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July 2, 2022 11:18 AM   Subscribe

The problem with private boarding schools in Britain: A former pupil describes on Twitter the roots of amorality and predation in Boris Johnson’s cabinet (Nitter link for those without a Twitter account)

Memoirist Richard Beard remembers boarding school as a training ground for damaged, and damaging, leaders: Why public schoolboys like me and Boris Johnson aren’t fit to run our country

Writer and podcaster Musa Okwonga reflects on being a black student at Eton and argues a system that prides itself on creating leaders is selling Britain short: Boys don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, it is where they perfect it

For those with access to BBC iPlayer Alex Renton presents a three part radio documentary on class, power and privilege in Britain’s elite schools In Dark Corners (content note for experiences of child sexual abuse.) He previously wrote the boarding school memoir Stiff Upper Lip

Note on terminology: In the UK state schools are funded by the state, private schools by tuition fees gifts and endowments, and public schools are an elite subset of private schools. UK independent schools explained
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye (57 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't had to deal with any of these empty souled idiots since moving to the US but I used to have fun correcting the Latin they liked to drop into conversations when they wanted to assert their superiority.
If you have to be around them you have to deflate them as quickly and thoroughly as possible by whatever means you have access to.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:28 AM on July 2 [22 favorites]

I was just reading the reviews of Sad Little Men, which was recommended by a commenter in the Twitter thread. Seems that author has similar views.

(On preview, the Guardian link is an excerpt of that very book.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:56 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]

Canada being the place where the children of these assholes went to rule for most of it's history, devolped a culture of these boarding schools which teach the technocrats who rule---there are about six---Selwyn House, Lower Canada College in Montreal, Upper Canada College, St Georges, Haverford, Branksome Hall in Toronto, Maybe Ashbury, St George's in Vancouver.

There is also the geuninely terrorfying Robert Land acaemy. One of the things they all have in common is a deep commitment to a kind of toxic anglophillic nosalgia.
posted by PinkMoose at 12:15 PM on July 2 [11 favorites]

At the risk of tarnishing my Mefi reputation forever, I am an Old Etonian and did A-Level economics in the same class (Eton slang: div) as David Cameron. Boris Johnson was two years above me; I played chess against him once. Jacob Rees-Mogg was two or three years below me. My brother-in-law is a Tory member of parliament, 2019 intake. Barring a couple of minor factual errors, I can confirm pretty much every word of the links above. Eton College is a factory for sociopaths.

(A footnote: Eton is a registered charity. It also owns a Gutenberg bible--one of the good ones. If you have trouble reconciling those two facts then you do not have the mindset of the British upper classes.)
posted by Hogshead at 12:26 PM on July 2 [131 favorites]

I'm not disputing the hold that ex-public school boys have on the British Establishment, but it's probably worth pointing out that most of the current cabinet didn't have nearly that much privilege as children. And even the two that did (Johnson and Rees-Mogg) weren't really at the top of the tree within Eton. Sunak is probably closest, but it depend does then on your view about racism within the Establishment.
posted by plonkee at 12:26 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]

The anecdote I will never forget and demonstrates how the truly rich are like another species is one that was told to me by a friend when she attended her induction event at Cambridge many many years ago. It was all first year students and one person quite innocently told the story of how, for his 18th birthday, he was gifted a golf course. An entire golf course is his at 18 because his parents thought it would be cute because there are 18 holes on a golf course.

That kind of institutional wealth and privilege is a black hole that distorts all reality around it.

The Tory party leadership view the vast majority of humanity through the lens of bemused curiosity. What does it matter to Johnson and Co. if we leave the EU or people are deported to Rwanda or Russian oligarchs buy out London or the peace ends in Northern Ireland? It's all just a massive lark to them. They're just playing politics because it's more fun and you need less qualifications than any other job with similar pay and publicity.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:30 PM on July 2 [49 favorites]

Plonkee, Boris Johnson was head of College (the scholarship house), a member of Pop, a member of Sixth Form Select, editor of the Eton College Chronicle, and a close friend of the brother of the Princess of Wales. Short of actually being head of the school, it's hard to know how he could have been closer to the top of the tree at Eton. I don't know what Rees-Mogg got up to in his later years but he had a quality that Boris did: even in his second year, everyone in the school knew who he was.
posted by Hogshead at 12:52 PM on July 2 [16 favorites]

I met people like that this Cambridge - young men who believed that England existed for their sole benefit, a playground for them without consequence, where they'd be successful no matter how much they fuck up or fuck other people up.

