I’m a liberal, leftist Dane who also spent four formative, tough and valuable years at an English public school. I was pushed academically and I benefitted from fantastic facilities, teachers and opportunities. It’s a mixed bag. I met people with views I found unpleasant and others I appreciate greatly. How do I reconcile my fundamental beliefs with the reality of my privileged upper class education?
Supposedly, for things to change, some of us need to benefit from a good education to help us get to a place where we can affect positive change. I have been able to achieve good results, and benefit from bright peers. It has helped me on my way to a good university and nurtured my academic interests. I’m not sure that reasoning quite stands up to scrutiny though. The truth is, I ended up at that school because of it’s quality, geographical location, and ability to provide me with an International Baccalaureate. In hindsight, the only person who foresaw what it would be like was my father. “You mix with a different type of people and you will be categorised by others as soon as they know”. That part is true, the world of private education is a tiny one, I know of many people in many of the other similar schools and we often find common friends. That is what it is statistically like to be educationally part of the elite.
Once I was released into the real world, the refreshing diversity and range of individuals out there swarmed around me and I skipped around in it like an overexcited little girl. Probably because that’s exactly what I was. Ironic, since deep down I feel that I am torn between the institution I attended for a while (and the community), and my belief that I am fundamentally not one of them. The diversity judged me though. As is their right. The less privileged are allowed to view the advantaged with a bit of disdain. I was instantly profiled by some as never having struggled with anything, being rich, ignorant and deluded. Most people get to know me and find that is not the case. But to some, it seems that four years of my life obscure the rest of my existence. Sometimes I wonder if they are (justifiably) just as prejudiced and ignorant as they believe me to be.
The divide between the classes is enforced by education and reinforced by those who actually cultivate it. It breaks my heart and becomes more poignant when you are accustomed to an extremely egalitarian Danish society. It is a hot topic in Britain and widely discussed, but the impact is not really understood by the natives; they don’t know the alternative. As hypocritical and paradoxical as it may seem, my experience has taught me a lot about class, socio-economic dynamics and about what education should be. I payed for my sins of attending that school by observing elitism, sexism, homophobia and racism. I found myself always underestimated by my school, always slightly repressed because I was striving to join those at the top. Even without coming from the typical English family, without coming from money and without having a family tradition of attending that school. Safe to say it never quite worked but I emerged having quietly worked my way to success right under their noses, without their help.
A liberal Oakhamian. It’s an uncomfortable reconciliation which I find hard to accept. My solution is the following. I experienced this, I have a duty to speak out about my experiences, about what we can learn from such institutions, and about why they are a problem. It doesn’t have to be a grand campaign, but it needs to be as honest as possible amongst those who haven’t seen it themselves. It is in this knowledge that I can proudly, and with a pang of sadness, belt out the school hymn at the top of my voice at my leavers’ service, with my best friends around me.