Subtitle: Imagination taking power

George Monbiot on how boarding school destroys the imagination

As part of my research into imagination and its decline in our culture, I have been exploring what might be the factors that make our leaders as unimaginative as they are. Theresa May, for example, strikes me as being the least imaginative Prime Minister the UK has ever had. A while ago I read a great article by George Monbiot, who at 8 was sent away to boarding school, about the impacts of boarding on children. In it he wrote of how “a repressed, traumatised elite unable to connect emotionally with others is a danger to society”.

John Bowlby, reflecting on his own education, wrote in 1973 that boarding is “merely the traditional first step in the time-honoured barbarism required to produce English gentlemen”. Psychologist Joy Schaverein, in a paper identifying what she calls ‘Boarding School Syndrome’, writes:

“A child who is perpetually vigilant has little space for symbolic play. In boarding school there is little time for reverie and the life of the imagination may therefore suffer”.

I wanted to discuss these issues in more detail with George Monbiot, and he kindly agreed to a chat. I started out by asking him what he thinks are the impacts of boarding schools on their pupils’ imaginations, and their ability to think about the future:

It’s a really interesting question. It was certainly retro. No doubt about that. Entirely backward looking. I mean the whole system in which we were schooled was entirely backward looking. The dormitories were all named after colonial war heroes. Gordon of Khartoum, Kitchener, the rest of it.

We used to have a weekly prayer, ‘Let us now praise famous men’ and it was all war criminals from the beginning of the century! It was Hague and Kitchener and French and people like this. Everywhere else in Britain these people are regarded as war criminals. In this school they were neither forgotten nor processed. So it’s that sort of Hapsburg thing of ‘Learn nothing, forget nothing’. There was a complete failure to come to terms with change of any kind. And an attempt to set the Edwardian standards I suppose as a standard to which we should continue to adhere politically, economically, socially.

Of course that was the period of peak inequality and peak power by a small elite over everybody else. It’s very interesting that today the leisured upper class dress code is an Edwardian dress code. You go pheasant shooting or grouse shooting or deer stalking in your tweeds and plus fours and you dress up your keepers in a similar uniform. While there’s still ‘balmorality’ practiced in Scotland, it’s supplemented and to some degree supplanted by that Edwardian code.

I’m talking about my prep school now where I was between the ages of 8 and 13, it was an institution which in many ways was lost because its old purpose had more or less evaporated. The purpose of those institutions was to break your attachment to family and home and friends and local culture, particularly any danger of engaging with working class culture in your local society. And then to reattach you to Empire, to the army, to the civil service. But of course all those institutions have either gone or their role and status had radically changed by the time I was at school. I was at that prep school between 1971 and 1976.

It didn’t really know why it existed. The only validation it could establish was to immerse itself in the past and to seek legitimacy from past glories. It must have been a very difficult thing for the headmaster, who was a depressive, with a very troubled family life and was a very lost soul himself in many ways – not a bad man, a man who didn’t belong in this world, or certainly not in the 1970s – because all the time, everybody harped back to the glory days of Commander Sanderson who was this draconian former headmaster I think two headmasters back. He wasn’t even the previous headmaster, who had exercised an iron rule over the school for many decades, who was a naval commander and entirely Victorian in his attitudes and flogged everybody mercilessly.

Cold showers and early morning runs and every sort of brutality you can ever imagine inflicting on small boys. And he was the hero of the school and there were portraits of him on the walls and everyone used to say, “Well that wouldn’t have happened in Commander Sanderson’s day.” This man was obviously a monster. I mean, he was long dead and buried by the time I went to the school so I only had repute but all the glorification of him was the glorification of a monster. This was a man who was famous and revered for the number of canings that he handed out, and for his extreme levels of discipline and the extremely vigorous regime that he imposed on all the pupils and, one imagines, all staff as well. That was the valid and legitimate era, and everything that had taken place subsequently represented slippage.