The galling thing is that their belief is correct - England does exist for their benefit, not for ours.

So I fucked off to New Zealand, which is very slightly more egalitarian.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:21 PM on July 2 [25 favorites]

Something something is it time for another Scottish Referendum yet?
posted by aesop at 1:27 PM on July 2 [22 favorites]

A former colleague of mine (dead for some years) once discussed with me his experience as an English Jew in a public school during WWII. It was explained to him at one point by the headmaster that people such as himself (i.e., Jews) were morally depraved, and so of course everyone was bullying him. Needless to say, my late colleague's recollections of his time there were, overall, not...fond.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:36 PM on July 2 [14 favorites]

The majority of the cabinet were privately educated. We can quibble over which of those institutions were the truly elite; but Eton, Winchester, Radley are all represented.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 1:50 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]

As the thread points out, you don't have to be a member of the class to sycophantically carry its water:

"And there is a wholly amoral layer of ambitious, forelock-tugging twats from my own class that will go along with it, purely for the crumbs from the Lords' tables. The Reeves and Bailiffs. They're cunts."
posted by clawsoon at 2:05 PM on July 2 [15 favorites]

Hogshead: I'm sure you're right. I've just never gotten the impression that Boris feels very secure in his position within the Establishment. I think he tries too hard. Rees-Mogg always feels like he's trying to seem posher than he actually is.

Regardless, the fact that there is still such an Establishment, and that people like Johnson and Cameron still end up being PM is a big problem. In politics, it shapes what other Tory MPs, such as state-educated Raab and Shapps, aspire to.
posted by plonkee at 2:30 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]

I hear what you are saying about their Latin, thatwhichfalls - had the same experience with their Shakespeare. But that is the marker between mere aspirants and the upper class: we actually read the books, while they never need to.
posted by Ardnamurchan at 2:38 PM on July 2 [12 favorites]

Ironically, they seem to share a lot of psychological features with kids who grow up in rough situations - the hardness, the refusal to acknowledge vulnerability - but the latter don't have the privilege to smooth it over, of course.
posted by airmail at 2:40 PM on July 2 [9 favorites]

airmail: Ironically, they seem to share a lot of psychological features with kids who grow up in rough situations - the hardness, the refusal to acknowledge vulnerability - but the latter don't have the privilege to smooth it over, of course.

Makes me wonder if the old trickle-down-social-customs theory applies here. A century and a half ago some rich people were playing rugby and denying love to their children. Now some poor people play football and deny love to their children. Back then, learning how to be hard and unvulnerable were seen as the Victorian values that made the British Empire great. Now they're seen as the American values that make the American empire great.

(This theory is entirely half-baked, and I wouldn't put too much store into it unless someone who has thought about it more seriously already came up with it.)
posted by clawsoon at 3:09 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]

Ardnamurchan: I hear what you are saying about their Latin, thatwhichfalls - had the same experience with their Shakespeare. But that is the marker between mere aspirants and the upper class: we actually read the books, while they never need to.

This reminds me of statements I've read about working-class people entering the middle class being more strict with middle-class clothing and behaviour norms than people who were comfortably in the middle class already. Is this the middle-to-upper class version of that, where being sloppy with your Shakespeare and Latin is the sign of someone who's comfortably upper class, while middle class aspirants work much harder to make sure they get those cultural signifiers absolutely correct?
posted by clawsoon at 3:13 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]

What about the lying? Is that a Boris-specific trait, or are all of them talking through their arses all the time too?
posted by 1970s Antihero at 3:20 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]

What about the lying? Is that a Boris-specific trait, or are all of them talking through their arses all the time too?

All of them, apparently; or enough to constitute a recognisable characteristic. From the first Guardian link:

"In her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome, psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien describes a condition now sufficiently recognised to merit therapy groups and an emergent academic literature. The symptoms are wide-ranging but include, ingrained from an early age, emotional detachment and dissociation, cynicism, exceptionalism, defensive arrogance, offensive arrogance, cliquism, compartmentalisation, guilt, grief, denial, strategic emotional misdirection and stiff-lipped stoicism. Fine fine fine. We’re all doing fine. We adapted to survive. We postured and lied, whatever it took."
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 3:35 PM on July 2 [17 favorites]

My father, who went to Clifton College and who is in his seventies now and has dementia, has been talking a lot in the last couple of years about his time at school. His father’s company paid for him to attend and I don’t think they’d have been a posh enough family for him to go otherwise. He talks a lot about the beatings. He has a couple of times told me a story which I think may be wish-fulfilment about how, on being caned by one of the prefects on one occasion, he rebelled and broke the cane. He left school as soon as he could and got an apprenticeship.

