Pushing the Wall: Politics, Psychotherapy and Boarding School
It was a strangely mild November evening, and the light was just fading. I was getting the feel of one of the lecture theatres in Old College, a proud 18th century quadrangle of neo-classical stone buildings in the heart of old Edinburgh, musing that in this very same room David Hume or Adam Smith may have set their audience’s minds alight. In my latest book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory, I had been very hard on the Enlightenment. I highlighted and condemned the kind of thinking that fostered an anti-emotional hyper-rationalism that had allowed the British Empire to exploit half the world by promoting dissociation, compartmentalisation and objectification.
Adam Smith had grown on me, however: much misinterpreted, he would probably have hated the gross materialism of our day. I was here on invitation from the university to debate “This house would ban boarding for the under 16s.” Smith condemned boarding in 1759, and I had my own share of misinterpretation.
I have been speaking to the English media about boarding since 1990 and they invariably seem to be looking for a fight: “So you are saying that all boarders are scarred for life?” No, I try to gently explain: I’m saying that every boarding child has to survive its privileged abandonment, has no option but to adapt itself to the new life away from home.
This must be accomplished very rapidly: dissociating from feelings, beginning with homesickness and rage at abandonment, giving up on trusting others and constructing an exterior shell resembling the independent, confident, ‘well-spoken’ product advertised in the schools’ glossy brochures to their customers, the parents. When journalists say they intend to visit a boarding school I reply it may prove a waste of time: the children there will already have their ‘happy masks’ on. It usually takes 20 or 30 years till the ex-boarder’s behaviour in family life starts to raise questions.
I try to make it easier with what I call The Cameron Test. Can we argue that David Cameron, who started boarding at 7 (as did a good percentage of his cabinet), is a damaged individual? Well, he is the top man in a country that sees itself as the top country, one of the youngest ever to get the job, with a good salary and a family life. He is a Winner: no question. But that he had to survive boarding as a child is not in doubt for me. For a quarter of a century I have been pioneering a psychological understanding of how boarding children have to survive institutionalisation without parents or love and how this affects them later on as adults, and in turn our society. Once you see it, Cameron, like Blair before him and Boris (perhaps after him) and the rest, can be spotted acting with what I call a boarding school survivor’s classic behaviours.
Such behaviours can include a seamless duplicity, an unshakeable faith in one’s own ego, a tendency to bully when feeling cornered, a barely concealed contempt for being told what is what by ‘other ranks,’ including women and foreigners. Such negative traits are embedded in the Westminster scene, just as its polarised politics are built into the Victorian mock-Gothic House of Commons, whose benches are placed two swords’ width apart. Psychologically, they are rooted in the unconscious sense of entitlement that compensates for the boarder’s forced amputation of feeling and empathy. This affects the UK profoundly.
I imagine that the Scottish independence movement was as much driven by a wish for self-determination away from a politics controlled by public school bullying as it was by nationalism. The establishment of a genuine social democracy is a real possibility in Scotland, but Britain’s top-down structure and elitist education system that supports it – and looks very weird from a European perspective – means it cannot happen without deep structural changes. Europeans don’t buy into Cameron’s bullying of them, in any way: they say that you have to belong to something before you can lead it. But ex-boarders haven’t had enough belonging at home so they mistrust the very notion.
My experience of the Scottish media so far is different, and the opening out of politics here is infectious. On 19th November Edinburgh’s Sally Fraser of Boarding School Action and I conclusively won the debate. Next, Scottish Newsnight picked it up and interviewed me sympathetically, without all the ironic aggression and defensiveness I have come to expect in England. BBC Scotland were as welcoming as were the staff in the wonderfully rounded Holyrood parliamentary chamber when we visited, seconds after Nicola Sturgeon’s first Question Time. Next, in The Sunday Herald, Vicky Allan’s The Board Generation considered whether boarding is a national or a local issue:
“Some may wonder why we should bother about a tiny fraction of the population to whom privilege bequeathed boarding school syndrome. When about 16,000 Scottish children are in residential care, why trouble over the trauma of a few posh kids? One good reason is that these are the people who rule and influence; who shape our culture, politics and economics. For me, there is another reason: the desire to understand my other half. I look at what, at eight years old, he was gifted as privilege. I see my own sons coming up to the same age and I am glad they, and I, will never have to experience that.”
I call on the Scottish Education minister to read this article and realise that Scotland already has sufficient independence in key areas to make changes. Our idea is to convert all boarding schools into boarding sixth-form colleges and make them available to those who do not have the £30,000 per year that Loretto costs. There is a good model in Denmark that works on these lines called Efterskole, in which teenagers learn to cooperate and study citizenship!
It’s great news that the First Minister is now proposing tackling the tax status of the traditional land-owning classes. I ask her now to prioritise an examination the role of the public schools whose scandalous status – where private enterprises masquerade as public charities – contravenes the mounting psychological evidence that they cannot justifiably be for the common good. The issue of psychological neglect has to be taken as seriously as we are finally beginning to take sexual abuse. Boarding schools are 24/7 institutions where abuse is very hard to prevent. I have heard that there may be a further scandal about to burst in one of Scotland’s leading public schools. My understanding is that, because of a greater hesitancy about what is called ‘circumstantial evidence,’ Scottish law makes retrospective abuse prosecutions much more difficult than in England, and a governmental enquiry into covers-ups much less likely.
So there’s plenty more for the Scottish Government to do, but is there room for one more Englishman up there?