To stick to the theme of imaginative lockdown, because this is what that was, the headmaster – who as I say I feel sorry for, I felt he was a benighted soul in many ways – he felt obliged to censor the books that we brought with us. Any book which was deemed unsuitable was confiscated and handed back to our parents at the end of term. And among those books was pretty well any interesting literature. All my boys own adventure stories, I was allowed those. I used to love Willard Price and stuff like this, which was all very much white boys having colonial adventures in other people’s countries. And things like the Kontiki expedition. That was something I used to love, and the Romany stories by G. Bramwell Evens.

It wasn’t that my imagination was shut down. It roamed widely partly because I was splitting. I was trying to put myself in a completely different situation because I hated the situation so much that I’d been thrown into. But the effort was very much to throw a tight loop around our imaginations, and confine them to a particular political and social and cultural arena. Of course you can’t do that definitively with all children … children are highly inquisitive, and we will necessarily seek outlets for our imaginations. But I think with some of the boys there it certainly worked very well. And certainly to judge by some of the attitudes I encountered, they were highly limited in their worldview. Probably still are.

I come across people all the time who bear that mark. Who didn’t go to my school, but went to similar schools and seem to have had their imaginations surgically excised.

What does that look like? How does that manifest in people do you think?

For a start it means not challenging the fundamental concepts with which they were brought up. So just accepting wholesale the stories that they were told and the attitudes of their parent’s generation and of the teachers at their schools. You see people who just simply replicate what their parents said and stand for. Or what their culture promoted. It’s a failure to challenge. It’s one of the most immediate symptoms of that.

But also a search for solace in what I think are the wrong places. We all need to feel that we have a degree of control over our lives, and a degree of validity and a community that respects us. So we look for places where that works. You see people choosing what appear to be the most inappropriate means of validating their lives, by signing up to some really strange creeds and movements.

There was one very damaged boy I knew who had very cold and distant parents, and really had very low social intelligence I think. Found it very hard to connect with others. I looked him up not long ago, wondering, and hoping that things had worked out for him, and found this utterly strange account of his life where he’d basically attached himself to this extreme Orthodox Calvinism, which I don’t think offers any answers of the kind which people who have gone through that system might require. In fact, in many ways it’s quite likely to intensify the problems that they might face, but what the system does is to say there’s all sorts of places you can’t go. There’s all sorts of solutions you can’t seek.

The last thing you want to do is start engaging with people who might pursue alternative lifestyles, or alternative ways of looking at the world, because then you put yourself beyond the socially acceptable pale. And people who already struggle with the idea of social acceptability because they didn’t have very good social skills, for example, would find that particularly threatening I feel. And so yes it limits your life choices. It limits the options which you might be able to pursue later on.

Is it still like that? Do you think that the private school system is still something which is injurious to the imagination?

I don’t really know because I’ve got no contact with it at all now. But I would be very surprised if it were as harsh and draconian as it used to be. I would also be surprised if they still used geography text books which show large parts of the world coloured pink, or history text books whose description of the colonial experience really comes down to the Siege of Khartoum and the Black Hole of Calcutta! In other words, what those dreadful dark people did to us, and talk about the white man’s burden and all that stuff.

But they still are highly likely to be reflecting the mores of the 1%. And are highly likely to be less connected with other social strands than state schools are. They insulate children from the rest of the world. This is another aspect of it. By the time I came out of this system, after 10 years of boarding school, 10 of the most formative years of my life, I knew nothing of the world. I just had no conception of what other people’s lives were like. Of how they talked. How they thought. How they coped. How they struggled with what they faced. I might as well have been in a Carthusian monastery. We were totally shut off from the rest of the world.

Alongside the potential limitations of imagination, perhaps even more serious was a massive limitation of knowledge. You come out of that system really not understanding how the other 93% of people live and work and struggle. This is why you have people who have been through that system arguing there’s no such thing as poverty in this country. It’s all just relative. And people who are on the dole are basically just parasitic people who’ve succumbed to a dependency culture and really we owe nothing to anyone, and everyone should stand on their own two feet. Like we have.

