Last night, I watched the 2005 film of Tom Brown’s Schooldays with Stephen Fry as Dr Arnold. We are very lucky to have the full film available on YouTube. It is worth getting one of those special software packages to download the mp4 file onto your hard disk – either that or buy the DVD.
It is a film with which I can relate, quite different in nature from Lindsay Anderson’s If… The latter is a parody of the English public school intended to convey a different message, one very much in vogue in the late 1960’s.
I was myself formed in the English public school system (St Peter’s York), but I was thankful that I had an enlightened and progressive headmaster by the name of Peter Gardiner (he has just died in his 90’s) who was replacing the old spirit of competition and rule of strength by humanist principles. I went there in 1972 at the age of 13 years after a troubled time and several attempts by my parents to find the right thing for me. Already, the year before, I had experienced the progressive vision of Kenneth Barnes and Brian Hill at Wennington School. In September 1972, off I went with my trunk and tuck box to my place at The Rise, where I had my bed in the dormitory and a desk in the Junior Common Room. I still have the tuck box, which I use as a portable chapel. Peter Gardiner had been appointed headmaster in 1967, so he was still relatively new and youthful. His predecessor J. Dronfield had maintained the old tradition of fagging and flogging, success in competitive sports and masculinity. Gardiner dragged the school kicking and screaming into the 20th century by transforming fagging into a rota system of junior boys performing set tasks in the senior boys’ common rooms. They were simple and light chores like washing pots and cleaning shoes. It was a tremendous improvement on the old system. Fagging was really a relic of the old medieval knights and squires. As for flogging, I was never whacked at St Peter’s but received punishments consisting of copying pompous texts about “discipline” or various restrictions, for infringements of school or house rules. We still had rugby and cricket, but these team sports were only compulsory for my first two years, after which I was allowed more freedom to choose non-competitive outdoor activities. I was teased a little in House for joining the Chapel choir and having organ lessons. Boys were still quite brutal and cruel in the 1970’s but were a universe away from Rugby in the early nineteenth century. Gardiner encouraged the arts, music and drama. We had House singing competitions, musical productions, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and many more. A boy could be as “sissy” as he wanted, and the old brutality was definitely melting. My memories were a world away, but the experience prepared me for independent life away from home and seminary (which was quite “cushy” in the midst of gilded mirrors and silk drapes).
Rugby School in the 1830’s was another world. Dr Thomas Arnold was a visionary for his time. He set the standards from which my headmaster reacted in his modern and progressive way. Boys’ schools in those days were brutal and cruel as pupils were left to their own devices, and tyranny by bullies was the result. Dr Arnold introduced new subjects on the curriculum like history, mathematics and modern languages like French. He did not favour the natural sciences on account of their materialism and his Romantic idealism, but rather favoured philosophy. He introduced the prefect system which gave sixth-form pupils powers over the younger boys. In my school, they were called monitors and had the privilege of wearing blue college gowns. It can work as a system if it is carefully watched, lest bullying and cruelty enter the system. Our tradition of sports entered the picture through being an alternative to fighting and delinquency.
Arnold’s priorities were the cure of souls (he was a clergyman of the Church of England), moral education and only then intellectual development. It was a philosophy of education akin to German Bildung. In my time at St Peter’s, learning German was encouraged (I did very badly as I also did in French) and some pupils went on exchange programmes to a school in Münster. Already, there was a European dimension that sunk deeply into many of us. Anyway, back to Rugby and Dr Arnold.
In the film, I closely watched the depiction of Flashman the bully and the psychological study of the toxic pathocracy in a society dominated by force and cruelty. The film is a tear-jerker with the death of a young boy who had been tortured by Flashman by being lowered into a well. The extent of Flashman’s evil cruelty is astounding for us in our time. Flashman was a fictional character, but they exist in the real world – and in England’s political establishment. There is an element you might miss if I don’t mention it, that Arnold found Tom Brown being morally poisoned by a school he could not reform quickly enough, and sent him home. Tom Brown returns to school with a strengthened and more noble character, able to face Flashman’s tyranny as a man.