The Public School System and English quality of life

The system in the boarding schools (or ‘public schools’ as they are confusingly called) was based on a very old English idea—that children should be separated from their parents and sent away to learn independence.

In the 1300’s the English nobles used to send their s boys, at the age of 9 or 10, to some remote relation’s home, where they acted as pages and performed minor services for the adults around them. After several years of this they came back. In general, children in the Middle Ages had a very hard time; in the whole literature there is very little about them, and even in sculpture and painting there are few portraits. This attitude of indifference to children went on right into the 20th century.

Under the British public school system, boys were sent is at the age of 14 to an expensive boarding school, and did not see their parents during term-time, sometimes two or three months. At the school a junior was the personal servant of a senior; games was one of the main activities, with the stress on ‘team games’—soccer, cricket, rugby. After the first year, the boy would be released from personal service, though he would still have to follow any casual orders of the seniors. By the fourth year, he would be a senior himself, with a persona servant from among the first-year boys.

The experiences were often extremely harsh; in many schools the system was run mainly by the senior boys, and intellectual or artistically-inclined boys often suffered from the prejudice against them which a games-orientated system was bound to produce. There was a strictly followed convention against complaining to the masters; so in some schools at certain eras there was a ruthless tyranny exercised by muscular but ignorant seniors.

However, it has been argued that the experience was a valuable one for life. It meant experiencing

(1) what it is like to be a slave under a tyranny,

(2) how to be a ‘middle citizen’ with a certain standing but no is ultimate rights, (3) and finally (as has been said acidly) to become a tyrant oneself. Then after school one moves out into the world of Britain where there is no longer any tyranny; but one knows what a tyranny is like, and this is a valuable and necessary experience in taking part in a democracy.

It is true that many British boys (and girls, because the system was often applied to them, though not on such a wide scale) do get an ability to control their feelings and an ability to endure patiently. However terrible the first school year might be, it must pass; and there is a gradually increasing freedom. British administrators are extremely patient, and often with a keen sense of justice and appreciation of the situation of the unprivileged. This they learnt at school. I have sometimes seen a British administrator confronted with someone whom he dislikes; hardly ever does the administrator use his position to vent his dislike. In fact in many cases the administrator is so determined not to be biased against a man whom he dislikes that he actually urges decisions favourable to that man. This has reminded me of a Japanese Judo referee where his own deshi come up to take part; I have seen a referee so determined not to appear biased that he was over-strict and was biased against them.

Early in life public school boys learn something about power. Nearly everyone, when first in a position of authority, is either too strict or too weak. To be in authority at school gives young person’s experience and observation of both these extremes—in their own mistakes and in the mistakes of others. But those mistakes at school do not affect the rest of life; once school is behind it is all cancelled, and one starts again. Whereas if one’s first experience of authority is in one’s Company and one makes a bad mistake, the memory of that mistake, and the bad reputation which it causes, stay with one for the rest of life.

It is sometimes noticeable that in business or politics or in a sports club or in the army the ex-public- schoolboys have an advantage when exercising authority,

because for them it is not the first time. In conversations and debates, they tend to be more moderate and far-seeing in their views, less inclined to take a very strong or very weak attitude. This is because they are not excited by possessing authority. Whereas often a young man who is exercising authority for the first time in his life, becomes excited by it. Then he uses it quite unnecessarily: perhaps he is elated at giving orders and finding that others will obey them. On the other hand, he may be frightened, and reluctant to use it at all, whereas the public school experience makes even a timid man realize that sometimes he must use authority.

This calmness and moderation were great achievements for the public school system. But it was at a cost.  Bertrand Russell (who was never at a public school) once wrote: “The disadvantage of the system was that it sacrificed intellect to virtue.” There is a good deal of truth in the remark of Russell. The mania for compulsory games, the rigid discipline enforced by harsh corporal punishment, often administered by the senior boys, sometimes made the transmission of knowledge and training of the intellect fade into the background. The boys were to acquire courage, loyalty, and leadership; also personal modesty and self-control. But not much culture or learning.

Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby School, in the first half of the nineteenth century, is generally regarded as the founder of the ‘public school spirit’. He broke down the distrust and animosity that had previously existed between boys and masters. He invariably believed what a boy told him, so that in the end it became ‘bad form’ or ‘unsporting’ to tell the Doctor a lie.