Out of curiosity, I signed him up to get the old boys’ magazine, to come to my address so I could screen it to see if there is anything he’d be interested in. It has obituaries, for instance. Anyway, it transpires that the old boys’ association - not the school itself - has assets of two million pounds. That’s after having recently given the school a quarter of a million for, if I recall correctly, a swimming pool. That is a lot of rich people giving money not even directly to their school but to the association; some of those people presumably having been beaten or humiliated whilst there, and / or doing so to others. A lot of damaged people and a lot of powerful people.
posted by paduasoy at 3:48 PM on July 2 [8 favorites]

I should have said men in my last two sentences. Rich / powerful / damaged men.
posted by paduasoy at 3:55 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]

I went to an elite boarding school in Australia. We had a 9-hole golf course. Turn left at the olympic swimming pool, if you reach the twelve tennis courts, you've gone too far. We even had a rifle range, I like to mention that to 2a Americans who think our laws are too restrictive.

I wasn't there because I had wealthy parents. The opposite in fact, I had a charitable scholarship because I was an orphan and needed somewhere to live. There is so much I could tell you about being a poor kid in a rich school, I'll restrict myself to one illustrative anecdote.

Sneakers were cool in the 90s. Whether you wore Nike or Reebok was a statement about your personal style. Air Jordan or Reebok Pumps, what kind of person are you? I wore canvas sand-shoes because that's what I could afford, and there were kids that couldn't understand this. Their baseline assumption was that I wore cheap shoes because I chose them instead of the cool ones. Why didn't I choose Nike? They're better!

It was incomprehensible to them to that I couldn't afford shoes. Everyone has shoes, what I was saying didn't make sense. I am absolutely certain such people carry on that mindset into adulthood given no experiences that would make them feel otherwise.

People are mentioning Shakespeare. We had the best English teacher. We watched Seven Samurais, read Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are dead. In one semester we did Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and MacBeth back to back. When we went to see a production, Juliet came out onto the balcony naked.

That reminds me, being a single sex boarding school, I know for a fact that many boys left that school having never kissed a girl. Which I think is super weird and sets you up for some world-class misogyny.
posted by adept256 at 4:02 PM on July 2 [40 favorites]

What about the lying?

I don't think it's taught, but an expectation of being believed, overweening confidence in one's meagre abilities plus a knowledge that nothing of harm will stick to one when everything goes wrong does enable a certain class of liar.

I went to a minor mixed public school, too new (1650) to be of any consequence. Our FPs include a GG of Canada who wrote a Hitchcock movie, the guy who made the gargantuan settlement for McKinsey with US states for opiate misrepresentation and a very senior law judge (who, coincidentally, I went to Final Year Dance with). If I so chose, I can turn on The Confidence, and use The Voice to command a room with whatever utter bullshit comes into my head at the time, and I will be believed. If I had no scruples, I could make a lot of money doing this, and I hate that I even have this unearned ability.

But I do feel sorry for my cousins' public school experience. Their dad was an expat civil engineer for one of the very colonial engineering firms that HQ's in London but had offices worldwide. Because they could move you from job to job at very short notice, one of the perks of employment was that they'd pay for boarding school anywhere in the world. So there's my cousin in 1978: twice a year, flying unaccompanied from Hong Kong to London and several train transfers up to a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands. She was seven years old when she did this.
posted by scruss at 6:40 PM on July 2 [24 favorites]

clawsoon, I have a somewhat different quarter-baked theory; this psychological manipulation is a stable answer to "three generations shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves" or "the Fremen Mirage" or "my grandchildren can study porcelain and poetry". It makes enough of the children of the rich devoted to nothing but gaining power for and with their connections to keep the power structure full of them.

This is kind of testable; what do people who could have gone to the public schools, but didn't, do with their lives?
posted by clew at 7:05 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]

In a sense, one of the best things that my mother did for me was convincing my father to give up the lucrative job in the UK to return to the USA, rather than sending me off to a boarding school.

A comparatively elite California public school did enough to mess me up. In retrospect, I hate to think what kind of psychopath a public school would have made me.

