The Public School in the Progressive Imagination…

Imperial Britain was, in a sense, a bully. It strode around the world as a bully strides around a school: pushing about the weaker, less developed nations. It could be brutal, and contemptuous, and it was not above stealing lunch money and presents from home. Yet it was not a mere thug for in a public school at least a bully often saw himself as having a somewhat higher function: to maintain discipline and impose standards on the young. Thus, the British Empire sought to spread, with both violent and verbal means of persuasion, social, cultural and economic norms that it believed could raise its subjects to a higher level of sophistication. It was not among the cruellest bullies – like the Belgians in the Congo, or the Japanese in China – and its role could even be described as approaching mentorship in some of its colonies at some of its stages, but a bully it was, as an imperial power must be.

The end came, with rebellion and recrimination. Like bullies before and since, the British Empire lost its power, as its officer class and their would-be successors suffered devastation on the battlefields of France in World War One, and its prestige, as knock-kneed, moustachioed British officers surrendered to the Japanese in World War Two. Unconscious to their decline, the imperialists had sunk into a sort of arrogant complacence that was exposed by their Oriential embarrassment. One-time subjects, growing powerful and ambitious, demanded their independence and the British had to accept. They had lost their ability to command respect.

The importance of the public school for the British Empire extended, of course, beyond the metaphorical. It was the breeding ground for the officer class. It was also the incubator of the progressivism that would help to immerse Britain in self-doubt and introspection. Romantics and revolutionaries reacted, to some extent, against their oppressive upbringing in public schools.

These could be harsh instititions. Bullying and corporal punishment did not merely to amount to an occasional wedgie or a clip around the ears but concerted and sustained physical and verbal abuse. At Eton, for example, it was common to flog the boys for what were often fairly minor indiscretions. The oddity of this can be discerned from the example not of a student who lamented their treatment but of one who liked it: Swinburne, the poet, whose flogging inspired the fanatical flagellomania of his adultood. Others felt a more natural resentment.

One can trace this back to Shelley. The young poet – wide-eyed, raw-nerved – was said by a friend from Eton to have suffered “many a cruel torture” at the hands and feet of public school bullies. He would, David Perkins wrote, in a book on the English romantics, go on to “identify the bullying he experienced with other forms of hatred and tyranny, and see himself even in school as its victim and dedicated foe”. Stabbing a classmate was allegedly his first act of resistance and his revolutionary pamphlets drew on this outrage.

Throughout British culture in the generations that followed, disaffected public schoolboys saw in their memories of thuggish prefects, overbearing teachers and autocratic headmasters a reflection of the stuffy, joyless, oppressive, heirarchical structure of society as they saw it. Their adolescent rebellion could be extended into adulthood. Arthur Coleridge, in his reflections on his Eton boyhood, wrote that the headmaster, Edward Hawtrey, warned his students that bullying could “excite in the minds of boys beneath you bitterness towards yourselves, which may, in spite of better feelings, sometimes recalled in after-life”. Or their later lives.

Many young, sensitive students nurtured their rebellious spirits throughout years of public school abuse. Lytton Strachey, historian, influential member of the Bloomsbury Group and author of the snide, irreverent Eminent Victorians, eventually rose to become a school prefect at Leamington College but always remembered the “vile brutality” he had endured at the hands of bullies. Anthony Blunt, later to become a Cambridge spy, was tormented by the men he want on to betray.

I have no wish to overstate my thesis on this point. There were young idealists who enjoyed their schooling and, moreover, there were conservatives who despised it. Lord Robert Cecil was, according to his biographer, “bullied from morning to night”, which “profoundly influenced [his] outlook on life”, making him pessimistic and distrustful. Yet what is significant is that the image of the tyrannical boarding school became an important part of the progressive mythos. George Orwell condemned his old school St Cyprians in “Such, Such Were the Joys” with, it is claimed, startling overstatement. WH Auden had a happy time at Gresham’s yet went on to claim that he understood fascism because in school he had “lived in a fascist state”. Julian Mitchell’s play “Another Country” depicted a character representing Guy Burgess, another Cambridge spy, enduring bullying and homophobia at Eton. Burgess, in fact, remembered his schooldays with fondness even after he had fled to Russia and appears to have indulged his sexuality at school without suffering at the hands of teachers or students.

Perhaps the most vivid example of artistically rendered resentment against public schools, and the society they are held to represent, is Lindsay Anderson’s if…. – a film in which the rebellion of a group students escalates and then explodes in an outburst of violence as they shoot teachers, peers and parents from the roof of their school. In his autobiographical writings Anderson acknowledged that he and his writer, David Sherwin, drew on their boyhood experiences in devising and creating the film, and related its theme of confronting authoritarian hierarchies to his critique of British society.

The film is caricatured, even by its admirers, as an adolescent’s fantasy, but its violence is too earnest and clinical to have sprung from the theatrical sadism of teenage imaginations. It expresses, instead, the hardened bitterness of an older man’s memories. What makes it interesting, and somewhat effective, is that the young rebels display no idealism. There is a lone Che Guevara poster on a dorm room wall, and an eerie and doubtless realistic subplot involving romance between a young boy and an older student, but while it was produced in 1968, as young Frenchmen demonstrated in Paris, these English schoolboys displayed the coldest, purest nihilism.

Whatever the justice of Auden’s complaints about his school he made an interesting point when he asserted that the culture of enforced conformity could be a “potent engine for turning [students] into neurotic introverts, perpetuating those very faults of character which it was intended to cure”. The traditions that shaped thousands of young men into tough, disciplined, resourceful officers of the Empire moulded others into rebellious idealists and cynics. As Imperial Britain retreated, battered and bruised, “insiders” had fewer places to be inside and “outsiders” more. The decline of the Empire, and the emergence of the Labour Party, doomed public school prodigies to irrelevance, while “neurotic introverts” had opportunities to thrive in the more egalitarian education system, the diverse popular press and the progressive intelligensia.

As the British Empire was splintered by independence movements it became apparent that the cultural emphasis on British imperialism had come at the expense of Britain, which was lacking in identity and institutional force as the “outsiders” became more influential than the enfeebled alpha males. It would be reductionist to suggest that progressivism, a body of ideas, is simply psychological yet it involved an element of bitterness and, consequently, there were childish aspects to, say, Shelley’s anti-authoritarian idealism or Anderson’s revolutionary spite; a tendency to exaggerate societal impositions, and romanticise qualities that had been suppressed. Men should make peace with their past to understand their present.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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