Anarchism and the Public Schools

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 1, 2017

CHARLES RADCLIFFE, born 1941, was a pupil at a public school from 1955 to 1960.

MANY ASPECTS OF EDUCATION IN THIS COUNTRY have been explored in ANARCHY, through articles on Comprehensive, Secondary Modern and Progressive schools and on the universities, written by pupils, educators and observers. Many will feel that an article on Public Schools (which I should explain for overseas readers are not public schools in the American sense) is irrelevant because no self-respecting anarchist would send his son to one in any case, This presupposes that the ANARCHY articles have been a sort of consumer report, whereas their tone has not been on Which? or Shoppers' Guide lines at all. I contend that the Public School is as much a subject for anarchist discussion as the Secondary Modern School and it is certainly every bit as dangerous an enemy.

I imagine there are more Public School anarchists than most anarchists, certainly those who put their faith in the "organised might of the working class", would care to admit.

Of those anarchists who have been incarcerated in such schools many seem ashamed of it and attempt to submerge their accents, manners and attitudes under a shabby, phoney proletarianism. Others look at the Public Schools, see the tremendous powers they have as producers of the Establishment and its hangers-on and feel terribly daunted. They are of course the absolute enemy of the libertarian. They produce a tremendous power group in the country ranging from big and small bureaucrats to bankers, from officers of the Armed Services to Churchmen, from Tory MPs to Labour MPs. When they do produce rebels, which they do in pathetically small numbers, the rebels are usually power-seekers. Usually, but not always — one thinks of honourable exceptions like George Orwell.

The rebellion is rarely total rebellion and the rejection of Public School values rarely total rejection. For every ten Public School boys who conform almost totally there is one mildly dissenting one. For every ten mildly dissenting boys there is one potential rebel, for every ten potential rebels there is one probable rebel and for every ten probables there may be one real rebel who throws the entire Public School set of values out of his life as so much dirty water.

Furthermore there is a high mortality rate among Public School rebels, Many are for a short time what Pravda has called "coffee cup anarchists" but later conform more vigorously and militantly than all the others, as though to make up for lost time. It is only among socially diverse political groups, like the anarchists, that the public school boy can usually make any headway, not towards power, but towards friendship within the group. During my brief flirtation with Marxism I was treated more as a social phenomenon than as a human being.

What is the Public School? To start with the name is totally inaccurate. It is public to those with money to waste, it caters for the upper middle classes above all else. Upper middle class parents are prepared to make the most ludicrous sacrifices for their children, and social prestige, to gain for them this education. The standard of teaching varies very enormously both within the schools and from school to school. Many schools of this sort are springing up simply to fulfil an alleged social need. Many charge exorbitant fees for appallingly bad education and their sole purpose seems to be to enable more parents to claim for their children the snob privilege of Public School education.

This is one of the reasons why Public Schools tend to get genuinely better as they get more expensive. It is usually the cheap ones which employ poor teachers, have bad food, larger classes and less activities outside school hours. Despite this they do not usually produce the rebels. Somehow these schools that are most unsure of their social status tend to produce boys similarly unsure who tend to be more snobbish, more class conscious and more vocally authoritarian. If you hear a real Public School snob the chances are he is from a minor school not from Eton, Harrow or Winchester. The Etonian seems sure enough of his own position to avoid such extremes of self justification. This sureness also enables him to rebel more easily than the unsure boy.

Nicolas Walter pointed out in ANARCHY 8 that Orwell was much more likely to become a rebel at Eton than at Wellington. He might have added that he was equally more likely to have become one at Wellington than he would have been at Fartingbras Grange or some other minor Public School.

To enter a public school it is necessary to pass an examination — in most cases known as Common Entrance. This is not difficult for a moderately intelligent child (though it causes parents every bit as much anxiety as the 11+) and providing his parents can pay the fees and remembered to enter him at birth for the privilege of being educated with other gentlemen's sons, he is all set for the five most influential years of his life. The boy thus leaves his preparatory school (a similar institution catering for the child from seven or eight to 13), enters his Public School and becomes a 'fag'. Only the very 'progressive' schools have abolished this hangover from the dark ages.

To the anarchist the 'fag-system' is slavery. The 'fag' is perpetually at the beck and call of prefects who rarely avoid the pitfalls of authority. He may be called on to run messages from one end of the school to the other, wash prefects' washing and cooking utensils, make prefects' beds, clean their shoes, write lists, mend clothes, mend fuses (an opportunity for sabotage) and do everything and anything short of washing the prefect. My most lasting memory is of frustration and desperation knowing that I could always be called, at more or less any hour of the day or night, to do something or run somewhere, that I could not be anything approaching a free individual for over two desperate years.