You get these belief systems. Extraordinary belief systems. People who have never been out of quadrangles, who go from public school to Oxbridge, to the Bar, to Parliament, who live their whole life in quadrangles. Who then are telling other people to stand on their two feet and be enterprising. When they are completely institutionalised. Completely infantilised. People who can’t boil an egg. People who are incapable of doing anything for themselves because they’re surrounded by service of various kinds, telling other people to be enterprising.

And yet if I was to make a list of people who have really applied their imaginations brilliantly to imagining how the future could be in a different way, your name would probably be at the top of that list. How did you reclaim, or heal, or rediscover your imagination? Were you one of the lucky ones who managed to escape by being at war with it for the time you were there, or did you come out and have to decompress? What was that?

The system demands an extreme response. You either wholly accept it, or wholly reject it. It’s very hard to take a middle position when you’re faced with a system as extreme as that. It really was an extremist system. They were trying to inculcate a generation of kamikazes who would do anything for country and class.

You come to a cross roads very quickly when you leave that system and you realise either I’m going to remain wholly immersed in this for the rest of my life, or I’ve got to go in the opposite direction. There is no third way. In fact it’s not a cross roads, it’s a T-junction, sorry! You have to take one turning or the other.

You either find yourself just repeating the mistakes of your upbringing, or you have to stand right back and say, “What’s going on here? What is all this weirdness, and how do I find a different way of living and thinking which doesn’t replicate it?” That extreme situation forced me into extreme consideration and analysis and a sort of radical questioning of my life and where I wanted to take it and of the situation in which I found myself.

Does the idea that imagination and a weakening of our collective imagination is a problem, is that something that resonates for you, do you think? Does that make sense?

I feel that political failure is at heart a failure of imagination. Actually there are all sorts of fantastic ways forward there, as you know very well yourself with Transition Towns and Transition Streets and the rest of it. We just have to discover them. They’re there to be discovered.

But the more limited our imagination is, the harder it is to discover them, and so the harder it is to get out of the traps in which we find ourselves and to make political progress. As soon as someone comes up with an imaginative set of proposals, suddenly you find all sorts of political excitement being generated around them. But when imagination is shut down, as it was so successfully during the New Labour years for example, when the government deliberately clamped down on the political imagination, and basically purged from its ranks anybody who proposed imaginative solutions and thereby instigated a closure of choice as it came to resemble its opponents ever more, millions of people were turned off politics, and saw that politics could no longer provide any solutions.

That both generated a great disenfranchisement, but it also sowed the seeds of an anti-politics which finds its outlet in demagoguery and all sorts of dangerous movements which themselves often reflect a real failure of imagination. Imagination is absolutely crucial to our wellbeing because it determines whether or not we can shape the world to meet our needs and the needs of other life forms, or whether we are destined to just move down railway tracks that the past has already laid down and never deviate from our journey towards calamity.



  1. Patricia Knox
    July 25, 2017

    I recognize this drama of not fitting within a system. I recognize this choice of swimming against the current. It is a shift from outer authority to inner knowing…where imagination lives and breathes me. Oppression, suppression shifts to free flowing expression….ahhhh, breathe that!

  2. Andrew Alexander
    July 27, 2017

    It was with great interest I read this blog of your conversation with George Monbiot; I had also previously read his piece on being sent to boarding school at the age of eight. The fact that this has been the background of many of the people (mostly men) who have wielded power in this country for many, many years, has undoubtedly been instrumental in the crisis we now face. In 1960 I, also, was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8: to a small privately-owned boy’s prep school by the North Sea, typical of its time in being staffed by a significant number of post-war damaged predatory men. The significant factor in this 5 year stretch of schooling was the inculcation of fear through threats of punishment, relentless competition and cruel deprivation, particularly emotional; where discipline supplanted affection, and love all too often was a grotesque form of abuse.
    I have taught for 40 years and am now engaged in working for a complete reappraisal of what learning is and, consequently, what this means for education. For the past few years I have been working at Brockwood Park School founded by J Krishnamurti and am working on a writing project which includes my own experiences in schools, both as a student and a teacher. A central aspect of these experiences is the psychological and physical consequences of a childhood spent in fear: destroying harmony, balance and the understanding of the imaginative life that is the cornerstone of compassion.