As it was, I think my socialism is rooted in the duality of my experience as an expat in the UK. Miserable mildewy state school by day, my family hobnobbing with BP executives at night. I've seen how the other half lives, and they mostly seem bored and miserable. Wealth is a bane to humanity, both in a philosophical sense, but also in that wealth is detrimental to the quality of an individual's personal quality of humanity.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 8:28 PM on July 2 [11 favorites]

I know for a fact that many boys left that school having never kissed a girl. Which I think is super weird and sets you up for some world-class misogyny.

How so?
posted by smidgen at 8:28 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]

Do I have to spell it out? These are people who spent the horniest part of their life completely isolated from the opposite sex. It's reasonable to assume it effected their development.
posted by adept256 at 9:01 PM on July 2 [5 favorites]

Plenty of people who attend all-gender schools don’t kiss anyone until a little bit later in life, and many of those young people do not turn into misogynists (or misandrists), and go on to have healthy romantic or sexual relationships. I suspect the overriding culture of machismo and blatant sexism, and the whole thing the linked articles describe about not viewing anyone outside of the group of schoolmates and alumni as fully human, are the more directly relevant formative details.
posted by eviemath at 10:52 PM on July 2 [19 favorites]

I don’t think adept256 is saying that attending a single-sex school always screws people up. We don’t need to do #notalletonians.
posted by Etrigan at 11:19 PM on July 2 [11 favorites]

I don’t think adept256 is saying that...

I think is super weird and sets you up for some world-class misogyny

I don't have a dog in this fight, but it's hard not to intuit that claim from adept256's language.

And while experiences vary, I think it's pretty reasonable and evidentiary that people who don't get first hand exposure of something tend to develop inaccurate assumptions about those somethings.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 11:35 PM on July 2 [5 favorites]

*What about the lying? Is that a Boris-specific trait, or are all of them talking through their arses all the time too?*

I suspect that has more to do with his childhood - father was an alcoholic, unfaithful wife beater, mother was in and out of the Maudsley. You would not expect healthy psychological development in that sort of environment.

I’m sure being shipped off to Eton aged 7 was just the cherry on the cake.
posted by tinkletown at 1:26 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]

Do I have to spell it out? These are people who spent the horniest part of their life completely isolated from the opposite sex. It's reasonable to assume it effected their development.

I concur. From my personal experience, if, during my adolescence, girls had been a mundane phenomenon that could be interacted with (i.e., just other people) rather than rare unicorn-like mythical beings rumoured to be a key to unimaginable desire fulfilment, I would have made, and learned from, mistakes a lot earlier, and probably had more successful relationships sooner.

(I went to a single-sex school. Afterwards, I spent my university years mostly on USENET and IRC rather than engaging in a university-level social scene with my potato-level dating skills. While I have been in relationships since, regarding myself as a half-couple rather than an autonomous entity who may or may not be seeing someone seems wholly alien to me.)
posted by acb at 2:49 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty sure that it's possible to go through regular schooling and still come out with potato-level dating skills (I did!). Likewise, I'm sure it's possible to go through the boarding school system and come out an honest person. It's the choice of the individual of how they meet life after school that is important, and the current UK government is full of people who made absolutely shit, self-serving choices.

That said, abolish the UK private schooling system.
posted by The River Ivel at 5:23 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]

Boys don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, it is where they perfect it

A closely related read, just in case anybody in this thread has happened to have not read it: "Such, Such Were the Joys" by George Orwell, his autobiographical account of a prep school for would-be Etonians (Orwell got into Eton but didn't stay).
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:28 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]

But the lack of any contact, statistically, makes things worse. I’m just saying it’s that and the overall culture, not the lack of kissing specifically. Eg. I haven’t heard that gay men who attended English boys boarding schools are any better (overall, statistically) at healthy romantic/sexual relationships than their straight peers?
posted by eviemath at 5:29 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]

I can’t shake that there are incel rocks to avoid in these waters. “Boys would behave better if they were given the access to girls they need, when they need it,” is an implication it would be best to clarify is not meant.
posted by thoroughburro at 5:41 AM on July 3 [11 favorites]

Maybe I'm being overly charitable and/or going off in a direction that adept256 didn't intend, but I feel like the original comment's (jokey?) framing about access to kissing may have got us off-track by focusing overmuch on whether sex and resolving horniness would've helped these people be a bit less awful. My reading is more similar to acb's: having the lived experience of interacting with women as other human beings who exist and go to class and do the other things that people do, rather than being cooped up in a single-sex boarding school fantasizing about women purely as unobtainable sex objects they would one day like to obtain (via power, because that's the context here), might lead to better outcomes.

