What mighty people they were, those Victorians. Their stern be-whiskered faces gazing down on us from many a school hall or house dining room; their three-volume novels and their even more intimidating two-volume Lives and Letters causing bends in the middle of many a modern bookshelf.
They knew about education, those old Headmasters, and they certainly knew about suffering too; pandemics were well known to them. Archibald Tait, Headmaster of Rugby after Thomas Arnold, had to bury later in life – within weeks – five of his scarlet fever-stricken children. Another Victorian colossus, Edward Thring of Uppingham, lost so many of his pupils to typhoid that he decided to evacuate the school for a year to North Wales.
When, two months ago, a very bright boy wrote to me talking about the unprecedented mental suffering his generation were experiencing as a result of Covid, I looked at my bookshelves with a mixture of embarrassment and regret. Those mighty Victorians – how the devil did they display all that energy, absorb all that suffering and then in addition manage families of ten or more?
Well, the Victorians had servants – and nannies, and governesses, and trains that ran on time, and post that got delivered. These were the people, of course, who effectively developed the boarding school. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that they did so for some very good reasons: history has some lessons we can re-learn.
Impending war tax, social unrest, rearrangement of hierarchies, global pandemic – are we in 2020 or 1920, I sometimes wonder? But more particularly, I wonder if we aren’t in 1870, with boarding approaching its height – and doing so for more reasons than the mere expansion of the railway network. The experiences of the last two terms at my own school have opened my eyes backwards.
Winchester College spent the first fortnight of this term in house bubbles, with lessons delivered remotely. A testing machine proved worth its weight in aluminium. Strict conditions have governed exeats. No one has been allowed into town. As a consequence, we have had total continuity of education and the consequences have been interesting and unequivocally Victorian – positively so. Some Victorian values are there to be questioned. But many of the principles of boarding contain messages of common sense, family, community and hope.
Boarding is safer in current times because it involves less travel. It is generally located in safer places: not for nothing those ranging hilly backdrops of Northumbria, the bracing chalky downlands of the South East, or the cornucopia of educational institutions along the Thames Valley, mildly bracing in their gentle South Westerlies. Hence, in these Covid-affected times, and contrary to market expectation, we are currently seeing a revived interest in boarding nationally.
And it's not surprising. Boarding has everything you need: the sports facilities, the drama facilities and all the other extracurricular add-ons without the need to travel or move beyond your community. House spirit has never been better. Communities have had to rely on themselves, and adversity has stimulated communal feeling. Relationships have had more investment, more time. Older boys feel all the more responsible for bringing younger boys up. The focus has not been on friends elsewhere on the campus, still less on a shopping trip to town. Sport had to be intra-house not inter-house, so seniors have taught and coached juniors and everyone has mucked in together. The relationships have had a distinctly sibling character.
It surely worked that way in many a Victorian family of 12 children or more. 'Why, indeed, Sir — ha! ha! — he may be said to have educated himself', John Dickens famously commented on his rather talented son. The benefits have been wonderful to see. In lockdown, houses have become even happier families.
That said, those first two weeks were otherwise pretty miserable. Teaching on-screen is not much fun. Everyone is reduced to an icon or an avatar, or a postage stamp of an image on your screen. You can’t gradate the human reactions, you can’t generate the humour or cut and thrust, and you can’t get the richness of personal experience. We hear much about the revolution in learning which the period of lockdown will cause. But the reverse is true also: learning online has made us all the more conscious of the value of learning in person. Oh slavish New World, that might develop such robots in it.
And that is the final point. Boarding has shown the value of what I’ll call the new socialism, a joyfulness, a recognition of the importance of character, of the development of the all-round person. Boarding is safe; boarding is generously provided for; boarding stresses the value of the family and of human interactions. The lockdown has reminded us in boarding of just what a big difference there is between being taught and being educated.
Sometime next year – we all trust – a new era will be upon us. But the new era will benefit from the current serendipitous reminder of the immutable values of the old. We are all growing wiser; and so far, thank goodness, without the need for growing whiskers.