Twenty or so boys in white tie and tails are being taught by Liam Maxwell on a recent Friday at Eton College, the exclusive boys’ school 35 km west of London. For centuries Eton — founded in 1440 — has been synonymous with privilege, the place where Britain’s elite is given its polish and an air of entitlement. But this class doesn’t feel like a hothouse for languid aristocrats. The boys are not declaiming Latin but staring into computer screens, trying to master the database program Microsoft Access. Though a student once told Maxwell that typing was something he could leave to his daddy’s secretary, the school insists that all first- year students learn to type, so that they can use their mandatory laptops on the fiber-optic network that links every classroom and bedroom to teaching resources and the Internet. Maxwell, who arrived two years ago after running the IT department of a large recruiting firm tells the boys that 30% of them are going to work for a Chinese or Indian company and that they’re going to be judged on what they are and can do, not where they came from.
For years, many of modem Britain’s proud meritocrats have thought of the school as a four-letter word, typifying everything that was wrong about a class-bound society, a generator of snobs who didn’t deserve yet another benefit from a nation that had long awarded life’s glittering prizes to those who were lucky enough to have been born to land, money, privilege or all three. But Eton is having a makeover. It’s trying to marry the lessons about educating adolescent boys acquired over 566 years to the spirit of a less hierarchical, more competitive, more globalized Britain, and the effort is bearing fruit. If it plays its cards right — especially if it can open its doors not just to the very bright sons of the wealthy but to the brightest boys there are, anywhere — Eton has a decent shot at becoming the nursery for a 21st century (male) elite. And it won’t be just a British elite, either.
In much of Britain today, being an Etonian is not something you really want to brag about. The well of resentment is too deep. Rory (students’ last names are being withheld at the school’s request), still regrets answering honestly on a flight when his seatmate asked where he went to school. “For six hours he kept making snide remarks,” he says. Douglas Hurd, Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, wrote in his memoir that his family believed “that if I had not gone to Eton I would have become Prime Minister in 1990.” (That was the year that the Conservative Party opted instead for John Major, who attended Rutlish Grammar School in south London.) It’s not because Eton lacks famous alumni. Its graduates include 19 British Prime Ministers, the founder of modern chemistry Robert Boyle, the Duke of Wellington, economist John Maynard Keynes, writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and
George Orwell, actor Hugh Laurie, Princes William and Harry, the fictional James Bond, even a Roman Catholic saint — as well as generations of less illustrious worthies. The problem is that in a more meritocratic age, Eton became synonymous with “English aristocrat.” Its well-worn image is as a finishing school for not- necessarily-deserving boys whose parents can afford $44,000 in fees each year (Harvard, costs nearly the same) to ensure they develop the easy confidence, posh accent and useful contacts that will guarantee access to the top of British society.
But maybe times are changing; maybe Britain is less bothered by the old engines of class division than it once was. What about Eton? What lessons is it imparting today, to what kind of boy? Is it manufacturing smug toffs, or are its students being equipped to make an honest living in a more classless, complex world?
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