NB: US public school kid. I was terribly shy and a late bloomer (like, mid-grad-school late, for the most part) but I also had women in my social circle and knew that they were people, not mythical unicorns that I somehow had to coerce into giving me access to sex. Happily married now, so, eh!
posted by Alterscape at 6:31 AM on July 3 [24 favorites]

It's not about access to formative kissing/making-out experiences, so much as for being socialised that people of the opposite gender to oneself (who are not relatives or authority figures) are people one is used to interacting with. It's not unlikely that the absence of such experience can delay one's social development.
posted by acb at 8:41 AM on July 3 [15 favorites]

More parsimonious: the public schools teach that anyone who didn’t go to a public school is inferior and anyone who couldn’t have is innately inferior; girls can’t go; Q.E.D.
posted by clew at 10:10 AM on July 3 [15 favorites]

The top rank of girls boarding schools tend to be labelled "independent" rather than "public" but they definitely exist: smaller in number and less influential because women in generally were excluded from top office until quite recently. I suspect that the former pupils of Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies College have had a very different experience to their brothers at Eton or Harrow, but they are still very much part of an elite.

I'd also make a minor disagreement with the original Twitter thread that this is just an English phenomenon: Scotland has its public schools too, and in some ways is even more "feudal" than England. It's just that this is far less visible since the Scottish elites seem less keen to go into politics, but the class structure is still buttressed by the Scottish public schools.

Based on my experience, I think the wider point is not that everyone who went to a (British) public school is automatically terrible: but that a lot of terrible people did go to a public school. And more to the point: the skills these terrible people leave with are ideal for ascending to the highest ranks of "public service" (ho ho ho) without actually being any good at it or caring about people outside your class.

Full disclosure: I went to a fee-paying day school, not a boarding school, making me one of the 7% rather than one of the 1%. It was an all-boys school, and we had to call all the teachers "sir," even the women. Traditions, eh?
posted by YoungStencil at 12:01 PM on July 3 [4 favorites]

And in today's Guardian, which is supposed to be our left-leaning newspaper when it's not being a festering cesspool of transphobia, an agony aunt answers "should I dump my rich friends" with "This doesn’t make them horrible people – and they are probably unaware of the effect they are having on you. They may not have realised that some people’s parents did not have an inheritance from their own parents and don’t have spare cash. You don’t have to dump them.". Note that this is not talking about children but adults in their 20s. Basically, everything in that twitter thread is true, and the rest of us are expected to coddle the amoral buggers.
posted by Vortisaur at 3:21 PM on July 3 [2 favorites]

I, like the author who I do not know and Musa, who I do, am also an "inside outsider" to British elite education.

A few points:

1) The general thesis, that this very top tier of schools produces outrageously ambitious people who have very little natural understanding of how their actions affect others is basically right. It isn't even immorality so much as a complete lack of instinctive understanding that it isn't abstract. We're not just talking about "the economy" when we play around with economic parameters, it's really for real for most people. That just isn't in their natural grasp unless they go to a great deal of trouble to learn it. (It isn't in my natural grasp either). That is true also, by the way, of people who attended ultra-elite schools and who ended up on the political left, although to a lesser degree (because of the process that takes them to the left). There are absolutely people to whom "winning" is important and who know that their side wins when the minimum wage goes up but who don't really emotionally get that real people actually get paid that.

When you present them with a concrete scenario of a person in financial trouble, they're easily able to grasp it and may well agree that it sounds dreadful but as soon as that person is out of sight, they reset to the mental model of "it's all just a lark". On some level, they can't quite believe that people are really, actually hungry or cold.

2) I grew up in Scotland. Like YoungStencil, I had an immediate reaction to "this is specifically England". It might not be true in Wales or Northern Ireland but oh man is this also true in Scotland. The very top tier of the Edinburgh legal world is exactly the same. The success of the SNP in recent years can be closely tied to its gradual removal of this class of people as in the past they ran the party, they weren't called the Tartan Tories for nothing.

3) I think that the British in general, including the Twitter poster and the authors of most of these books are caught in exactly the same kind of trap as the people who are in favour of these schools - they vastly overstate their importance. As a result, Richard Beard and his memoir are inflicted upon the public. However I think there's a few reason why these are not very satisfactory explanations:

First, because it answers the question of who these people are but not why they are in power.

