Eton College (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Private Education and Public Benefit

Why private schools must leave liberalism in the dustbin

Institutions inextricably bound up with their localities. National treasures with long histories of public service. Sites of collective memory and ritual, loyalty and love. What’s a communitarian not to love about private schools? 

Regrettably all too much. In recent decades, these schools have diluted their historic commitment to the public good and fallen prey to the ever more ardent individualism demanded by their high-paying customers. By doing so, they have lost the position of moral leadership that they once deservedly enjoyed and have rightly come under pressure to prove the public benefit and justify the rates relief they need in order to survive.

A neo-liberal education

How did they become so individualistic? The stereotype of the UK private school is a Hogwartsian idyll of cosy conservatism and the charming anachronisms of gown, mortar board and Kennedy’s book of Latin grammar. The reality is quite different.

Ever adapting themselves to the changing expectations of their clientele, private schools have come to both reflect and reinforce values that are in fact remarkably liberal, prizing individual, social and economic freedom of action above all other considerations. These values typify the “Anywhere” or “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) designations popularised by David Goodhart. Suspicious of faith, flag and family, they are instead “profoundly committed to autonomy and self-realisation.”

In practice this means a robust social and economic liberalism. Taking the former first, far being from the stereotypical havens of hierarchy and authority (silent corridors, forbidding schoolmasters and oppressive uniforms) the typical UK private school promotes autonomy and self-realisation in both the private sphere (e.g. sexual orientation and gender) and, as far as possible, in the public sphere too (e.g. up with immigration, down with Trump, etc). So Godolphin and Latymer (attended by Nigella Lawson) professes to be “an open, inclusive and tolerant school that celebrates our differences and is liberal in our values.” Likewise South Hampstead High School (attended by Helena Bonham Carter) is “proud to be a feminist school.” Even the headmaster of Eton, that bastion of backwardness, has called for more gender intelligence and invited the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project to lecture his boys. 

The trend in private school graduates today is a mixture of nihilism and apathy

In terms of economic liberalism, the equation of wealth and worth is a working assumption. Like their customers, the schools believe that their students will rush out to enter a “global race”. Schools see it as their primary duty to do whatever it takes to help them win it: top grades in national examinations, places at elite universities, assistance with internships for coveted jobs and endless alumni networking opportunities. The education on offer is ever more nakedly transactional: cash for results. Private school teachers pore over mark schemes and examiners’ reports to give their students every advantage in exam success (sometimes going so far as to tell them which questions will be asked).

Because pupils are rarely encouraged to seek the true, the good or the beautiful, and must chase utilitarian examination metrics that the teenage mind finds vexing and often suspects to be shallow, the trend in private school graduates today is a mixture of nihilism and apathy. In spite of the occasional environmental protest (at what cost?), the suspicion is that most elite students leave school as “excellent sheep”, not believing in very much at all. As they grow into adulthood their personal philosophy is often small and protectivist in which “me, my spouse, my kids and my stuff” become the narrow bounds in which most of their lives are led.

This matters for the individuals because it hollows our lives. Is it any wonder that the products of our schools today are so anxious and — in the important things — flippant or joyless when the routes to a richer absorption in life — via knowledge for its own sake, community, relationships, tradition and meaning — have all been disavowed by those who have educated them? This individual cost might lead customers eventually to look elsewhere. But it matters for society too because these private school products go on to take the top jobs and exert an outsized influence on the culture at large. A nihilistic elite that doesn’t believe in very much has real consequences for the rest of us. 

The post-liberal school

If the will were there, then, what might a “post-liberal” school look like?

The lifeblood of the post-liberal school would be tradition, ritual, loyalty, family, fairness, duty, the nation, the public good and a belief that the good, the true and the beautiful can be discerned and sought. That inventory it would place above the maximisation of personal freedom and profit. Thus, in a school context, it would mean the unabashed teaching of virtue (principle combined with practice), even if that meant circumscribing individual choice.

It is not hard to see how many of these values could easily be accommodated to the “public school spirit” of yesteryear, the residue of which still streams through many schools in the form of sport, CCF, regular worship, arts education, scholastic prizes and much else besides. So partly a post-liberal school might simply lean back towards ways of educating that served until very recently. 

But here are five specific policies that a post-liberal private school could adopt tomorrow if it so wished. It would:

  1. Not leave charitable work to the sports-shy, seeking experiences for every pupil that taught them the privilege of their position and led to moral epiphanies. A great example is the Roxbury Latin school, whose pupils act as pallbearers to local homeless men who have died alone.
  2. Remove its pupils from sitting needless GCSEs and remove itself from exam league tables. It would not publish its exam results on its website.
  3. Ban use of smartphones. 
  4. Limit premature intellectual specialisation and promote the value of knowledge for its own sake, e.g. by forcing STEM students to take compulsory survey courses in the Humanities (and vice versa), by taking the uninterested sports star on a guided tour of the National Gallery and by teaching the introvert how to speak in public. 
  5. Vastly increase the use of biography as models for virtuous action. Humanities lessons, sermons, assemblies etc would frequently examine and uphold the decisions made by those who have gone before, especially those who “did the right thing even when no one was watching” or at some great cost to themselves.

What if this contradicts the desires of parents? Private schools have pandered to them for too long. The art of leadership is to realise a vision and to make it attractive for others to follow. This post-liberal school would convey a confidence, even a romance, that is bound to appeal — and its products would be a credit to their school, their neighbourhood and their nation. By leading in this way such a school may even justify the definition of “public benefit” and assure its means of survival during the tricky times that lie ahead. 

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