The Doctor himself was not anti-intellectual, but the system gradually became so in many schools.

It also became anti-emotional. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was more and more regarded as inappropriate for gentlemen to weep in public, or even to get excited in any way. In the early 1800’s public heroes like Nelson and even the ‘Iron Duke’ Wellington had cried in public. Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, used to sob passionately when reading his is poems in public, and he expected his audience to do likewise. Sir Harold Nicholson, the veteran diplomat and author, wrote that he himself saw such men as Churchill and Lord Curzon cry—quietly but very hard. Yet, as he said, the idea became established that to display emotion was a feminine, or a foreign, thing to do. Expression of feeling was more and more disciplined.

Japanese poems, when skilfully translated, are much appreciated by British people. But I never quote poems where a man weeps—for instance some Manydshu verses. In Homer’s great epic poems even warriors weep, but the convention today is that men should not weep, and British people now think such passages ‘out of character’.

A serious defect in the public school system was that it standardized not only control of the emotions, but trivialities like accent and clothes. There was a definite gradation of accent, by which a man’s social class could be determined. Part of it was control of the voice—to shout or even laugh loudly was not good.  But the main part was the pronunciation of the English vowels; it is very difficult to imitate the ‘good- class’ pronunciation of them. They are not pure vowels, and are quite unlike anything in Europe. The English have a very sensitive ear for them, and to fail to pronounce them correctly could mean social failure. The regional accents in Britain mostly vary the vowels, and so came to be regarded as socially inferior. The correct accent used to be called the Oxford accent; it was far removed from the London Cockney accent, which was socially the most inferior of all. In other countries regional accents have no particular significance—it is true that in Japan a strong Tohoku accent, or in Germany a strong Bavarian accent, might be faintly comic, just as in Britain a  Yorkshire accent is associated with stage clowns. But in Japan or Germany there is no social prejudice against a man for having such an accent.

In Britain there was until quite recently a prejudice against any accent that was not quite standard Oxford accent; there was only the possible exception of a good Edinburgh accent, which also was regarded as good- class. The correct Oxford accent could not be learnt except when young, at a public school. There the boys used to laugh at any provincial accent until the possessor of that accent corrected it. The public school men recognize each other not by the so-called ‘Old-school tie’, but by the ‘Old-school accent’. Anyone can buy and wear a public school tie, but they cannot buy the subtle accent.

Very often there is a marked difference in English accent between a father and son, where the father did not go to a public school but made money and sent his son to one. The father is often unconscious that his accent is in any way unusual, but the son is aware of it; sometimes if the accent is strong the son is a little embarrassed at introducing his father to his friends.

The very old aristocracy and country gentry did not necessarily have the quiet and reticent behaviour which is the public school hallmark. When I was a boy one could still occasionally hear in a fashionable restaurant very loud voices, talking personal details, with total disregard for the convenience of neighbouring tables. These voices belonged to members of the very old aristocratic families—and they were characterized by arrogance and rudeness to all whom they regarded as of less social standing. This phenomenon is rare now, though there are still a few examples of it, mostly in old families in the country. The public school hallmark is self-control, reticence, understatement, and a calm reflective manner; no boasting, but a deep self-assurance underneath it all. Critics say that this manner often conceals stupidity; its defenders say that it is better that stupidity should be covered with a mask of good behaviour than that it should proclaim itself by indiscriminate expression.

It was said of King Edward VII: “Any lack of matter in His Majesty’s remarks was more than compensated for by the courtesy with which they were invariably uttered.” In other words, the King was constantly saying irrelevant and stupid things, but his gracious manner did something to alleviate the boredom of his listeners.

There is no doubt that the public school system gives certain calmness. It is quite noticeable when there is a debate on the television between a man who has been to a public school and someone else, that the public school man is often able to remain more calm, and to that extent keeps an advantage. It is true that this does not necessarily win him the debate, because the polished surface may look somehow less sincere than an excited and less coherent opponent. I am not speaking of education: often the excited man is in fact better informed than his public school opponent—but he sometimes is unable to present his arguments so clearly, just because he is agitated.