Second, like all British political discourse right or left, it's myopic and UK centred. Why have so many other countries followed such similar economic programmes? Where is the Eton of the US? Of The Netherlands or of Germany? All have followed neoliberal programmes that aren't that different. (France has its own elite factories but those are at the tertiary level, it isn't really clear to me that from the perspective of the working class, it has produced results that are so very different).

Third, I think it overstates the influence at cabinet level of this particular class of people.

Raab is a grammar school boy descended from a Jewish refugee.
Priti Patel is a grammar school girl who went to Keele
Barclay and Wallace went to minor independent schools and come from very ordinary middle class backgrounds
Gove went to a selective school on a scholarship
Javid's dad is a bus driver
Sunak went to Winchester, so ok fair enough but rich parents or not, he won't have had quite the same experience as a white kid will have
Kwasi Karteng and Nadhim Zahawi both went to non-boarding independent schools
Nadine Dorries is Nadine fuckin' Dorries
Grant Shapps is a Jewish boy who went to a grammar (one of my wife's friends dated him when they were young)
George Eustice and Brandon Lewis (yeah I also had to look them up) are also minor independent school boys, non boarding.
Finally, we have of course the preposterous Rees-Mogg creature.

Thatcher was of course notoriously a grammar school girl and if you think it's weird for me to bring someone into this discussion who hasn't been meaningfully in politics since I was a small child, I kind of agree but British politicians right and left remain obsessed with her one way or another so here we all are.

As you would expect of a Conservative cabinet, a lot of privately educated but not actually very many public schoolboys. The thesis of a lot of this is that it is specifically the process of going to a boarding school from a young age that has this effect and most of them didn't. In fact, a very large number of the worst sort of chancers and sharps in the party are from pretty normal backgrounds. It's horrible but true that if you were to pick the other old Etonian from the 2019 Tory leadership election, you would have had a much better and less sociopathic leadership than any of the other, non-Etonian candidates. [full disclosure - I do know Rory Stewart personally. Apart from his relentless and extremely effective self promotion he's a very nice chap]
posted by atrazine at 3:59 PM on July 3 [13 favorites]

Startling number of Grammar school kids there. As a Grammar school boy I can explain their sociopathy by the fact that those schools are all desperate to give the appearance of being public schools and every one of them tries to replicate the public school experience as closely as possible.
A better place to look for direct PB influence is in the senior ranks of the civil service, general civil administration and, increasingly, the arts. All of these are marked by the kind of indifferent heartlessness that's the hallmark of the true PBS (present company excepted of course). The current shambolic cabinet are mostly converts which may explain their zealotry.
(I include the arts here because the artsy posh kids have extended out from their natural home of the BBC and are beginning to dominate every other artform - with results that look increasingly weird and robotic since they are working in fields that were opened up by people from very different backgrounds and with very different purposes)
Every country has institutions where the rich can send their children to be broken (although some outsource it to the UK) but none fetishize them to quite the same extent. I'm unaware of any country that has anything similar to the two hundred years old and still going strong tradition of boarding school novels for example. Harry Potter fits into that tradition perfectly (although by the time he makes Auror his dodgy background probably means his immediate boss in the secret police is an obscure Malfoy cousin, just to keep an eye on him)
One of the things I liked in moving to the US is that these people, while they exist, tend to congregate in the highly lucrative professions where I rarely have to interact with them. In the UK they're everywhere and an appreciable account of the country's time and energy is expended in working around them. Or undermining them. Whichever is easiest.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:35 PM on July 3 [9 favorites]

Pleased to see George Orwell linked. That his essay is about his schooling pre-WW I and more than a century has passed - just goes to show that a century passes quickly

and the girls of the mid-20th century?

‘What struck me, after I had met all these women who went to girls’ boarding schools in the mid-20th century,’ Maxtone Graham concludes, ‘was this: never had I met such a lot of well-educated undereducated women.’
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 7:59 PM on July 3 [6 favorites]

Yes, the grammar school aspect of this is also huge. I posted a link recently about Oxford and private schools by an writer who’d been to a grammar school. Honestly, one of my reactions to that was ‘you came from a grammar school? I’ll raise you my comprehensive to Oxford experience’. Which gets into a bitter place of ‘my chip on shoulder is heavier than yours’, which leaves the private and public schoolers sailing on serenely whilst I have an imaginary row with the slightly less privileged.

