Old Money: In Their Own Words

I recently had coffee here in Paris with “David”, a long time Member of the Tribe and contributor of frequent, eloquent comments here on the blog.

This conversation, like our previous ones, ran rampant from subject to subject: current events, culture, our respective work projects, the privileges (and pains) of flying on Air France (too) often, and of course, education. We just can’t stress the importance of it to each other enough. (Wink, nod.)

As we were leaving the cafe, I asked him if he’d share some quick thoughts about his experience with what Americans call a ‘private school’, and what is known in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) as ‘public school’ or ‘prep school.’

He graciously agreed, and his thoughts appear below.

Merci, David. Enjoy, everyone. 

From time to time there have been mentions of schools, prep schools (slightly different on the other side of the pond), colleges and suchlike, and what they do for one in later life.

I imagine opinions are as numerous as are attendees, scholars and experiences. Some revel the thought of them, others despise. According to his Wikipedia write-up Robert Morley, an old Wellingtonian, said that the only reason for him to visit his old school would be to burn it down.

I felt much the same way when I left my school. It has taken me many years to realise that many of the seeds they had sown had born fruit in my behaviours and mannerisms. The discipline, the understanding of hierarchy and never feeling ‘less than’.

Why do I still cringe at work when I see a more junior staff member addressing a more senior one in what (I) consider a less than respectful manner? Probably because I am subconsciously back at school.

Why do I follow rugby at certain schools but not others? Perhaps another subconscious association where I feel more ‘at home’ visiting them and where on making an enquiry a boy might address me as ‘Sir’, and actually mean it.

The ‘problem’ with such schools is that after one comes out of them one thinks that the whole world went to such a school and thinks the same way. The fact is, they didn’t and they don’t. And the shocks come daily.

These institutions have been called many things from ‘King-makers’ to the breeding grounds of bullying. Even the hydra-head of snobbery.

When I observe ‘things’ that I feel fall short of the mark of decent behavior I can’t help thinking of Robert Morley’s quip in the classic film, “When Eight Bells Toll”, when he surveyed a particularly messy situation left by someone else…

‘It all comes from not going to a proper school’.

  • David

10 thoughts on “Old Money: In Their Own Words

  1. School (whatever the modifier before word school) sucks!

    However, the education is very important

    “Education is the process by which the community seeks to open its life to all the individuals within it and enable them to take their part in it. It attempts to pass on to them its culture, including the standards by whit it would have them live. Where that culture as final, the attempt is made to impose it on younger minds. Where it is viewed as a stage in development, younger minds are trained both to receive it and to criticize and to improve upon it.”
    The Churches Survey Their Task, Oxford Conference on Church, Community and state, 1937, pg. 130


    More about culture, school and education form T.S. Eliot


  2. There’s a lot to say in support of boarding schools. Indeed, the “behaviours and mannerisms”. But a lot of that is genteel folklore.

    To evaluate education, one could start by asking what it’s supposed to achieve. In the case of boarding schools, the goal is clear: prepare students to achieve at the highest professional/social level. For that, the schools provide a network and passport for accessing otherwise hermetic positions.

    And with that, comes an attitude. Those familiar with e.g. UK politics may understand it’s difficult to ignore the sense of self-entitlement, careerism, nepotism and inverted snobbery.

    Granted, it isn’t unjustified to be suspicious of any (prestigious) educational institution. Children aren’t in the first place taught to think for themselves and question the world, they’re taught to function in the world as it is:
    rationalist, specialist, profit-driven, unequal.

    Is there a better form of education? Yes, perhaps utopian. The teaching of critical thinking, ethics, insight and broad (rather than specialist) knowledge. Education through a personal tutor, like Aristotle and Hobbes provided. Mortimer J. Adler was capable of giving such education. Most professors today, one fears, aren’t.

    In a way, our educational system is a reflection of our society: unequal and flawed. Perhaps boarding schools are the least worst option, looking at the alternatives. If the critical thinking isn’t entirely there, then at least kids learn proper manners and have access to arts, drama and sports.

    Volunteers working in poverty or war-torn countries may not have the “behaviours and mannerisms”. But that doesn’t keep them from risking their lives for a noble cause. There can be a higher Good without elitist education, and elitist education without a higher Good.

  3. David has hit the nail on the head. I have been shocked time and time again in my professional life by the failure of others to conform to, what I believed, were basic standards of behavior, dress, and effort. I and many of my old schoolmates, now in our early 30’s, absolutely credit much of our success to traits instilled in us in prep school even more so than college.

    Living with strict dress codes, uniforms, grooming and hair regulations, legitimate punishment for things such as tardiness and being disrespectful, being constantly preached to about our responsibility to pay attention to detail, to take care of the little things, to clean up after ourselves, and to take care of the younger kids on campus all weighed on us back then. We didn’t like it. We cursed some of it after graduation. But now more and more we see the fruits it instilled in us, and I for one am very thankful for having gone through it.

    1. Yes, I believe having a framework of discipline creates confidence. For a time, not having to wonder where the lines are drawn, and having others that understand the same rules, is stabilizing. Later in life, you can adapt your own beliefs born from experiences that suit you, but the initial concepts remain as a guide. Many of the rules set have to do with respecting others, and yourself, and in general realizing that you are not the center of the universe.

  4. Let’s hear it for framework, structure, discipline, attention to detail, and etc. I am not a veteran of private (public) schools myself, and I can see some legitimacy in the criticisms leveled at these institutions by those of us on the outside. The tendency for many is, after all, to criticize what we don’t have. That said, I also can see some of the benefits these institutions offer, as previous commenters have outlined already. By contrast, the rather lax, anything goes, me, me, me approach does not seem to be working either if the rest of society removes its rose-colored glasses for a moment. Arrogant and judgemental? Certainly. But how can a person fail to notice the poor state of society at large if one’s eye are open at all? There is much to be said for,as Elle writes, respect for others, oneself, and acknowledging that one is not the center of the universe.

    Best Regards,

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