The public school system did give an ability to remain unruffled fat any rate externally) in the face of insults and even threats and actual violence. A boy was exposed at school to cruelty out of proportion to anything that he would be obliged to endure as an adult. A boy who forgot to bring a book could be whipped by a senior boy with a cane quite severely. Such experiences made a man later on more able to face cruelty if it was inevitable, as he had been through it once.

It has been argued on the other side that this doctrine of self-control and reticence may lead to insensitiveness. The poet Southey thought that the emphasis on athletics at the expense of learning was disastrous: “I am no friend of the public school system. It may be beneficial to one, but is ruinous to twenty others.”

Many others have pointed out that the conformist principles of the public schools, though helping to control outbursts of temper and so on, also tended to restrain exceptional accomplishment. For instance, in conversation, it was thought to be vulgar to allow any strong manifestation of feeling to appear, but almost equally inappropriate to display brilliance of wit or intellect. A great condemnation of a man was that he is ‘too clever’. Politicians know this, and have to be careful to conceal brilliance, because they know that many British people believe that too much cleverness is liable to be associated with a tricky or unreliable character. Churchill’s brilliance as a historian and writer  was no help to him in politics—in the 1930’s he was kept ‘in the wilderness’ as he puts it, almost without friends in the political world. In the 1950’s and 1960’s R.A. Butler, a brilliant, balanced and able politician of outstanding integrity, was somehow kept from becoming Prime Minister. As was bitterly said, “Butler was the best Prime Minister we never had.” The way Britain has wasted many of its outstanding public men is startling, and many people have traced the national distrust of outstanding talent back to the is public school ethos.

The public school manner of course has its own subdivisions. There are experts who claim to be able to recognize a man’s public school from his manner— one such expert gives as examples:the

sleek insouciance of Eton,
the eager courtesy of Winchester,
the affable casual manner of Charterhouse,
the slick urbanity of Harrow.

Winston Churchill was at Harrow; no one would have called him slick or even very urbane. But it may be that in the past there has been a distinctive ‘atmosphere’ at such schools; boys are great imitators, and few outstanding personalities can set a fashion for hundreds of followers.

As for the ‘sleek insouciance’ of Eton, Guy Burgess, the minor Foreign Office man who defected to Russia, was at Eton, and he certainly showed both these characteristics. He was also a spy and a traitor, as were Maclean and Philby, who were his associates and protectors. They were all public school men who were supposed to be gentlemen in the fullest sense of the word. And they were all consistently traitors to their country for a long time. Probably this case has done more to dissolve the image of the public school superiority in character than any other incident of recent years. It had been always held that public school men, however stupid they might be, were at any rate absolutely reliable. The case of these three men showed that this was not so. Of course they were only three, out of many thousands who have been model citizens in positions of high responsibility, but the publicity which the affair received has made a big change in the public’s attitude towards public school men.

The famous film producer Sir Alexander Korda, who came from Hungary to Britain, had a notice on the wall behind his desk: “It is not enough to be Hungarian; one must also do some work.” In the same way the public school men now have a notice concealed in their hearts: “It is not enough to have been to a public school; one must also produce results.”

The isolation of the boys in public schools meant that there was Puritanism towards sex, and in general English boys were much later in their first sexual experiences than those of most continental countries. But of course the strong currents of sex could not be completely channelled into games, as had been the hope of the founders of the public school system. It is a fact that public school boys knew many more of the obscene rhymes called ‘Limericks’ than boys who had not been to a boarding school. We are today witnessing a reaction against the formal Puritanism which was inculcated so vigorously in the public schools in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The reaction is taking varied forms, but the significant one is the rejection of the former ‘public school accent’. In a recent study of the accents of boys at Eton, it was found that some of them were deliberately cultivating a Cockney accent or a Liverpool accent (in imitation of The Beatles). We can realize how far this has gone when we see films of the Battle of Britain pilots of almost forty years ago; their public school voices and accents now seem somehow affected and unnatural.

© Trevor Leggett 1976


1.Ways in which British people think and act

2.My Husband and I

3.The Public School System

4.The Gentleman Ideal

5.The Ideal of Balance

6.Looking Back Over Victorian Times

7.The Post-Beatles Generation

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