Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





My secondary education






On my first day at Eton, at the age of thirteen, I thought the boy who was head of games in our house was a master, so I called him 'sir.' When I was told that the cupboard fixed to the wall in my room was a sock cupboard, I put my socks in it, because I did not know that 'sock' was Eton slang for food. I learnt to say 'tutor' for housemaster', 'dame' for 'matron' and 'half' instead of 'term'. I learnt how to tie the peculiar diminished bow-tie that went with the tail coat and pinstripe trousers that were the school uniform. I learnt that the house prefects were called 'the Library', after their private common-room.

After two or three weeks new boys were subjected to a new boys' test, in which we had to answer questions about such things as school slang, land-marks and the significance of the various house and school colours. I was not interested and I simply could not learn them. I was given a second and then a third chance. The Library threatened me with a beating if I did not pass, yet I still could not learn them. In the end they just gave up trying and let me off.

We accepted fagging without question. Every senior boy had at least one of us appointed as his fag, who had to tidy his room, put away his games clothes, polish his kit for the CCF (the Combined Cadet Corps) and cook his tea. There was a particularly unpleasant tradition called a boy-call. Anyone in the Library could call for a fag at any time. He would stand in the corridor and roar, with extraordinary force, 'Boy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy!' The cry would start low, rise up higher and louder and then drop down and fade away. It lasted as long as the caller's breath held out, and you could hear the calls from the houses across the street. If it was in your house and you were in the lower school you had to drop whatever you were doing and run to the caller. Whoever arrived last was given a job perhaps taking a message to someone in another house, tidying up some mess or fetching something the caller had left behind in some other part of the school. Fagging doesn't happen any more, because even our traditional public schools have seen how unreasonable it is, but when I was at school it was part of the culture.

We were beaten at Eton, too, in those days. We were not beaten by the teachers, but by the house prefects, the Library. I cannot remember the reasons for any of my beatings at Connaught House, but I do remember the reason for one of my beatings at Eton. It was because I had left a football behind on a football field, and I was beaten even though the next day I was able to go and fetch the ball back. Seated boyThis pretext seems so trivial that I think there must have been more behind it; it was probably intended to make me try harder to fit in, to sharpen up, to accept authority. If so it failed in all these objectives; I came to pride myself on being different. I was often frightened, but I did not want to become like the people who frightened me.

I was fortunate in that I was good at most lessons, but I was unfortunate when it came to sport because I was lanky, awkward and weak, and I had a bad eye for a ball. I learnt a lot from being always, as it were, bottom of the class in sport. Luckily there were no marks or form orders for PE, but the almost daily humiliation was a lesson in itself.

In spite of my uselessness at organised sport I often enjoyed physical activity. When my strength finally began to catch up with my height, when I was sixteen or so, I was even beginning to enjoy exercises in the gym, but by then we were allowed to stop, so I stopped. The school's approach, instead of encouraging my participation, had halted it.

It is hard to see what I had been supposed to learn. You would imagine that a school that valued sport would hope to develop every child's strength and skill. What actually happened was that the good athletes received every encouragement and the poor athletes were humiliated.

There was no security in the classroom either, even for reasonably able boys like me. There was always the risk of being shown up as inadequate, and some teachers made a point of humiliating their pupils in Shelley, cross-leggedorder to control them. Fishy Rowe, for instance, screwed up a big piece of work that I had done and threw it into the waste-paper basket because it did not have my name on it. I protested that it did have my name on it, so he made me come to the front of the class, pick it out of the basket and smooth it out on his desk. I pointed to my name. 'Too small,' he said.

Fishy Rowe was the only teacher who chose to pick me out and put me in my place. This particular incident was unjust and I have resented it all my life, but it did not do me any great harm. Those boys who were picked on regularly in class after class must have been driven into exactly the kind of rebelliousness that their masters were trying to repress.

My boarding-house had been newly created when I arrived and was therefore small and more civilised than many others, but one morning break, when we were standing round in the common-room, having biscuits and a drink, one of the older boys twisted the arm of a younger one and made him kneel down and kiss his shoes. The victim was a pretty boy, but whether that was anything to do with it I do not know. He cried, but none of us made any comment, we just watched.

I suffered from a peculiar mixture of purpose and aimlessness. Most of the work I had to do was a chore rather than a pleasure. Because it seemed to attract no benefit, either to me or to anyone else, I felt I was wasting my time and being held back from playing my part in the world. I remember on one occasion feeling a tempestuous envy of the man who was delivering the coal, because he was actually doing something useful.

I felt excluded at school because I made no mark, even in the things I enjoyed, like writing, music and drama. Perhaps I excluded myself, because I refused to accept some of the conventions that were supposed to govern our lives. I was an outsider, but I didn't enjoy being an outsider. I wanted to move into a world where I would be accepted.

By the time I left Eton I was beginning to be critical and to perform occasional timid acts of mild rebellion, but school just seemed to be a part of life, something to be endured while I did my best to have fun with my friends and to follow my own interests. I had no idea that there was any possible alternative.

House photograph

Here is a list of the lessons that I had learnt.

I had learnt that I was an eccentric outsider.
I had learnt that achievement in sport and lessons won respect, and useful activities like cooking, cleaning and delivering coal were the work of inferiors.
I had learnt that the right clothes and the right accent authorise you to behave with extreme arrogance.
I had learnt that my personal interests were not important.
I had learnt that family and friendship were private matters, and unimportant in relation to the regular business of the day.
I had learnt that affection, enjoyment and laughter were no more than decorations on the surface of life.
I had learnt that it was essential to disguise my true feelings.
I had learnt that what happened at school and what happened outside school were entirely separate. It was necessary to develop two personalities.
I had learnt that status was highly important, and that I didn't have it.
I had learnt that I must often submit to unreasonable demands.
I had learnt that I must try to hide my disagreements with authority, and to accept physical punishment when I failed to do so.
I had learnt that there were two dominant orders of morality that of the staff and that of the boys: the second carried the greater sanctions. Neither corresponded to my personal morality.
I had learnt it was safer to behave badly than to behave too well.
I had learnt that a position of authority gives you the right to be wrong.
I had learnt that power matters more than principle.
I had learnt that we are all prisoners of society, and that those who reach the highest positions are those who co-operate with the warders.
I had learnt that a combination of boredom, humiliation, suppressed rebellion and continual fear is an inevitable background to anything enjoyable that may happen.
I had learnt that some of the time it is possible to accept such an environment and carry on with your own life in spite of it, but at other times it swamps you.
I had learnt that there is no escape.

It was years before I managed to draw any different conclusions.