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William T. Dobson

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In Defence Of Being An Etonian

Posted: 11/10/2012 01:00

In a classic Frasier episode, the pompous psychiatrist decides to reacquaint himself with real America. At an isolated service station, he offers to buy a cup of coffee for a man who looks like a "farmer". "Well, guess what?" comes the reply. "I am a farmer, but I'm also a beautiful, flawed, complicated person and it's going to take more than a cup of coffee to get inside here", he continues (pointing to his head, rather than to his pants).

We all love to pin labels on each other, don't we? We get defined in life by what we do, where we come from, what we wear or, perhaps most frustratingly of all, where we went to school. Ever since David Cameron came to power, the country has been awash with a constant debate over class. Following Ed Miliband's comments at the recent Labour Party conference, this seems more prevalent than ever. Indeed, the opposition leader's thinly veiled criticism of the country's public schools even drew an impassioned response from Tony Little in the Guardian, Eton's headmaster who generally prefers to remain out of the limelight.

I myself went to Eton. By default that makes me an Old Etonian. But I'm fed up with being defined as one by the likes of Miliband in some lazy, self-satisfied act of stereotyping. I spent five years there - or closer to three if your remove holidays - a fairly insignificant amount of time in the grand scheme of things. Yet, often in our daily lives, it seems that us 'Old Etonians' have to defend ourselves over where our parents chose to send us to school - a common assertion that we're just a bunch of 'posh twats,' guilty until proven innocent.

On his own upbringing and his comprehensive school education, Miliband states "it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they're from." Does he presume that, by going to Eton, we're completely devoid of these skills? Are we somehow socially-inept, like Frasier Crane, unable to acquaint ourselves with the 'real people'? Or, as someone once said to me, in a random and expletive filled outburst, "what is it about all you f***ing Etonians? Do your lessons just involve copying from the whiteboard 'I am better than everyone else' until you start to believe it."

Well, the answer is clearly no. Like Miliband, "my family has not sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years." In fact, I'm not even sure if I would be able to recognise an oak tree if I saw one. Yet, at some point in their lives, my parents decided that providing me with a good - no, a great - education was a priority and did everything in their power to make that happen, making huge sacrifices along the way. Of course, in an ideal world, that same opportunity should be afforded to everybody but it's not something that I should have to feel embarrassed about.

Moreover, there seems to be a contradiction here. Never have I judged someone for where they went to school (except for those who went to Harrow, of course) and, as for claims of the power of the 'Old School Tie,' I have no idea where I left mine. Yet Miliband, who claims to get on with everyone "whoever they are and wherever they're from", like anyone else who judges me for my education, has merely demonstrated the exact opposite to be true. He's taken a swipe at the so-called "elite", expecting that us 'Old Etonians' are sitting there in our ivory towers, judging him for being just "a jumped up immigrant from a working class background." Well, here's news for you Ed, we're not!

Eton is a great school and it offers an incredibly well-rounded education. Besides the facilities or activities on offer, it's the teachers who make it special, constantly inspiring and passionate about passing on their knowledge and their wisdom. It's a school where, as Mr. Little points out, young people can "develop the self-confidence that enable them to stand up for themselves." Like any institution, it's also home to people who, I'm sure, do indeed adhere to the stereotype until long after they leave. But they are, of course, largely the exception and, I'd like to believe, it taught me, just as Miliband claims his comprehensive school education did, to get on with people from every walk of life.

Around the world, being an Etonian has never stopped me from connecting with anyone - except for a tiny minority who judge me on where I went to school, quite some years ago, rather than as the "beautiful, flawed, complicated person" that I am.

 

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