Defending the indefensible? A private school education!
There’s been a lot of talk about this. Far too much, I’d say. So it is no longer really news at all – but guess what everybody: David Cameron and London’s new mayor Boris Johnson went to a private school (HT to Cranmer for the awesome pic of City Hall below). In fact, they went to ETON. And then, they both went to Oxford University. Which means that they are both by definition, de facto, de iure, de novo (and presumably also de niro and de rigueur) TOFFS. And never trust a toff. With anything. Ever.
A Toff’s Perspective
Now for the sake of transparency, I feel the need to be quite open (in fact, in the present climate, one might even say that ‘admit’ is the only appropriate term here) about this. I don’t normally indulge in getting all autobiographical on this blog (well, not that much) but it can’t be denied: I went to a posh prep school, I went to Eton, and I went to Oxford as an undergraduate; what’s more (thus nailing coffins finally and fully) I actually went to a vicar factory in Cambridge. How about that? Toff, toff, toff!
Now to give myself my due, I like to think that since then, I have followed anything but the standard career path for toffs. I know that a few years back it was fairly much standard operating procedure for a large proportion of OE’s to get ordained in the Church of England (once known, but hardly any longer, as the Tory party at prayer); but it is certainly not the case anymore. I went to an OE year-reunion the other day (with some degree of fear and trepidation, I should add), and I’m pretty sure that I was the only vicar present. But still, I got ordained and spent a number of very happy years in a church in Sheffield (see various posts); then a few years teaching in a Ugandan-founded theological college in Kampala, in Uganda, and now for the last few years at All Souls. I suppose the latter is a bit posh because it does mean we get to live in Marylebone – but the All Souls congregation is more a reflection of the crazy diversity of the whole of London than of its Marylebone location.
So – what’s the point of saying all this? Well because I simply want to ask, “what’s the point of saying all this?” Is it really relevant where someone went to school? Wasn’t it ironic that during Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrats were led by Paddy Ashdown and the Tories by William Hague – meaning that the only party led by a state school product was the Conservatives (and Hague took over from fellow-comprehensive product, John Major). I would suggest that what is going on is another, even subtler form of Bulverism (see post on 13th April). Surely what matters far more in a leader is their character, integrity, creativity, intelligence and inter-personal skills. Whether Boris or Cameron have these is simply another question.
Some may say that there is still the old-school-tie at work in appointments etc – and this is no doubt true. But isn’t life always like this – everyone tends to trust those they’ve known for a long time (loyalty, track records etc) – isn’t that how Teams Blair and Brown have worked for the last decade? Please note – I’m not condoning an oppressive jobs-for-the-boys culture – but it seems that a private education is a red rag to certain bulls.
An Historical Perspective
But i think there are some points to make which might give it some perspective. Having done quite a bit of teaching in recent years about how western thinking has shifted over the last 1000 years, it has struck me that one of the key factors has been the fact that different ‘classes’ or ‘society groupings’ have all had their go at power. Gross over-simplifications these, but hopefully you’ll get the idea:
- PRE-MODERN – MONARCHY & ARISTOCRACY: From before the Middle Ages, it was very much the Monarch at the head of the feudal pyramid. This got challenged at various points – eg Magna Carta – where a number of barons felt the need to curtail the king’s power. But this was hardly the outbreak of democracy that it is sometimes presented as. Sure it was sowing some seeds – but the bottom line across Europe was the the king and aristocracy (ie the landowners) held all the political cards.
- EARLY MODERN – THE MIDDLE CLASSES: the old order (ancien régime) crumbled for a myriad of reasons – the growth in trade and thus wealth, the dissemination of learning beyond the monastery walls (through printing etc), the growth in nationalism and anti-clericalism etc etc. Far too complex to outline here – but the European middle classes had arrived. The culmination after years of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment was of course Revolution – in America and France. And the middle classes wanted their own bite of the cherry. For despite the idealism of these revolutions, and perhaps partly in response to the extremes of violence, they never succeeded in spreading the ideals of liberty beyond the bourgeoisie. Hence the force of Marx & Engels…
- LATE MODERN – THE WORKERS: the French Revolution wasn’t the only revolution to leave many victims sprawled in its wake. The Industrial Revolution made the middle classes richer – but the working classes far worse off. The horrors were touched on by the likes of Dickens and later Karl Marx. Why should the workers do all this for no gain? Why indeed. What was clearly needed was to take 1789 further – and of course that is precisely what Lenin/Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot all did. Let the people govern the people.
Well, now everyone has actually had a go. And everyone has messed up BIG TIME at some point. No wonder postmodernists have despaired of political change altogether. It is no accident that some of the key French postmodernist thinkers started out (more or less) as Marxists but soon abandoned the faith (eg Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard). Who can be trusted with power? Every group is bound to oppress another at some point (aristos oppressing the workers, middle class executing the aristos and exploiting the workers; workers oppressing the aristos and bourgeois etc etc). No wonder some have opted out altogether today. Why get involved?
Now, I’m not advocating that. But surely on the basis of this contemporary logic, one could actually reject anyone because of their background (be it, posh, middle class or street)? Which is of course pointless and even ridiculous.
A Christian Perspective
But what of a Christian perspective on all this? A few random thoughts.
- Any sense of superiority over others is completely out of order for the Christian. The Cross forces us to face God on a level playing field. So racism and classism is not on. To be sure, there are definitely REAL class and race concerns in the British church, as there are in British society at large. We should never be naive or complacent about this. And we should do all we can to root them out – corporately and individually. We should never allow our heritage or pedigree to be a source of superior pride – after all, that’s precisely what the apostle Paul rejected in Philippians 3 (and his pedigree had the added bonus of having profound theological significance).
- But we must also beware its opposite: what you might call inverted classism or inverted snobbery – and I fear that this is what is going on today. Which is why the renowned Selena, Countess of Huntingdon would say after her conversion through the 18th Century preacher George Whitefield, that she was “saved by the letter ‘M'” – because 1 Corinthians 1:26, where Paul says Brothers, hink of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. In other words, Paul doesn’t say ‘not ANY’ but ‘not MANY’
- On a wider note, therefore, none of us is a slave of our past – whatever it might contain (albeit, addictions, criminal records, mistakes, education, opportunities, privilege). Isn’t that one of the great wonders of the gospel? There is always hope for change. What’s more, whatever one’s political hue, how can anyone be held responsible for decisions taken by their parents?
- As Jesus said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48). I suppose you could say that this was the origin of noblesse oblige!?! But I am not suggesting that to have a private education necessarily makes one more or less privileged spiritually – in some ways it can innoculate poeple against thinking they will ever need the gospel. But still, whatever we are given, we are all responsible to God to use it for his glory – education or not.
Finally, it is sadly necessary to add that how one educates one’s own children can become a divisive issue in churches – with the result that cliques can grow up around those who educate their children privately, through state schools or through home schooling. It may start with simple pragmatics and logistics (eg differences in half term or holiday dates) – but we should work to overcome these divisions.
So there – end of spleen vent. I should end by saying that – No – they don’t still wear top hats at Eton – though the school uniform is, bizarrely enough, the result of the school still being in morning for a dead monarch, several centuries on.