At Wellington the length of time one fagged was determined solely on academic merit. Bright boys got four terms (i.e. one term more than one year) and the dim (myself) got seven (one term more than two years). The fag system is perfectly suited to casual indoctrination of the obedience principle, which is for most boys the pattern of school and adult life, and there is little chance of evasion and less than none of rebellion.
The fag is the only person at a public school who is not 'elected' for office. The prefect is elected by the housemaster and is as often as not totally unsuited to hold power of any sort. Many elections appear to be made for utterly crass reasons, (I was made a prefect for my last three weeks at Wellington. Probably so that the authorities could pat themselves on the back and say: "You see, even out of material this unpromising, we can make something." My school reports followed the same principle. Lousy until my last year and then better and better). The housemasters are presumably elected by the headmaster, who in his turn is elected by the governors who are governors because they have served the State well and are thus deemed to 'understand' education. They all seem to believe in "service", "character" and "leadership" which in anarchist terms mean "authority", "docility" and "obedience".

What, if any, are the advantages of a public school education? A good school offers parents the opportunity of getting rid of their children for a large part of each year, the advantages of well disciplined children (this is of course the main 'point' of fagging and corporal punishment which I shall mention later) and costs them the sort of money on which social merit is judged,

It offers the children considerable scope for sporting activities (unequalled in most State schools), small classes taught for the most part by good teachers ("good" depends on the definition), an interesting social life among boys "of their own type", large, but rarely used, cultural facilities and membership of the most exclusive club in the world whose members wear, stamped all over them, the three door-opening words PUBLIC SCHOOL BOY.

Public Schools are praised by their apologists as communities where boys can get together socially and intellectually for their betterment. But while one might foreseeably forgive the harsh and absurd discipline and even the discomfort, it is almost impossible to forgive the total failure of the system to recognise the advent of women, who are, whether THEY like it or not (and THEY probably don't!) here to stay. It also lacks the redeeming feature, apparent in some other all male societies (e.g. monasteries), of what might be loosely termed 'mutual aid potentiality', the quality of communitarian self-help. There is also, arising from the "community", the horrible emotional belief in the virtue of the school, a sort of morbid jingoism.

Most of the major public schools are boarding schools and while space rules out a detailed description of what this entails (those readers who have been in the Forces, Prisons or Borstals will need no description) one or two points are worth a brief mention. Often senior boys sleep in cubicles very close to those of junior boys which allows ample opportunity and temptation for homosexual adventures. (In some schools boys sleep in dormitories, not cubicle-rooms, with other boys of their own age — a far better idea but still unsatisfactory). In order to combat the cold and discomfort of some of these schools, boys often arrange admirably inventive but damnably dangerous electrical or 'other' appliances. (The left wing idea that public schools are glorified mansions complete with little M'lords is far from the truth). One could chronicle the failings of the boarding system alone and record anecdotes of its barbarities ad nauseam but it is enough to say here that for every alleged virtue it may possess there are at least two probable vices.

I doubt whether there is a single public school in this country that does not believe in the use of corporal punishment. The triviality of the offences for which thrashing is the penalty is quite remarkable. I know of boys who have been thrashed, often very savagely, for wearing socks in bed, for having a coat button undone, for smoking, for fooling around, for swearing mildly, for whispering after 'lights-out', for failing to empty a waste paper basket, for laughing during an announcement, for lying, for being late for games. The days of Tom Brown are past, long live the spirit of those days! I don't consider myself particularly wicked but I had well over 100 strokes of the cane while in Wellington; many had more, most had less but the minority seems to be those who had none. I was more annoyed than hurt in most cases (waiting for the punishment is invariably worse than the actual thing). As an example of hypocrisy and corruption I was once thrashed for smoking and the prefect in question, now a serving officer in the Army, kept my cigarettes for his own use.

No boy likes the idea of being thrashed but most will thrash others if they get the opportunity. Most parents deem thrashing a "good thing", presumably because it "knocks the rough edges off a child". It is not hard to see why the public school boy adapts well to military or prison life.

This all fits in with the aim of the public school which is to make leaders who believe they are servants. Thus ex-public school political leaders tend to think they are serving their followers, or the Queen's Peace or the Public Good, They often do not think of themselves as leaders, rather as servants. As Raymond Williams has pointed out this tends to ennoble the conception of leadership enormously and leads to such misnomers as the Civil Service, the Senior Service, the Armed Services (all of which are in fact dis Services). Public School boys are exhorted to become servants but trained to become leaders. This is typical of the way the Establishment works, not only to hoodwink its opponents but also itself!

Other admirable assets of the public school system from the middle class parents' point of view are the constant knowledge that the boy is being 'disciplined' ("for his own good"), and that he has little chance to get into real 'trouble' unless he is singularly ingenious. The constant nagging discipline is, I think, the main thing behind the public school. Sir Harold Nicholson says of Wellington in his day words to the effect that the authorities proudly claimed not only to know where any boy was at any given time but where the same boy would be six months later. It is almost impossible for the child to escape from the system: if he does so at all it is usually because the system decrees he must. There is no respect for the child's essential personality, a constant feeling that the authorities believe implicitly in the doctrine of original sin. "If the child is left alone he will go off the rails (which are there for his convenience and guidance), Therefore he shall not be left alone."
If the anarchist argues with the public schoolboy he will be asked with genuine incredulity how he can claim to desire freedom if he does not accept the freedom of a parent to send a child to such a school. The anarchist might well say that he objects because the initial parental freedom results in the eventual absence of freedom for a child. The fact that the public schoolboy will not understand the logic that epitomises the vastness of the task of anarchists of convincing people of the value of a free society when the people already believe themselves to be living in one. The parental freedom argument is incidentally the usual last ditch resort of the ex-public school Labour Party supporter when he excuses the failure of the last Labour Government to act against public schools. The curious love-hate relationship of many labourites with their public schools may explain their curious reluctance even to admit the existence of such schools

