When I was at school I remember reserving a special place in hell for those particular members of staff – ‘masters’ as we termed them back then – who went round insisting we did up our ties properly and had our shirts buttoned to the very top.
I loathed these teachers first because of a condition I call “neckie”, which renders me abnormally sensitive to anything too tight around my neck. Possibly it was because I was hanged or throttled in a previous life. Who knows – I may even be the incarnation of one of the plotters against Hitler who got strung up with cheese wire. Whatever, the point is that whenever one of those teachers told me to do up my top button, I felt – in my self-righteous, solipsistic schoolboy way, like the victim of a vicious and unprovoked physical assault.
The other main reason that I loathed those teachers was because I felt that what they were doing was just, like, so totally uncool. Suppose, God forbid, but just suppose you’d been foolish enough to choose a career in teaching, surely the very least you’d do to make amends would be to be an inspirational teacher. Or a crazily eccentric teacher. Or a slacker teacher. But what kind of total loser spaz would you have to be to choose to be one of those stickler teachers who makes it his business bothering himself with crap like hassling kids about immeasurably trivial dress code details as they make their way innocently along from one class to another?
Anyway, all this week I’ve been back at my old school – Malvern College – as a teacher. And guess which was the thing that most immediately impressed me about my alma mater on my return. Yes. That’s right. How delightfully unscruffy the kids were. The general levels of smartness, I’d say, were much higher than they were in my day. This pleased me. It was a sign, I thought, that Malvern was a tightly-run ship: the kind of place I’d be more than happy to have one of my children educated.
I thought much the same thoughts when I attended one of the morning chapel services, for old time’s sake. It meant rushing my breakfast in time to be there for 8.25 but I was glad I did: not because I’m in the way of being a God-botherer but because a lusty sing-song of O God Our Help In Ages Past and a punchy sermon and a few prayers, all in the Victorian chapel’s formal setting, with the pupils arranged by houses and martialled by their heads of houses, and the masters all dressed in their university gowns, seem to me the only right and proper way to start the day in an English public school. And if I had my way it’s how all days would start in the state system too.
How, though, do these fogeyish, nay, reactionary views I’ve just shared with you gel with my frequent claim that I’m a libertarian? Perfectly well, I think. As I had to explain to one or two of the brighter kids who picked me up on this, the thing that stops libertarianism descending into anarchism is a belief in structure, tradition, hierarchy and authority. Libertarianism isn’t a self-gratifying free-for-all: that’s libertinism. True liberty, I believe, can only exist within a framework of discipline and order.
So it went with the classes I taught. My theme through the week was: be sceptical; don’t trust authority; Nullius in Verba – as the Royal Society’s motto used to have it before it got taken over by political activists and lost all credibility. The kids I taught responded intelligently and enthusiastically to my message of rebellion. But they would never have been able to do so in an establishment where rebellion was a normal state of affairs.
Imagine if I’d tried to preach my anti-authoritarian gospel in a bog-standard comprehensive. Hardly anyone would have listened. Those few who had tried to contribute would have been drowned out by the chatterings of their couldn’t-give-a-toss schoolmates. And what, in any case, would have been the point of my urging kids not automatically to respect authority if they already the kind of kids who didn’t anyway?
I’m glad – and hugely grateful – to have gone to a school where you had to do your top button up. It taught me to be free.