  3. Rob Hopkins
    July 27, 2017

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for the great comment. Good luck with the writing project! Best wishes.

  4. Miranda S
    July 27, 2017

    Struggling a bit with this view, as it feels a bit out of date. And I’m hesitant about adding to this discussion as I don’t often disagree with you!

    As a disclaimer, I was a happy boarder from 16-18, whose friends became family (a strong bond exists with ex-boarders) and I loved the community. More like Harry Potter than Tom Brown’s School Days.

    I’m sure these schools were historically grim and oppressive, particularly for boys, and poor George Monbiot clearly had a miserable time, but few kids board so young any more – and caning is long dead! Times have changed, particularly in the last 20 years.

    I wonder if parental aspirations for kids to fit into and survive what they are acutely aware of is a very uncertain and ever-changing world, is more influential to their imagination and choices now than the boarding schools. As they wouldn’t expect to depend on a government, there’s a strong sense of having to be self-reliant.

    The kids are no doubt spoiled but the schools seem to me are more dynamic places, full of innovative ideas and a sense of anything is possible. (Quite a lot more scholarship kids from different backgrounds too).

    I think imagination and innovation thrive when people feel secure, and happy to take risks, to go out on a limb, without censure. But fear is the motivating factor in maintaining the status quo and rejecting new ideas. And I feel there’s been a palpable sense of fear out there for a while now.

    Any interest in broadening your research and speaking to schools? I would recommend Julian Thomas at Wellington College.

    If you feel they are part of the problem, why not engage with them? They might learn something.

  5. David Cameroff
    March 3, 2018

    This is very interesting, thank you.

    A lot of people who contribute greatly to the culture of the country are ex public school boys. I am thinking if this is due to this absolute rejection and re-evaluation discussed here.

  6. Ros Curwood
    March 3, 2018

    Interesting to compare these experiences with the recently unearthed experiences of the children of the 2nd world war who were sent away to commonwealth countries. Dont think they had much fun either. The article doesn’t explore, apart from the sense of splitting, the emotional damage done to children sent out into a world with no protection and little affection. I think this, as well as the exploration of the effects on imagination, is well worth very in depth research.

  7. Kate Swann
    March 3, 2018

    I’m happy to join in any discussions about boarding school…I was not yet 5 when I started to weekly board with French nuns in Ilfracombe, not yet 9 when I went to board with Irish nuns in Letchworth. I have plenty to say on the subject.

  8. Charlie Riley
    October 24, 2019

    I was a couple of years below George at the prep school he mentions. I would just like to correct a couple of factual errors. The ‘depressive’ headmaster he mentions was in fact Commander Sanderson’s immediate successor (Sanderson retired in 1969) and Sanderson was still alive in 1978, when he wrote the Foreword to a published History of Elstree School. Otherwise I fully agree with the general tenet of George’s observations.

  9. Sarah
    June 1, 2020

    I relate to this a lot and took an extreme ‘exit’ rather than conform. This video is an interesting look at what is there now and what could work. Specifically a proposal that because children are not developmnetally ready to be away from home like this until age 16 or so, all boarding schools should be repurposed as sixth form colleges, opening to a wider demographic and ending early boarding.

  10. Mark Taha
    November 7, 2021

    Boarding schools are unnecessary and unnatural. They should only be allowed to exist if no child is forced to go to or stay at one. Service families have British Forces Schools and workaholics and globetrotters have their priorities wrong.

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