Private school boys will be private school boys.
Private school boys will be private school boys.
I was very privileged to go to one of the best schools in my state and I’m sure one of the best in Australia. It was an all-boys school. It came with all the trappings of privilege and extreme male adolescent culture that you can imagine. It was in many ways the archetype of what those from the outside of these communities imagine it to be. My school had a hypermasculine culture. The entire school is based on the English boarding school model. It was initially started for the sons of the city’s wealthy and the wealthy farmers of the state. It has remained true to its purpose. I will not defend privilege’s place in society nor advocate for all boys’ school in general. I will however write an honest evaluation of what I think it represents and how it educated me.
The school aimed to make us men and leaders above all else. There is an immense confidence within the school that the boys will grow into leaders. The holistic education that a private school education offers, through more camps, more extracurricular activities and alternative forms of education such as extended projects to build machinery or to learn out of school at a different facility, foster a culture. The immediate impact this has on a child is an assumption of plenty since they consistently have vast resources devoted to them during their entire education. But I think more importantly, the culture posits that education is not just about an ATAR, it’s about making sure one becomes the man whom the traditional privileged culture in Australian society expects. Like in England, these privileged communities expect men to be formed in the class room, the rowing room, school camps and to then go into the professions. The schools are trying to create the all-round man: an outdoorsman, a gentleman and a scholar, a leader. The arrogance that many privileged men who come from these schools have is due to believing what they have been told their entire adolescence: that they will be future leaders. It is why many in society hate us and I can see why. It is confidence and privilege not earned.
The entire culture is about traditional male competition in any arena. This places pressure on children to live up to traditional male expectations. It excludes boys who are not hyper competitive. Many cannot cope or dissociate from the school community if they are not part of those who compete academically or on the sporting field. In this way these schools are exclusionary. There are two cultures that exist within the schools: those who conform to this competitive culture and those that don’t. Those that don’t aren’t necessarily bullied for it, of course bullying does happen, but I distinctly remember realising this distinction at school. I was lucky enough to fit the school culture but I still think that those who didn’t must have hated it. The two cultures have different groups within them. Those that are competitive are not a monolith: there are those that are sportsmen, those that are academic and those that pursue the arts. Importantly though, those that conform to these ideals have a better school experience: they fit in, they have larger friendship groups, they participate in more extracurricular activities, teachers focus on them more and are more likely to be friends with them.
My school was good to those that struggled and championed those that succeeded but how about those boys who weren’t hyper masculine, super competitive achievers or struggling? I think they wouldn’t have had much teacher attention at all. Moreover, one of the main benefits of a private school, the privilege, is the network. Those that dissociate from the school culture are less likely to get the benefits of going to the school. They are less likely to stay in contact with fellow graduates or go to old scholars meetings because they never felt part of it in the first place and I believe old scholars will be less likely to give them a leg up professionally if they are not a part of the ‘boys club’.
The dark side of this within the school is traditional male bullying for anything remotely feminine. I witnessed this in various forms and degrees. Any emotion was associated with weakness and thus a reason to be chastised. Anything feminine whether it was a hair cut or outfit would have been ripped into. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be gay at my school. Gay boys were not passed the ball in lunch time and not picked for certain sports teams. This was not twenty years ago; this was after 2010. A friend of mine who was a boarder at the school said that the boarding house, with its even more extreme version of masculinity, has instilled in him the absolute inability to be open about emotions. He struggles to empathise with others and also to speak freely about himself because the male culture was so strong that all emotional expression was socially beaten out of him through years of boys teasing each other over any weakness they could find, and the traditional male values the school instilled. This means that the old ‘toughen up’ adage is alive and well within these schools. Men in society struggle the most with mental health. This is consistently blamed on the inability of men to speak about emotions. I blame this on traditional gender norms. Private boys’ schools do not help this for men. I have personal experience with this effecting a friend’s mental health: a good friend of mine confided in me that he did not know how to handle university because he did not have me to compete with. His reason seemingly for getting good grades was to beat his mates. I was dumbfounded. He struggled with university and ultimately dropped out. I attribute this to his inability to drive himself without an immediately competitive environment; he could not survive at university without being a big fish in a small pond. The consequence of this was the deterioration of his mental health.
Moreover, these places are a breeding place for casual sexism. Now, I partly come from privilege because of second wave feminism: my mother wanted it all and in a way she did. If it weren’t for the social revolution that second wave feminism started in the mid-twentieth century, I would not have had a successful mother and I would not have been at that school. However, I cannot say that the school didn’t actually instil some casual sexism in me despite my upbringing. Fundamentally, a separation of the sexes at a time of hormones and sexual awakening means that the other sex becomes a weekend pursuit to many, myself included. This is not exclusive to boy schools and of course it continues for many men in later life. However, yet again a single sex school does not help. The most I had discussed issues facing women at school was a female aboriginal poetry assignment in year twelve. Most of us would not have considered that we had many female friends in high school. Girls were people to try and kiss or sleep with on the weekend. In fact, I think for a lot of us, we didn’t have female friends until second year of university. Furthermore, with this hyper masculine culture and lack of contact with women, there is actual sexism. As the footage from St Kevin’s school bus shows, the disregard for rhetoric describing women is prevalent. The chant amongst the boys in that video is casually sexist at best and vicious at worse. The footage of that chant will be defended by those boys in public, private or within their own conscience until they mature under the logic of ‘boys will be boys’. The assumption by many young men at schools like this is that they are the leaders of society in the making, that women are sexual pursuits for the weekend and thus there is quite a bit of traditional sexism prevalent within the culture.
Despite all this I would not change the school I went to. Significant cultural changes to address the above problems are necessary. Ultimately though, my experience was fantastic. I have a group of twenty boys with whom I’m still mates with. I attribute a huge portion of my character to my school due to loving the holistic and varied education. The teachers and facilities were fantastic. Crucially, the most negative aspects of this education come from the same source of its most positive aspect: the brotherhood. I have enjoyed incredible privileges from this, including going to a private members club in a very posh part of London for an old scholar meeting where I got to meet with successful men in academia, art, finance and law. The school has old scholar societies that hold at least annual meetings in every Australian Capital City, Hong Kong, London, New York and Singapore. In fact, so positive is the school experience for some, at the meeting in London I discussed the school with an old scholar fifteen years my senior: he said, despite being a graduate of three degrees – two undergraduate in Australia and a masters at Cambridge, and after having taught some classes at Harvard – that our school was the best education institution he had been at. He described it as having a unique ‘magic’. I was stunned. I thought maybe he was referring to the culture; maybe for him, the brotherhood or the nostalgia have been hard to move on from. Thinking back to how much I loved my school experience, maybe he’s right.