ culture especially. Many of the ‘moderns’ shared these prejudices against their own kind, and consequently sought to escape from the stigmas associated with them. With their ill-gotten riches they too built Gothic or Palladian revival mansions for themselves, took up upper-middle class pursuits (like fox-hunting), struggled for ennoblements, and – more to the point here – sent their sons to the prestigious ‘public’ schools. This gave those schools a new lease of life in the second half of the nineteenth century; when they became – together with Oxford and Cambridge Universities – the main seminaries for Britain’s governing elites.
(Incidentally: something very similar can be seen in the private schools and ‘Ivy League’ universities of the USA – I’ve taught at Yale – although without the same degree of influence on the ruling classes there. And in Britain the prestige that the Public schools gained in this way trickled down to the free ‘Grammar’ day-schools, which began aping many of their ways: smart school uniforms, classical studies, ‘houses’, prefects, corporal punishment, rugger, begowned teachers (or ‘masters’), army cadet forces, childish nicknames, and all the rest. I went to one of these. Oh how we envied the echt Public schools! And incidentally: the PS model has even spread to Sweden. I taught a class recently at one of the new independent Internationella Engelska Skolan there. It reminded me of Hogwarts.)
The Public schools should have seemed old-fashioned even in the capitalist nineteenth century; and indeed, not altogether useful to the nation, if all they taught boys was how to memorise a couple of long-dead languages – easy enough if you have a good memory, otherwise the Classics don’t require much intelligence – and to speechify like Cicero. This was in addition to separating them from their families from an early age, and subjecting them to bullies and to various sexual temptations in their ‘dorms’. We know that this experience seared many of them personally. But from the country’s point of view, it worked.
The reason for this was that Victorian Britain didn’t want or need capitalists to govern them; and indeed the money-minded capitalists were not all that keen on governing themselves. Where was the profit in it? Unless, of course, you exploited your governing roles corruptly; which is where another aspect of the ‘Public school ethos’ came in. As well as despising merely mercenary occupations, it set against them another set of values, emphasising the duties which the well-off owed to those ‘beneath’ them, de haut en bas, derived from their feudal class origins, real or invented, and perfectly expressed in the phrase noblesse oblige; which could serve as the whole class’s motto. It was this, and the sense of ‘honour’ (trustworthiness, loyalty, truth, honesty) that came with it, which made Public school boys ideal leader, ruler and governor material; both in Britain – in the Civil Service, for example – but even more in her burgeoning Empire, which required ‘public spirited’ young men to rule it selflessly: more selflessly than the capitalists and settlers who were the only alternative ‘rulers’ on the ground could ever be. For most colonial servants, profiting commercially from their positions was expressly forbidden. They also – and this should be remembered when we want to make generalisations about both this class of men and the empire they ruled over – very often sought to protect their subjects, or wards, from the ‘capitalist imperialists’ who were exploiting them; occasionally successfully. (The capitalists were always complaining about them.) That was the role that the Public schools were supposed to perform in the 19th and for much of the 20th centuries; ideally, that is, for there were always of course a few exceptions. It wasn’t an ignoble role, and could be said to have justified – in part – the existence of the Public schools at that time.
However, when the Empire declined and fell, this particular job opportunity came to an end; with the result that the noblesse oblige and anti-capitalist ethoses (ethoi?) of the Public schools were rendered obsolete. The schools still supplied a disproportionate number of the British ‘establishment’ in public life, and of students at the ancient universities; but no more prime ministers, for example, between Home and Cameron. Most people during those years assumed that their day was done, and that the country had finally passed into the hands of State school boys (and girls); reflecting the new and more modern social composition of the country generally. No-one paid much attention to the surviving Etons and Winchesters of the 20th and 21st centuries; until the early 2010s, when the corpse unexpectedly broke out of its tomb.
Except that it wasn’t any longer the same creature. By 2010 the Public schools had transformed themselves, in line with the evolution of the British upper class generally, into a gilded institution for people who could afford to go there (many of them equally privileged foreigners); which now generally meant the nouveau riche rather than the noblesse. Which might have been acceptable if the schools had preserved at least some of the ‘ethos’ that had distinguished them in former years: honesty, trustworthiness, sympathy, ‘character’ and all the rest of what had been reckoned to make a ‘gentleman’ in earlier days; and, perhaps, had taught some Keynes (or even Marx) instead of – or at least in addition to – Cicero. By the 1900s, however, these admirable values appear to have been sucked out of the schools, leaving only the husk of ‘privilege’ to recommend them; together of course with the ‘connections’ they provided with ‘old boys’, who were established in high positions already.
Shorn of the old ethos, the Public schools had very little going for them that could be said to particularly fit them for the task of government in the 21st century. Their schooling stood their pupils apart from 99% of the people they were called upon to govern, in a way that previous Public schoolboys – those for example who had fought in wars: Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan – had managed to avoid. Judging by the current crop of them, especially the buffoons Johnson and Rees Mogg, their education did not compensate for this by teaching them to think seriously, or even at all. Simon Kuper’s new book Chums. How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK (Profile, 2022) – an essential read for anyone wanting to understand the inanities of our recent and present political leaders – blames it on the culture they imbibed at the Oxford Union, especially its amoralism and superficiality; with (supposed) wit and ‘winging it’ always trumping wisdom and hard work. But it was at Eton that Boris and Jacob first forged their personae.
Personally, I recognise a great deal of this from when I was at Cambridge in the 1960s: enough to convince me of the biting accuracy of Kuper’s account. But then we ‘Grammar school oiks’ found it pretty easy to avoid them there. I only wish the country had also managed to.