David Turner – The Old Boys: Some Scattered Thoughts

A week off after my first set of Cambridge exams has finally given me time to read non-legal material. The first on the list this summer is David Turner’s The Old Boys, a history of the decline and rise of public schools in England. Rather than a full-scale review, I seek to present a series of thoughts based on my own experience of independent schooling, and draw some comparisons between historical and modern public school education. This post is not intended to comment on the elitism that continues to dog the public schools, the proportion of public school pupils who attend top universities, the efficacy of university access schemes, or the narrow backgrounds of much of the current executive and judiciary in the UK. I shall use the terms ‘public school’ and ‘independent school’ interchangeably; in both cases, I refer to those schools which Turner earmarks as being outside state control.

From the outset, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of English education as a whole, or for anyone who simply wants to know more about why schools such as Eton, Winchester, St. Paul’s and Harrow have become what they are today. The book is packed with detail and comprehensively covers every major period in public school history, from their foundation to the modern day. Turner’s writing style is not the most riveting; this book is by no means a thriller and does require some interest in its content. It does, however, flow well, and at no point do you feel as if you’re slogging through the book. The views of those who criticise public school education in the modern day are presented, but it is clear that the author’s sympathies lie with the public schools themselves. As previously stated, I do not wish to pass comment on this aspect of the book – this is perhaps better served by a future, more extensive post – so I leave it to the reader to make their own decision.

The Classics

English public schools are well-known for having provided an education firmly rooted in the Classics. For hundreds of years, knowledge of Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad, or The Odes of Horace was considered to be the highest form of education. In the modern day, Latin is compulsory for some years at most independent schools, but is a rarity in the state sector. Classical Greek is even less common: it is rarely a compulsory subject even in the independent sector, and very few Sixth Form students opt for it, whether as an A-Level or within the IB. The contrast between the historical and modern positions is therefore dramatic; the Classics have gone from being a staple of public school life to an obscurity.

The contrast becomes even more dramatic in light of the conservatism that was long maintained by the public schools. In the nineteenth century, continental Europe was on the move. Developments were being made in the natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics. At this point, the English public schools were content to shun modern advancements and fall back on the ‘tried and tested’; Horace and Cicero were perhaps the solution to everything. Even as more modern subjects began to be introduced, the Classicists were very much the cream of the crop: the eldest boys who devoted their time to studying the Classics in preparation for further study at Oxford or Cambridge were known as the ‘Classical Sixth’ and were considered so elite by one headmaster in Edinburgh that he in fact refused to teach the rest of the school. This is undoubtedly a far cry from the position today. The modern ‘Classical Sixth’ would consist of no more than a handful of boys, and the changes in attitudes towards the Classics and sciences respectively now mean that it is the scientists who dominate the modern public school landscape.

The need for a broad-based curriculum

It was not uncommon in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for parents to push public schools to modernise the curriculum; this was in part due to developments in the rest of Europe, and perhaps also an increasing realisation that the Classical education of the times – far less effective than the modern form – was not the best preparation for certain careers, such as the Indian Civil Service. The public schools did still have their useful quirks: the prefect system was designed to train boys in leadership at young ages so that they could hit the ground running as MPs or civil servants; but their survival is firmly rooted in the expansion of what was once a very narrow curriculum. Whilst the public schools are still known for their Classical past, there are also signs of flexibility in an otherwise conservative landscape.

Along with this parental pressure, impressive scientific and mathematical teaching at state schools in the twentieth century forced the public schools to keep up, and sounded the death knell for the Classics; for more on the modern position, see this earlier post. This was not only financially necessary, to ensure that demand for public school places remained, but also academically so. The lack of state control on public school curricula and teaching standards had allowed the schools to slip to the extent that long-established grammar schools gained considerably more Cambridge scholarships in the 1920s and 1930s. The public schools had to react to preserve some standing. Once known for variable academic standards, the independent schools of today are now renowned for their high standards of teaching, especially in the sciences. This is a testament to the public schools’ ability to innovate when necessary, although it must be recognised that many such innovations were in response to external triggers.

Learning for the sake of learning

The most dramatic thing about my A-Level subject choices was perhaps the extent to which they are an archaism: Maths, Music, Latin and Classical Greek seems more like an eighteenth century education with a modern twist rather than the usual preparation for reading Law. It is perhaps no great surprise, therefore, that I have become an advocate of learning for the sake of learning. There is still a place for learning what might be deemed ‘useless’ subjects. The Classics impart academic rigour, attention to detail and require nuanced thinking about the way language is used. This is not an attitude that is particularly prevalent in the modern day: degree subjects that don’t naturally lead to a career are becoming less and less popular as choices about one’s future are made at earlier stages. .

It is therefore interesting to note that this attitude is not a modernism but was born in the nineteenth century, where the preference for ‘mercantile’ subjects with greater commercial use began to take root. George Butler, the notably conservative schoolmaster of Liverpool College during this time, was highly reluctant to yield to this surge in demand. During his tenure, the Classics were maintained as a fundamental of public school education. This was by no means the most effective means of education at the time, but as somebody for whom interest and a smattering of transferable  skills is enough to make me want to study something, his approach is a beacon of light in what is increasingly becoming a very narrowly-focused landscape. I can only hope that more modern students are encouraged to stray from the newly but forcefully beaten track.

Turner’s book reveals that the history of English public schools is far more complex than the highly academic institutions with remarkable facilities today suggest. It is certainly well worth reading, both due to some of the changes highlighted above, and because of the long history of elitism. For more on this, await my next post.


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