Thanks for the link about the girls’ experiences, Barbara Spitzer. I write about girls’ school stories so I think a lot about the way those books present ‘a world of girls’ in which girls’ and women’s experiences are made central, whilst the actual schools of the period in which the books are set often sound vile and again damaging.
posted by paduasoy at 12:42 AM on July 4 [3 favorites]

Further to the 'potato-level dating skills' posts by adept256 and others above!

I went to an all-boys school, founded in 1810, in Belfast, Northern Ireland from age 11-18. It was very traditional and there were about 50 rules and a school song etc. etc. I left it without having kissed anyone, assuming I was gay. Why? Because I happily fantasised about some of my classmates and we never had social contact with girls. (I only knew 2 girls well as friends outside school, one of whom I lost contact with because she moved to a different part of town, and the other lived in the south of England as a result of her parents moving away.)

Arriving in university in Scotland, I came out to everybody as gay, was accepted by everyone accordingly, and it was only by the end of 2nd year that I started to realise that maybe I might've actually been bi. Perhaps. But of course when you've already come out to everyone as gay, it's easier not to rock that particular boat again so I just didn't. I put it to the back of my mind.

Long story short, I didn't fully come out to myself and others as bi until I was 35. I didn't go on my first date with a woman until the following year, and it was predictably as stilted as you'd expect until we both got drunk and started resorting to jokes instead of conversation; the sex was awful and I had to make up some bullshit about being inexperienced for some reason, because biphobia is so pervasive here in NI, and I hadn't come out to her first.

The longest relationship I've ever had in my life was 11 months, with my first boyfriend at the age of 19. I've never had a relationship with a woman; I believe I might actually prefer dating a woman to dating a man, as well. It sucks, but I've got so used to being single that I don't exactly know how that's going to change. I refuse to lie about my bisexuality on dating websites which puts a lot of people off.

Anyway, biphobia aside, and not wanting to speak for anyone but me, the sum total is that going to a single-sex school with a stick up its butt certainly had a long-lasting negative effect on my sexual development personally, and I think they should be outlawed.
posted by paperpete at 6:10 AM on July 4 [8 favorites]

but it's probably worth pointing out that most of the current cabinet didn't have nearly that much privilege as children

Johnson doesn't want or need competitors in the cabinet, he wants stooges.
In an essay for The Oxford Myth (1988), a book edited by his sister Rachel, Johnson advised aspiring student politicians to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” to get out the vote.

Johnson added: “The tragedy of the stooge is that . . . he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”
Dorries is the epitome of the stooge, but most of the rest of the cabinet fit the model: they are climbers, grammar-school types, first of their family to get into the cabinet, and they depend on Johnson almost entirely.

How often have you heard that the Tories would already have defenstrated Johnson, were it not for lack of a successor? That's not an unhappy accident. None have been permitted to emerge.

I think the thread's point stands. With public school types in the key roles in all the major institutions of public life, and grammar school types forming up the ranks buttressing them, the stage is pretty well set for the situation the UK is in today.
posted by bonaldi at 6:14 AM on July 4 [13 favorites]

Here's a very hot take: the British public school milieu is not exceptionally good at creating narcissistic, sadistic, power hungry elites. Those dudes are all over! My own country, America, is full of them, and so are lots of other places. You think Uday Hussein or Kim Jong-Il or Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Brett Kavanagh needed Eton to make them who they were?

The British school system is good at producing literary memoirists who vividly represent and reflect on how elite socialization creates narcissistic, sadistic people. Graham Greene edited a whole volume of school reminiscences, in which I think Orwell's famous essay appears. From Roald Dahl's Boy and Lewis's Surprised By Joy to James Wood in the NYRB to the twitter thread and comments here, Britain is world-class in creating people who are good at telling the story of having been around jerks at boarding school.
posted by sy at 8:02 AM on July 4 [5 favorites]

Here's a very hot take: the British public school milieu is not exceptionally good at creating narcissistic, sadistic, power hungry elites. Those dudes are all over!

I tend to agree with this, but at minimum, in 2022, being sent away to boarding school at a young age is a very strange and alienating experience compared to the way everyone else grows up.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:38 AM on July 4


I think that is exactly right. Anyone with a potential independent power base has to go, ideally out of the party altogether. Sunak is tolerated by Johnson because he needs someone serious to run HMT, his funders will tolerate quite a lot but that is a serious job and he will have been told he needs someone serious in it.

Even he, when he was getting a bit too popular and opposing certain Johnsonian policies had to be trimmed down to size. Why do you think that after all this time we suddenly heard about his wife's tax affairs?

