Monday, 1 November 2010

The happiest days?

English public schools exploit the myth and legend of the never ending cricket match, the halcyon days of youth. Hearty types in cricket whites, fair play, sportsmanship, the gentlemen's code and the happiest days of their lives. The schools that build the Empire and provided most of the prime ministers – Eton top (naturally) on nineteen.

David Cameron, whilst being at pains to apologise for 'indiscretions' (smoking pot), is always ready to praise his alma mater. Even at the turn of the last century sensitive poetic types like Rupert Brooke reminisced with pleasure, 'I had been happier at Rugby than I can find words to say. As I looked back at five years, I seemed to see every hour golden and radiant, and always increasing in beauty... I could not (and cannot) hope for or even imagine such happiness elsewhere'.

For many public school boys the house master became a substitute father and they continued to consult them about finding a job or getting married. The Old Boys associations provided a social link and some of them continued through Oxford or Cambridge with same circle of old school friends. The influence of the 'old school tie' then assisted them in choice of career.

From the nineteenth century onwards there has been a clear division in the perception of public schools, for high culture they represented conformism, philistinism, an out-dated curriculum and authoritarianism. Yet within popular culture a different world was reflected – 'Boy's Own', 'The Gem', 'Magnet' and 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. As George Orwell commented, 'Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever'.

Public schools have their own rituals, codes and and language. In 1961 the sociologist Erving Goffman described how 'Total Societies' – prisons, mental hospitals, concentration camps, monasteries and British public schools – provided for the needs of their inhabitants within isolated communities. The authority of the institution enforcing acceptance and conformity.

Since the 1970s the numbers of boarders at public schools has declined, but most of the 'top' ones are either exclusively or mainly boarding – Eton and Harrow full board; Tonbridge 440 boarders, 330 day pupils; Oundle 840 boarders, 240 day pupils.

The effect of boarding schools? For many public school children the emotional clock stopped and remained fixed. Cyril Connolly in the 'Enemies of Promise' (1938) described this phenomenon as 'permanent adolescence' – 'the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools their glories, their disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development... growing up seems a hurdle which most of us are unable to take.'

There's an interesting book by Nick Duffell, 'The Making of Them' which analyses how children survive in boarding schools. There is the humiliation and 'initiation ceremonies' for the new recruits, the aim to break the child and forge a new 'total identity'. He describes how boarding school children are wracked by guilt – why was I sent away? They construct a 'Strategic Survival Personality' or a false self as a coping mechanism. Others use cognitive dissonance where trauma or desperate unhappiness is placed at the edge of their personality or consciousness. The Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn is quoted, 'Childhood ended when I was sent to boarding school aged five... those early years bred in me a feeling of isolation and independence that has never left me. It caused me to retreat to the desert island on oneself where one could be oneself.'

It is true that from the 1970s onwards public schools were forced to abandon some of the most objectionable practices – boys beating boys, fagging, Spartan conditions in dormitories and some converted to become co-educational, although Eton, Harrow and Rodean remained single sex.

However, the main elements of the public school system remain – the petty rules and regulations, the stifling conformism, the snobbery, the elitism and the complete social apartheid. But they don't produce rebels just individualists or nihilists.

The happiest days? If you are born and raised in a prison or a cloistered environment you will never know any different. Public schools are now a gilded cage, the best of facilities, the best of opportunities, but they still don't equip their pupils for life in the real world. Can they empathise with or understand unemployment, homelessness or poverty?

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