It is the uni-sexuality of public schools that appals most people. It rules out for the eighteen-year-old senior boy any contact with any girls of his own age, for a greater part of the year, at an age when such contact is arguably most needed. It leads to overt or clandestine homosexuality which can totally mar a life and it tends to give many boys a revoltingly "superior" attitude towards women. The public school boy often treats women disgustingly (though the women don't seem to mind), as mentally, physically (they do not play ruggah, maybe) and socially inferior. He accepts them more as a commodity than as a companion. (It is a widely held if rarely articulated feeling among the Public School boy that the school is the microcosm of life and they attempt, with the disastrous results that can be seen, to make life a macrocosm of their womanless school existences).

I attended a military public school where the voluntary/compulsory (which I think means it is compulsory to volunteer) Cadet Corps played a large part even by public school standards, Above all else I remember the ridiculous feeling I had, being taught to use a 1918 rifle in the age of the H-bomb. My hatred of the cadet corps was based more on its absurdity than any pacific leanings on my part,

It is hardly necessary to catalogue the effects of the cadet corps on cadets. It damns initiative (in the name of encouraging it — a typical paradox), teaches obedience and the necessity for violence and makes the herd instinct an emotional necessity for some boys. I still feel the social assumptions behind the "cadets" are far more dangerous than the actual military training of boys, if the two can indeed be separated.
I have often been told by those good hearted liberals, who defend these schools with apologetic loyalty, that there is greater freedom than there used to be, that dissent is not discouraged, that boys with progressive opinions are not "persecuted". Thus the public school hoodwinks its opponents, a grand old lady of the Establishment moving like the Roman church, just enough with the times to avoid its own dissolution. The public school is a large spawning ground for the authoritarian filth, nuclear liberators et al, who make our society a materialistic, self-destructive, lunatic asylum. Those who expect it to be anything else are ostriches.
There is no lack of revolutionary literature at public schools, there may even be no lack of sympathy for it from more intelligent boys but despite the fact that most public schools have really excellent libraries the existence of such abnormal literature is unknown. The point is, as in adult society, not that it does not exist but that it is unread and it is unread because no one knows about it.

I only mention religion briefly here because it interests me now even less than it did at Wellington. Enough to say that there is a quarter-hour service every day at most schools and usually a double service on Sundays and the whole bloody lot is compulsory. (I am told by some with more up-to-date information that many schools have acceded to the requests of boys and cut down on religious diet). It is worth pointing out that some measure of public school dissent is religiously expressed — worker priests, Roman Catholic converts and so on. Theologically the church expresses Establishment dogmas for the most part!
Why do I consider the system so dangerous? Because I consider the Public School still the largest manufacturer of the Power Elite and its hangers-on.

Few people understand the problems of rational education so well as the anarchists and few are less able to practise it. Equally no-one instinctively understands the problem of Statist education better than the Establishment and in a public school they can practise their methods among boys, parents and teachers who usually accept their beliefs, with devastating effects. In State schools there are inevitably dissentient teachers who, mercifully have an effect, but in the public schools this rarely happens.

The public school is a symbol for our times. It is hopelessly inefficient at producing healthy, well balanced men, who do not wish to die for diaphanous abstractions hurled at them by the politicians but it is highly effective and efficient from the Establishment's point of view for exactly the same reasons.
I have argued, I hope, that the public school is relevant to anarchists and that it is an enemy. I have not produced any solutions, not because I think there are none but because I'm damned if I know what they are. I have tried spreading seeds of discontent on my occasional visits to my brother at his school, but the
Establishment has its answer. The kids are taught to be tolerant of amiable cranks and ignore their messages.
It seems like a fantasy to have revolutionary public school boys crawling around their old schools bearing a message for the Oppressed but I think there must be some up-to-date alternative. More and more public schoolboys are falling from "lower-upper-middle class" grace due to involvement with the Committee of 100 and similar organisations and some of them are "unconscious anarchists". This may be one way we can get at Public Schoolboys.

I don't wish to enter into controversy as to how we are to attain the free society. But I think most intelligent anarchists agree that we should not rule out the middle classes as potential allies for whatever struggle is envisaged. I think we can look to the Public Schools this being the case — the Public Schoolboy is as likely as anyone to revolt. But they will not join us unless we ask them.

I am asking anarchists to look at the public school and what lies behind it, to realise that it is an enemy like the prisons, open or closed, like the Armed Forces (services, of course, in Public School jargon), like the law courts but that it contains potential allies who must be subverted if we are to attain a free society. When they look at it they will see the magnitude of their struggle. It is an excellent direction in which to be looking when we get those spasms of optimism.