Hancock isn't exactly a political titan, but when he was getting out of line from what the Tory Right wanted to hear about lockdowns, somehow camera footage from his private office gets leaked? Like a lot of people have that kind of footage available.

Other members of the cabinet who are tolerated because they are way too weird to be a threat are Rees-Mogg (an instinctive toady anyway), Gove (a man cursed to have a B+ mind but who has so surrounded himself with absolute E listers that fairly overflows with hubris), Badenoch (not a toady but much too intense in odd directions to be anything other than a curiosity)

and yes, Dorries is the stoogiest of them all.

However, that being the case sort of calls into question the whole premise to me - not that these aren't particularly unhealthy schools but if it is the case that many of the worst sort in British public life didn't actually undergo the unique harrowing of boarding from a tender age and it is the case that many other countries appear to have equally sociopathic elites, then where are we with the central thesis that this is is anything other than just a dumb way of educating your children? I'm not that convinced of the wider significance.

I agree with sy. It's the same reason we have so many books about how bad it is to be a lawyer in a white shoe / magic circle firm. For years that was the default career trajectory for someone with an expensive education who was better at writing than numbers so we funnelled vast numbers of hyper literates into a career that many of them didn't like, got quite a lot of good memoirs out of it, and then conclude that it's a uniquely bad environment. It isn't, we just put all our writers in there. Far fewer memoirs about the life of a junior investment banker because they can't write as well as junior lawyers.
posted by atrazine at 8:50 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]

I think, as sy says, that it not so much that public schools create these monsters: you find them everywhere. Rather it takes young proto-monsters and at best does nothing to try to teach them otherwise; at worst they encourage it by showing this behaviour has no negative consequences and several benefits.

There's the now famous school report about 17-year-old Boris: "Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies. [He] sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the school for the next half).

"I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else."

At first sight this does give us an overview of what he will become. But on a second reading it's clear that the school thinks that there is nothing that can be done. There's no reference to steps that will be taken, let alone the threat of punishment or even expulsion. Rather it's "your son is a sociopath"

The more I think about it, the more I think the key article in this discussion is the one by Musa Okwonga. These boys (or rather some of these boys) arrive at Eton having already been given an incredible sense of their own importance and hence the unimportance of almost everybody else. The school reinforces this, gives them networks, social standing and a smattering of Greek and sends them off. All the other ones write memoirs about it.

posted by YoungStencil at 9:17 AM on July 4 [4 favorites]

The teen years are not when monsters become monsters. The teen years are when monsters learn how to act human.
posted by Etrigan at 9:26 AM on July 4 [6 favorites]

Boarding school starts at the age of seven.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 9:45 AM on July 4

"can’t shake that there are incel rocks to avoid in these waters. “Boys would behave better if they were given the access to girls they need, when they need it,” is an implication it would be best to clarify is not meant."

It is not that we would kiss away their misogyny, it's that our existence, as people mentioned, wouldn't be collectively mythological. Boys are uniquely protected from the feminine in a way girls are not from the masculine, and thus a sort of common misogyny-from-ignorance is virtually no overlap of interests or ability to imagine our thoughts.

It is a privilege that while a lot of emphasis is put on our docility, we are far better socialized- with measurable differences, such as receiving more gaze and focus time as infants. Further, my experience with gender integrated spaces is that our presence tends to puncture some parts of toxic masculinity - it is not at all ideal it comes from this, but the code of conduct around girls tends to lower the overall rate of violent hierarchy based crudeness, as well as not trapping boy children to only relate to girls as things to serve his needs. Peers and competition, young, both give boys friends motivated not to police him to be more boy, and see variation in girls so their gender does not become their defining feature.
posted by Phalene at 1:47 PM on July 4 [9 favorites]

Look, it sounds like we’re more or less all on the same page here about the mechanism for why boys educated in single sex English boarding schools have difficulty having relationships of various sorts with women later in life. Just, let’s centre that actual mechanism - the misogynistic culture of these schools - in such discussions, rather than being cute or circuitous by talking about lack of kissing instead. Because while it isn’t presently the norm on Metafilter, there are indeed people who think that the lack of opportunities to kiss women as teenagers is indeed the actual cause of the later romantic/sexual relationship difficulties of some of these schools’ alumni.
posted by eviemath at 2:16 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to hear that one song by the Troggs again.
posted by bartleby at 2:58 PM on July 4

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