Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. The Old School Tie: The Phenomenon of the English Public School.

NY: Viking: 1977.

The English “public school” — which is to say, very private school — is a distinctive institution with a long history which has had a major influence on education in every other English-speaking country, as well.

It’s not well understood in the U.S. (along with gentlemen’s clubs and the whole historical “upstairs-downstairs” thing), though if you read much literature set in Britain, you’ll certainly come across it, whether by way of Kipling or P. D. James. I’ve read several books on the subject but had never found a really good historical survey — but this one may be what I’ve been looking for.

The author, who attended Bryanston and Cambridge, made something of a name for himself in the area of social history and he writes with both a sense of the past and a dry wit. Free, government-financed education for the masses is, of course, a relatively recent invention. Fee-paying education dates from the medieval era, though it was available only to the upper strata of the socioeconomic elite. It was also originally meant to supply new bodies for the Church, which colored the public school until well into the 20th century. Treatment of students up through the 19th century was, by contemporary standards, physically brutal — but so were most walks of life. Gathorne-Hardy goes into considerable detail here and cites many sources. Reforms came in the mid-Victorian period and Thomas Arnold generally gets the credit, though the author is skeptical about his actual influence.

He devotes separate chapters to the topics of Eton and Harrow, class and hierarchy (and the built-in snobbery that accompanied them), the passion for “games” (what Americans would call sports), sexuality in the single-sex school, and the endemic (in fact, institutionalized) hazing and bullying of younger students by older ones. Fully half the volume is concerned with the period since the Great War, in which a large proportion of public school graduates who (naturally) had become young officers were killed in action. This takes him to the long struggle for a comparable education for young women, the progressive school movement, and “the fight to break the monolith” after the 1920s.

He provides a huge number of anecdotal examples throughout the book from all periods of history (many of them taken from published memoirs, others from unpublished family correspondence), which should lead the interested reader to further research. The last chapter, “Public Schools Considered Anthropologically,” is especially good.

Published in: on 22 June 2014 at 6:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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