One thing Orwell valued about the School,
was the tolerant, civilised atmosphere
that let him be detached and cynical,
but also gave him the space to read what he wanted,
even if they were against all that his Master's believed in.

by Joshua Neicho KS
~ published in Eton College Chronicle ~

Poor George Orwell OE, who died fifty years ago on January 21, wholly unremembered in the pages of The Chronicle. Then again, he would probably have wanted it that way. Undistinguished in his career as a Colleger, he became a trenchant critic of the School in later life. This was not simply a personal attack - he was opposed to all forms of social elitism in education - but personal experience meant his comments of the matter were particularly barbed. In his great essay on the English, The Lion and the Unicorn, he felt the School was doomed as it was unashamedly aristocratic at a time when the aristocracy was in a state of decline. It is almost impossible that Eton should survive in its present form, because the training it offers had become an anachronism long before 1939. Secondly he identified a social snobbery that alienated him, as a member of the lower-upper-middle classes whose parents never had money, and helped drive him over to socialism.

While Orwell's analytical powers are famous, his judgement on this matter is slightly inaccurate. Of course it is very much of its own time, when social barriers were stronger than they are today, but it is also rather charitable to the School, laying the emphasis on faults general to public schools instead of Eton in particular. It is fair to say that the School educated an embarassment of aristocrats when landed wealth was still strong; but what is more significant are the numbers that have continued to come, long after 1939, and the number of new products of wealth that have joined them. The School's survival has not been based, like some other public schools, on the excellence of a specific training. Indeed there is no attempt made towards preparing boys for anything in particular, which OE authors both critical and enthusiastic agree on. Christopher Hollis OE MP, in a meditative final chapter of his 1960 Eton history, noted the way the School almost boasts that it does not consider it its business to save a fool from the consequence of his folly. Were an exact statistic available, he continues, Eton's predominance of the prison population would not be as remarkable as its predominance in the House of Commons, but it might be that Etonians would be more numerous than boys at other public schools. In an equivalent conclusion, written thirty years earlier, Etonophile Bernard Fergusson admitted that. It is certainly easier to slack at Eton; he who did not learn to pull his weight was incorrigible and one might as well wash one's hands of him.

Instead of anything so practical, Eton's attraction comes from a sense of prestige that seems to be trapped in its historic buildings and its strange culture, but is very hard to define. It seduces visitors and leads to an enormous degree of self-confidence amongst the community. There is the temptation to hold the belief that Eton is the best of schools with barely any ability to qualify it. The only possible comparison is with stricter public schools, which pale in comparison in the Etonian's eyes. Hollis recalls with amusement, in his autobiography, how once a boy had told him immorality was so high at Eton that only Harrow was more wicked. Thus, he feels, the sort of snobbery deplored by Orwell was undercut by a complacency towards the world as a whole: The very arrogance of Eton forbids it from despising an Etonian merely because his parents are poor. The Social breadth of the School was and is severely limited, anyway, by the practicalities of fees. The number of truly non-feepaying students in either part of the School has never been very great.

As a comment of Eton today, these criticisms are strong. The School has undergone an educational revolution which has made idleness a difficult course to follow. Old blinkers have been removed because they are no longer tolerable to the Eton establishment. But the character of the School has been largely maintained through all this change, and Etonians still have a tendency to be narrow-mindedly pleased with themselves that is marked by the outside world. Fergusson in the 1930s deplores the outsider who can't abide the Typical Etonian, but he admits that it is our fault, I suppose. Seventy years later the resentment might be put a little differently, but with Slough Comprehensive an apology on a thousand lips, the conviction is often the same.

All is not lost, however. Behind every negative aspect is a corresponding positive. Hollis points out that while the School's liberality can lead to complacency, it can also have huge positive effects for those who take advantage of their opportunities. And he illustrates how this environment is, in the right hands, far more beneficial than the regimented atmosphere of other schools because it allows boys to kick against it. It is an important achievement of a system if it can make the rebels intelligent. Fergusson destroys the tormenters who can't stand the Typical Etonian by demonstrating that he does not exist. The self-confident, independent Etonian might be a stereotype, but by his very definition he is not a type; the only thing you learn at Eton is how to be your own master. In one of the most recent books on the School, written by the ex-Vice Provost Tim Card in 1994, the message is the same. Eton has set itself against any attempt to mould boys. Instead they have been given opportunities and an unusual degree of choice.

Examples of strengths can be found throughout the School, in every Schoolroom and on every playing field. The fact that every boy has his own room - that there is no ultimate boy hierarchy - that there is so much free time in every day - but so many unmissable activities to do it in. Looking back a hundred years, it is harder to find signs of such broadness and freedom; but Extra Divisions in the School Calendar, a precursor of Options on subjects from Medical Science to translating Sophocles, are a tiny indication of a flexible curriculum. An equivalent editorial to this from Lent 1900 replies to the charge of a German Professor against English schooling (it is so good for the mind to lie fallow until the age of nineteen). Our classical education, the Editor writes, allows characters to develop without crushing the individuality too much with heavy facts. Those who are most successful in after life are by no means necessarily the ones to excel at school; then their characters are unformed, and have not yet found strength.

Orwell was certainly one such person. Whether the Editor would have approved of the character he later formed is doubtful; but that is missing the point. The understanding the Editor identifies is Eton's great strength. It is one thing that Orwell valued about the School, the tolerant, civilised atmosphere that let him be detached and cynical, but also gave him the space to read what he wanted, even if they were against all that his Master's believed in. It is a tolerence that Fergusson identifies not only from the Establishment towards its pupils, but amongst the boys themselves: the lion lies down with the lamb; the athlete messes with the sap, the pugilist with the poet. This may not be noticeable among the Lower Boys but it grows more and more apparent as one climbs up the School. Mr. Card agrees; while an Etonian may experience some temporary self-centredness he should in time become aware of the needs of the wider community, the social virtues alongside individual ones.

Tolerant and civilised one hopes this much of the School's character has been maintained. With an Inspection and exchanges with schools in Britain and abroad within the first few weeks of the Lent Half, there is no reason why it should not have been. But we must take a real look at ourselves, as Fergusson suggests. Under our skins, when we have no tails and pin stripes, collar studs and cuff-links to our names, can we still swing together without having to swear by the best of Schools? Let us hope so - Mr. Orwell would be very pleased.



Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~