C.A.R. Crosland on the Anti-Democratic Nature of the British Public School System

I found this description of the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the British public school system, and its pernicious effect in creating class inequality and blocking genuine modernisation and social, political and technological improvements in British society in C.A.R. Crosland’s The Conservative Enemy: A Programme of Radical Reform for the 1960s (London: Jonathan Cape 1962). Despite the fact that this was written well over fifty years ago, it’s still, unfortunately, very true and is amply demonstrated by the current Tory government, headed as it is by the old Etonian limpet, David Cameron.

The public schools offend not only against the ‘weak’, let alone the ‘strong’, ideal of equal opportunity; they offend even more against any ideal of social cohesion or democracy. This privileged stratum of education, the exclusive preserve of the wealthier classes, socially and physically segregated from the state educational system, is the greatest single cause of stratification and class-consciousness in Britain.

It is not, of course, the only cause. The effect of being for so long a great imperial power, and the psychology of discipline, hierarchy, and master-subject relationships which this induced; the persistence (and indeed continual reinforcement ) of an hereditary aristocracy; the absurd flummery surrounding the Monarchy; the obsessive snobbery (even amongst a section of the intelligentsia) about birth and titles; the deep-seated differences in accent; the national propensity to kowtow and manoeuvre for precedence – these would produce strong feelings of social deference and superiority whatever the educational system.

But the school system is the greatest divisive influence. It is no accident that Britain, the only advanced country with a national private elite system of education, should also be the most class-ridden country. The Scandinavian countries, the least class-ridden, have no significant private sector; such few private schools as exist are mainly for backward children. In France, while many private primary schools exist, middle-class children normally go tot he public lycee at the secondary stage. In Germany there are half a dozen would-be-English public schools. But only an insignificant minority even of wealthier children attend them, and the carry no national prestige; an Old Salem boy may care as passionately about his alma mater as an Old Etonian, but his prospective employer or bank manager, let along the rest of the population, could not care less. In the United States, it is true, there are not only a large number of non-exclusive private Catholic schools, but a growing number of ‘smart’ upper-class private schools which, being often academically superior to the state schools, confer an advantage in getting into the best universities. But disturbing as this trend is, these schools still do not constitute a nation-wide elite system with the divisive social influence of the English public schools; nor, given the anti-elitist psychology of the American people, are they ever likely to.

No historically-minded champion of the public schools could possibly deny that schools can have either an integrative or divisive social influence. For it was indeed the historic function of the public schools in the nineteenth century to assimilate the sons of the new and self-made middle class into the ranks of the hereditary ruling class; and even today they fulfil an integrative role for the sons of self-made men. Similarly the American high school, whatever else may be said about it, has brilliantly fulfilled the function of assimilating ethnically diverse groups into a common national culture. (As a matter of fact, most of what else is said about it by English critics is false. They always assume that its lower educational standards are due to the fact of its being ‘comprehensive’, whereas in reality they are due, as the quite different Swedish experience demonstrates, to certain specifically American factors – the attachment to ‘life-adjustment’ education, the automatic ‘social promotion by age groups and the lack of grading by ability, the preference for vocational courses, the acute shortage of teachers, the low quality of many of the teachers, and so on.) A school system can either increase or diminish social disparities; and the British public schools manifestly increase them.

And they do not even, today, provide efficient leadership. It is again no coincidence that Britain, the only country with a national elite system of private boarding schools, from which its leadership is still disproportionately drawn, should be falling so badly behind other democratic countries in the achievement of widely-accepted national goals – behind western Europe in economic performance, Scandinavia in social welfare and urban planning, the United States in technology and innovation. In the nineteenth century the public schools, disagreeable as they may have been, did at least train a leadership perfectly fitted to the needs of a growing empire. For this training, their characteristic features – the boarding, the hierarchical discipline, the emphasis on games, the carefully-nurtured sense of innate superiority – were precisely apt. They are not, however, (although now considerably modified), equally apt for a mid-twentieth-century world full of computers, Communism, trade unions and African nationalism. This is hardly surprising. The quality of leadership is not, after all, an absolute and unvarying quality. It is specific to particular situations; and what makes for good leadership in one situation may make for bad leadership in another. The public schools today, although providing ‘a good education’ in a rather narrow sense, do not generate the right type of leadership for a democratic, scientific, welfare world.

