I was preparing to write a semi-technical paper for your Conference Brochure when I received a request from the British Columbia Schools Trustees Association to publish in the same Brochure an earlier paper of mine – “Battery Hens or Free Range Chickens”. Having acceded to this request I then cast around for a different, perhaps more novel way of presenting my ideas.
The Pacific North West has fascinated me from the time I first visited Vancouver and Victoria 35 years ago, and subsequent family holidays in Seattle have increased my affection. Shortly after moving our family home from Virginia back to Bath, England four years ago, my wife and I, on a Sunday afternoon walk, stopped off at a little village churchyard a couple of miles from here where the church warden said; “If you come from America you’d better go and look at the grave outside of Rear Admiral Sir Peter Puget – the man who discovered Pacific North West.” Thrilled to discover such a local connection with British Columbia I have frequently pondered how a man from here, little more than 200 years ago, could have been able to place his name so firmly on that great waterway around which the economy of the Pacific North West now hinges. That got me started on a novel way of describing why I am convinced schools have not got their treatment of adolescents right. Please read on.
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Like many others in December 2003 I was fascinated by the film “Master and Commander” featuring the adventures of a late 18th century Georgian warship, as told by the novelist Patrick O’Brien. As luck would have it, only a week after having seen the film I was in Portsmouth, England, taking an American visitor to see HMS Victory, now the sole survivor not only of the Battle of Trafalgar but also of service in North American waters in the 1770s and 80s. The ship is meticulously preserved and the guides most knowledgeable. “Yes”, said our guide, “The directors of that film spent an enormous amount of time here checking on all kinds of details about naval life in the late 18th century. You can be pretty certain that the interpretation of what things were like is as accurate as possible. Remember”, he said, “the young Horatio Nelson joined the navy at the age of 12 and as the young mid-shipman in that film who, when he thought he was about to die, pleaded with his friend that if his body were to be buried at sea they would not put the last of the sail-maker’s stitches up his nose, we have a fair approximation of the young Nelson.” Which made me think of Peter Puget, a man buried up the road from here, who was a direct contemporary of Nelson.
That made me think more deeply about the film. Captain Aubrey and the Doctor were very obviously well educated men. The Captain knew how to get the best out of seamen. Living in the close quarters of a wooden warship you get plenty of opportunity to appreciate the individual qualities of the sailors, and he used both praise and toughness judiciously. The men respected their Captain, indeed would have sailed anywhere with him, but both Captain and men recognised the divide which was between them… a divide which was one of applied intelligence, reflected perhaps simplistically as a class divide. It was more complex than that. The film pays considerable attention to the young midshipmen. Young they certainly were – 11 or 12 years of age and hardly out of puberty; “squeakers” they were called. The Captain took a very special, almost avuncular, interest in these young men. In truth he most certainly saw himself in them for he too had joined the navy at such a tender age and under the intensive tutelage of the first lieutenant he had learnt the complex skill of navigating with the use of a sextant (something I’m told is more complex than trying to do trigonometry without a piece of paper to note down intermediate steps, and conducted – more often than not – with a mighty wind blowing). Midshipmen learnt to climb the rigging in a full gale, to trim the sails along with the men, and they were taught to command. The ability to command a ship, as they quickly learnt, meant winning and holding the respect of the men who expected to see in the young officers people of real authority and personal stature and who certainly knew exactly what they were doing. Their entire adolescent energy was spent learning to perform complicated tasks – boredom they did not know and pocket money they did not have.
When the ship was broadside on to a French war ship, a cannon ball was no respecter of class – officers and men alike went down like ninepins. Yet when an enemy ship was captured Captain Aubrey apparently had no qualms about putting on board a skeleton crew of pressed seamen, under the command of a recently promoted midshipman half the age of the toughened sailors. Young midshipmen had to learn command quickly.
In the weeks before seeing the film I had been checking the manuscript of a book I had just written – “Both Sides of the Coin; Reuniting Thinking with Doing”. Two thoughts were still running through my mind as I walked around the Victory: firstly, as the Industrial Revolution had gathered pace so the age-old practice of apprenticeship had started to disappear; people no longer had skills that they could usefully transfer to their children. Secondly I had been amazed to discover what rotten places were the few boarding schools that then existed in England – places which history now refers to as Public Schools. These were the schools to which the aristocracy sent their sons, in a real sense to keep them out of the way until they were old enough, at 17 or 18, to have a commission bought for them in one of the elite regiments in the army. Eton was the most prestigious of these schools, but it was a harsh, unforgiving and terribly unenlightened place where the curriculum was almost exclusively based on Latin and Greek, and where classes were sometimes as large as 200 and bullying was rife, persistent and frequently sadistic. The pupils were bored out of their minds much of the time, desperate to ape their elders in the sexual adventures told in “Fanny Hill”, published in 1749, and so dissatisfied with their lot that the pupils of Eton and Winchester rebelled nine times over a 30 year period needing two battalions of armed soldiers in 1818 to get them back into school. They dynamited the lock of the door of the headmaster’s study and locked a wild mastiff in his desk. Sensitivity and inquisitiveness was bred out of such boys and replaced with a toughness and a faith in giving orders which served them well on the battlefields that imperialistic England was soon to find around the world – they lived in a world with the sharpest of divides between officers and men. In no sense were such army officers and men ever in the military equivalent of “the same boat together”.
Which takes me back to those young midshipmen who, in “Master and Commander” spoke with almost too polished educational accents, and whose physical stature seemed to reflect breeding and gentility. These were, we now know, the sons of the lesser gentry and clergy – men who had no craft skills to transfer to their sons, and insufficient money to buy them privilege first through Eton and then through a military commission. Their fathers were educated men who wanted a profession for their sons but had no money to buy this. The navy provided the one opportunity to learn both a professional skill, and to develop something of a social acceptability. Impoverished fathers, therefore, looked for uncles or patrons who were captains willing to take onto their ship youngsters of promise.