A Clique of 'Pseudo-Adults' Britain's Elite-School Problem

Boris Johnson is the 20th prime minister to come out of Eton College. The school represents a system in which the elite stay among themselves and fail to see the problems of others. And it is becoming a serious problem for the country.

Richard Shymansky


At the very front of the Eton Museum, there is a wall of fame set up on a mint-green background. Princes William and Harry are there, as is James Bond author Ian Fleming, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the actor Damian Lewis and Hugh "Dr. House" Laurie. There are also decorated soldiers, Olympics athletes, journalists and adventurers. And, of course, politicians. David Cameron is there, as is Jacob Rees-Mogg and, on the top-right, a young, blonde man grinning broadly into the camera: Boris Johnson, who is described there as the former mayor of London and ex-foreign minister.

Eton College, it seems, hasn't completely caught up with the times.

The school is extremely proud of its "Old Etonians." The exhibit proudly notes that graduates of the school "can be found involved in almost every national movement, in every event and on every side."

That, some would say, is the problem.

In the United Kingdom, a lot of people are once again talking and writing about Eton. They aren't, of course, talking about the Berkshire village by that name, which is essentially just a long street decorated with Union Jacks located just west of London, around the corner from Windsor Castle.

They mean the complex that lies at the end of this road: a huge, castle-like clutch of red brick buildings largely closed off to the public. It is almost two square kilometers in size and sits between the Thames and the Jubilee Rivers. Eton College, the empire's almost mythical elite academy, the place where the wealthy classes send their children, one of the most famous and oldest boarding schools in the world. It is also the place that has "produced," as Eton itself says, 20 prime ministers.

The most recent Old Etonian to take the helm is Boris Johnson. He inherited his most important -- perhaps only -- task from another Old Etonian, David Cameron, who unnecessarily paved the way for the Brexit referendum in 2016. If you include former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was educated in an elite Scottish school called Fettes College, the UK's fate for over the past 20 years has largely been determined by the graduates of elite boarding schools.

Is that merely a coincidence?

Once one begins reporting on private schools and starts speaking to their former students, one quickly comes into contact with an exclusive world of archaic rules and unconscionable wealth. This world only exists in Britain. There, only success counts, no matter how it is attained. The system has brought forth an astounding number of statesmen, military heroes, Nobel laureates, gold-medal winners and Oscar recipients. But it has also helped promote, deepen and cement inequality. It is a system that "underpins almost all that is wrong with British society," as Boris Johnson's own sister, Rachel, has said. She is among the many who believe that the private school system should be broken up.

An Archaic System

There is nothing to indicate that her brother agrees. Boris Johnson has appointed numerous private school-educated politicians to his cabinet, with almost two-thirds of his ministers belonging to the 7 percent of the population whose worldview was formed in a private institution.

As such, his government doesn't represent "modern Great Britain," as Johnson has claimed, but an archaic system that teaches those who belong to it that they are destined for the kind of greatness that others cannot reach. It is a system that teaches the preservation and exercise of power, but it also one in which the shrewd and cunning, but not necessarily the best, rise to the top. In its eagerness to produce a ruling elite, the system has also done lasting damage to the psyches of many of the children who have passed through it. And many view the boys' school of Eton College as perhaps the most representative example of this system.

It is a Friday in late July and around 25 tourists from around the world have gathered in the "Upper School." It is a classroom -- or, rather, an 18th century refectory, the walls of which are covered in names carved into the dark wood by former pupils. It has room for up to 70 students, and when they gather here, they aren't far from power.

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Looking down at them from above are busts of numerous men who once transformed England into a global power. Lord North is there, the British prime minister who fought in vain to hold onto Britain's North American colonies, as is the former Lord High Chancellor and judge Earl Camden and the first Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. All of them were educated here, molded for a life in power.

A dark brown door leads from the Upper School to the headmaster's chambers. For much of the school's existence, there were essentially only two reasons for a student to enter these chambers. Either he had violated one of Eton's rules and had to be punished with a birch rod. Or he belonged to the elite of the elite and received the honor of extra lessons. The names of these particularly brilliant pupils are carved into the wooden walls for eternity. For the year of 1981, there is an entry for A. B. Johnson, roughly at the same height as the busts of the heroes of British history. "He was undoubtedly a very bright boy," says the tour leader, as Chinese tourists takes pictures of the name.

'Bumbling Confidence'

There is almost nobody on whom the teenager Boris Johnson didn't leave a lasting impression. He was known in Eton as "Yeti," as his former schoolmate James Wood recently wrote in the London Review of Books. "The bigfoot stoop, the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from a protective institution: All was already in place."

Johnson was a "King's Scholar" and from the very beginning he was among the most academically gifted at Eton. The bulky blonde quickly made a name for himself in rugby and Eton's own "Wall Game," a sport largely incomprehensible to outsiders that centers around doing all you can to hold onto a ball once you have possession of it. Johnson's path to leadership position was charted when entered the boarding school at the age of 13. In the five years that followed, the Eton system took care of the rest.

"There was always a real sense that we were kind of the elite in every way: socially, intellectually, educationally and financially," says Adam Nicolson at his country home in Sussex. The 61-year-old is co-author of "About Eton," a book about the institution, and the grandson of poet Vita Sackville-West. He attended the boarding school in the 1970s, just before Johnson made his appearance, and is ambivalent about his time at the school. He says Eton was akin to a small city-state, made up of students from different houses that compete with each other. Nicolson describes it as a strictly hierarchical "mimic-republic" that sees itself as a "a school for government."

"You have to understand how to build your constituency, how to network, how to charm people so you can build your world and become significant within your world." Charm, he emphasizes, was always the most effective means to that end, helping to free oneself from every dicey situation.

One time, when he was 15, Nicolson relates, he was found drunk by his house master. He was taken aside and told: "Listen, Adam. It doesn't matter if you get drunk, just don't get caught. This is Eton. The spotlight is on you."

Silver Buttons

Fear and humiliation, Nicolson says, were important elements of the Eton system at the time, and remain so today. Poorly written papers are still torn up by teachers in front of the entire class, and at the end of each school year, everyone can see who was best in class and who was worst. The school is home to "horrible bullying," Nicolson says. When he was a student, the less-brilliant ones were referred to as "dockers."

The notorious practice of "fagging," which saw older students taking younger ones as a kind of slave, no longer exists in quite the same way. But there is still a caste system that is manifested in a number of different ways, including in the uniforms that have remained largely unchanged since the end of the 19th century -- a black three-piece suit that makes the streets of Eton sometimes look like the town is hosting an undertakers' convention.

The best athletes, the best poets, the best thinkers are allowed to augment their outfits with ties or bowties, for example. And the crème de la crème have silver buttons in their vests. Boris Johnson was allowed to wear one of the latter early on in his Eton career. While other boarding schools have abandoned their uniforms, Eton has held on to the tradition.

The boarding school, says Adam Nicolson, "taught me how to learn," but also "to be frightened of failure." He paid a high price for those lessons, he says. "I've spent years trying to re-cultivate those parts of myself which the Etonian system would ignore or suppress." Nevertheless, the author, who has written two dozen books and won numerous awards, says he would still go to Eton if he had it to do over again. He also sent his own offspring to the school.

In doing so, Nicolson finds himself in good company. For centuries, the British upper classes have seen it as self-evident that they would send their children and grandchildren to Eton or another elite private school, usually at the age of 13. A spot in such a school doesn't just guarantee a top-quality education in luxurious surroundings -- with a golf course, horse stables, a recording studio, a theater and a facility for shooting clay pigeons.


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