Almost every emphasis which they inculcate – on manners and ‘character’, on the all-rounder and the amateur, on the insular, the orthodox and the traditional – is wrong from the point of view of contemporary goals. it is this which partly explains those national characteristics which are at long last becoming the subject of widespread hostile comment: the reluctance to innovate, the refusal to grapple with problems, the lack of pride in maximum professional achievement, and the cult of the gifted amateur, of the smooth and rounded Wykehamist who can turn his hand to anything with a natural, effortless superiority, and with no need to stoop to the humourless professionalism of Huns or Yanks. Fundamentally this reflects a failure of English elite education to achieve the highest of all education ideals: that of fostering inquiry, dissent, and critical intellectuality. A country in which the most damning insult which Lord Salisbury could fling at Mr Iain Macleod was that he is ‘too clever by half’ is not a good prospect in the modern world. Some of our upper classes are as anti-intellectual as the Know-Nothings.

But this attitude might be attributable to aristocracy, not to the schools themselves. Unfortunately, parallel faults can found in those fields which traditional represent the culmination of the British elite system of education: the Civil Service, and Oxford and Cambridge. Beautifully adapted to its pristine task of administering a going concern without excessive interference, the British Civil Service remains notable for its honesty, industry and administrative competence. But it has failed to adapt to a world which requires the long rather than the short view, active planning rather than passive administration, novel rather than traditional ideas. Thus the Treasury has been astonishingly behind France, Holland and Sweden in adopting long-term economic planning. The Foreign Office was ponderously slow to wake up to the existence of new and revolutionary post-war situations in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Ministries of Health and National Insurance have introduced new social policies without even a research unit to investigate their probably effects. The Ministry of Education takes decisions for or against different types of school without conducting any research into their different consequences, and has little idea of how many teachers we need to carry out its own policies. The typical Whitehall attitude of mind-thorough and precise, but pedantic and unadventurous – is in part a reflection of the Oxford and Cambridge background from which most Civil Servants come. But are Oxford and Cambridge really as good as Harvard and the Sorbonne! Their farcical performance over the introduction of sociology – a lamentable compound of hidebound traditionalism and facetious superciliousness – makes one doubt it….

The need is not for more public-school-type education for the top few per cent of the population. Indeed, the whole notion of an elite-type education is inappropriate in Britain today. For both our greatest need and our largest untapped resource now lie below the level of the cleverest few per cent – although disastrously many even of these are still slipping through the net. From the viewpoint of efficiency as well as equality, we need less concentration on an educational elite and more on the average standard of attainment.

The case against the public schools, then, has grown stronger even in the last few years. First, the type of leadership which they provide is seen to be less and less appropriate to the national goals of the 1960s. Secondly, as we grasp the fact that intelligence is partly an acquired characteristic, we see even more clearly that the whole notion of an exclusive and privileged education is inconsistent with equality of opportunity. Thirdly, despite the gradual process of democratic reform in other directions, the socially divisive influence which these schools exert show disturbingly little sign of abating. (pp.174-8).

This is clearly a dated piece, as Britain was, until we left the EU, something like the fifth largest economy in the world, and England has led the world in the number of patents that come out of our universities, quite apart from the more obvious points such as the collapse of Communism. But as this government’s policies amply demonstrate, the wealth is increasingly concentrate in a very narrow circle of the extremely rich, at the expense of everyone else. And while Britain may be scientifically immensely innovative, those innovations have tended to be developed elsewhere. Maglev transport is a case in point. The idea of trains powered by magnetic levitation was the idea of the British scientist, Laithwaite. There were serious experiments in its application by British Rail, until this was axed during the cost-cutting of the early 1970s. Research was then taken over by the Germans. Which partly explains why Volkswagen’s slogan, Vorsprung durch Technik – something like ‘Advance through Technology’, isn’t translated into English.

In short, the main function of the British public schools is to lock the upper classes in power, and the rest of the country in a quasi-feudal class servility. And one of its products, Boris Johnson, looks like he’s going to be the next PM.

Oh, couldn’t we have at last at least one leader, who went to a comprehensive!


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