The aged Barbarian will, upon this, mumble to us his story how the battle of Waterloo was won in the playing-fields of Eton. Alas! disasters have been prepared in those playing-fields as well as victories; disasters due to inadequate mental training – to want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity.
Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.
What’s the purpose of a classical education? Somebody probably actually learned some Latin from it, and meditated upon the wisdom of the ancients, but the vast majority undoubtedly didn’t. Someone learned some mental toughness from playing rugby, but most probably just got bashed in the head. So what purpose did it serve?
“Signaling” is the economists’ usual answer, and surely showing class status was beneficial in a hierarchical society, as well as whatever cachet one garnered from having earned a First or having attended Eton or Harrow as opposed to any old school. Sending your kid to boarding school, or having gone to one yourself, is a form of conspicuous consumption, and was therefore, as Theodore Veblen said when he invented the phrase, “a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.”
But signaling isn’t just about individual advantage and getting ahead in the rat race.
Biologists will often talk about a “green beard” gene as a way of discussing the evolution of altruism (before discussing why exactly green beards don’t show up.) As Greg Cochran describes such a gene in a recent post:
If you had a gene with a conspicuous effect (like a green beard) that at the same time caused the carrier to favor other individuals with a green beard, you could get a very powerful kind of genetic altruism, one not limited to close relatives. A very strong effect, one that caused you to act as if other carriers were just as valuable as you are (as if other carriers were your identical twin) could exist, but weaker effects (green fuzz) could also be favored by selection – if you were just somewhat more likely to cooperate with others bearing the mark. That could be enough to drive strong selection for the gene, and might not even be terribly noticeable.
This might be especially powerful in humans: we have so very many ways of cooperating or tripping each other up. Now and then you get partial alignment of interests, and remarkable things happen. If we could all just get along, we could conquer the world and make everyone else our slaves and playthings!
It strikes me that the classical education system was a fairly effective way of creating a cultural substitute for a biological green beard. Not only did it create a credible and difficult-to-copy signal of class status, but the signal was nation-specific, and much more strongly developed in England than elsewhere. Upper class Victorians and their predecessors may not have been particularly smarter than their contemporaries on the Continent, but they did seem to have been particularly good at coordinating and staying loyal to other members of their class and nation.
In our own time, anti-racism is often used as a marker of class status, but my guess is that this starts to lose its utility once racial diversity exceeds a certain threshold, just as classical education lost its shine once everybody went to school.
The very beginning of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King has an enjoyable if fanciful description of the medieval educational system for young knights. I don’t imagine it’s right at all, but it does show how Englishmen of White’s era liked to imagine their own style of education extending backwards into the mystic past:
ON MONDAYS, WEDNESDAYS and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name. Kay had given him the nickname. Kay was not called anything but Kay, as he was too dignified to have a nickname and would have flown into a passion if anybody had tried to give him one. The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic by mistake. Eventually she offered to show it to Sir Ector, who was Kay’s father, had hysterics and was sent away. They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years.
In the afternoons the programme was: Mondays and Fridays, tilting and horsemanship; Tuesdays, hawking; Wednesdays, fencing; Thursdays, archery; Saturdays, the theory of chivalry, with the proper measures to be blown on all occasions, terminology of the chase and hunting etiquette. If you did the wrong thing at the mort or the undoing, for instance, you were bent over the body of the dead beast and smacked with the flat side of a sword. This was called being bladed. It was horseplay, a sort of joke like being shaved when crossing the line. Kay was not bladed, although he often went wrong.
When they had got rid of the governess, Sir Ector said, “After all, damn it all, we can’t have the boys runnin’ about all day like hooligans—after all, damn it all? Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age. When I was their age I was doin’ all this Latin and stuff at five o’clock every mornin’. Happiest time of me life. Pass the port.”
Sir Grummore Grummursum, who was staying the night because he had been benighted out questin’ after a specially long run, said that when he was their age he was swished every mornin’ because he would go hawkin’ instead of learnin’. He attributed to this weakness the fact that he could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand leaf, he said. He thought it was leaf ninety-seven. He passed the port.
Sir Ector said, “Had a good quest today?”
Sir Grummore said, “Oh, not so bad. Rattlin’ good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pité choppin’ off a maiden’s head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran.”
“A straight-necked ’un,” said Sir Ector.
“But about these boys and all this Latin and that,” added the old gentleman. “Amo, amas, you know, and runnin’ about like hooligans: what would you advise?”
“Ah,” said Sir Grummore, laying his finger by his nose and winking at the bottle, “that takes a deal of thinkin’ about, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so.”
“Don’t mind at all,” said Sir Ector. “Very kind of you to say anythin’. Much obliged, I’m sure. Help yourself to port.”
“Good port this.”
“Get it from a friend of mine.”
“But about these boys,” said Sir Grummore. “How many of them are there, do you know?”
“Two,” said Sir Ector, “counting them both, that is.”
“Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?” inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. “Long way and all that, we know.”
It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.
“Isn’t so much the distance,” said Sir Ector, “but that giant What’s-’is-name is in the way. Have to pass through his country, you understand.”
“What is his name?”
“Can’t recollect it at the moment, not for the life of me. Fellow that lives by the Burbly Water.”
“Galapas,” said Sir Grummore.
“That’s the very chap.”
“The only other thing,” said Sir Grummore, “is to have a tutor.”
“You mean a fellow who teaches you.”
“That’s it,” said Sir Grummore. “A tutor, you know, a fellow who teaches you.”
“Have some more port,” said Sir Ector. “You need it after all this questin’.”
“Splendid day,” said Sir Grummore. “Only they never seem to kill nowadays. Run twenty-five miles and then mark to ground or lose him altogether. The worst is when you start a fresh quest.”
“We kill all our giants cubbin’,” said Sir Ector. “After that they give you a fine run, but get away.”
“Run out of scent,” said Sir Grummore, “I dare say. It’s always the same with these big giants in a big country. They run out of scent.”
“But even if you was to have a tutor,” said Sir Ector, “I don’t see how you would get him.”
“Advertise,” said Sir Grummore.
“I have advertised,” said Sir Ector. “It was cried by the Humberland Newsman and Cardoile Advertiser.”
“The only other way,” said Sir Grummore, “is to start a quest.”
“You mean a quest for a tutor,” explained Sir Ector.
“Hic, Haec, Hoc,” said Sir Ector. “Have some more of this drink, whatever it calls itself.”
“Hunc,” said Sir Grummore.
So it was decided. When Grummore Grummursum had gone home next day, Sir Ector tied a knot in his handkerchief to remember to start a quest for a tutor as soon as he had time to do so, and, as he was not sure how to set about it, he told the boys what Sir Grummore had suggested and warned them not to be hooligans meanwhile. Then they went hay-making.