Friday, November 7, 2008

Prep School USA v UK

Two recent items made me ponder anew the difference between American and English private schools. The first is my speaking next week at a FOCUS event here in Manhattan, where Gossip Girl is held up as the gold standard of popularity and cool. The second is sending a baby gift to a friend who is chaplain at one of the great English public schools following the birth of his first son (named Bertie) to him and his wife.

In the UK (the boarding schools anyway) have something of an innocence to them, fast eroding due to the internet. American boarding schools are places where progressive attitudes to politics, morality and social mores abound, whereas English boarding schools are bastions of conservatism, generally speaking. My observation, interestingly enough, is that the English boarding school grads are far more capable of independent living at age eighteen than their American counterparts who have had too much "freedom", too soon.

The attached video link (click on the post title) shows Rowan Atkinson playing an English public school master. It shows by way of farce the reality of the eccentric and remote school master, where familiarity with students is far less prevalent than in American schools. Many schools in the UK use only last names to refer to students. And if you have two brothers at the school, you being the oldest would be "Chapman maximus", your younger brother "Chapman mediocritus" and your youngest brother "Chapman minimus". Or max, med and min, for short.

My wife, the Authoress, once taught as a famous choir school in Cambridge, and was amused by the sound of calling out her pupils' names: "Well done, Hugh, Rupert, Nigel, Simon, Hermione, Charlotte, etc." but shocked at the use of humiliation to keep kids in line, e.g., a teacher shouting at a seven year old: "You, stupid, stupid boy!" Hence among the English upper middle class the great social controlling mechanism of embarrassment.

Anyway, the great worry in American ministry circles among preppies is that we might bore them, while English folks would worry about embarrassing kids. It means that we appear bolder and brasher to them, and they appear quaint and old fashioned to us.

So as I approach giving a talk from the bible to forty or so kids in the Gossip Girl world of Manhattan, I must shift my brain from the world of Rowan Atkinson to that of Chuck Bass.

Your thoughts -- anybody else have an experience beyond the scenes in Monty Python's Meaning of Life?


seapea said...

so the portrayal of boarding school in HP books are accurate then? of Snape hitting Harry in the head??

Clifford Swartz said...

No, there wouldn't be physical punishment these days. It is rather the use of humiliation as a means of social control. So more like the Snape in the books rather than that scene in the film (which stood out to me as silly that he would do that -- Snape is always cool and menacing, not one to lash out).

That is in a bad situation, by the way, and is a humourous caricature, as most school masters are kind and professional towards their students (called pupils, as students always means university students there).