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Boys’ private schools inculcate conformity, competitiveness, violence, blind collegiality, smug élitism and alienation from the ‘opposite’ sex

Revelations of sex abuse in all-male private schools in past decades have been powerfully conveyed across the Irish media. That barbarism should not, however, deflect attention from other enduring problems. I believe grave damage is still being done to the development of boys in ostensibly civilised institutions. Moreover, unequal educational provision maintains widening inequalities, underpinning a pervasive competitive individualism. I draw on painful memories of my own educational background in Gonzaga College SJ (Society of Jesus ie Jesuit) to provide a critique of private, all-male education. This is a personal account and others will have different perspectives.

In his ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, James Joyce’s boyhood character disparages children from non-private schools as “Mickey Muck and Paddy Stink”. We have an enduring educational snobbery. Many a privately-schooled chap still dons the proverbial old school tie.

By the 1920s, one of the leading Dublin Catholic secondary schools for boys of its time, O’Connell School on Richmond Street, recommended its pupils in the following terms: “Your ‘Richmond Street’ boy makes a good official. In the first place he possesses the necessary academic qualifications to place him high on the examination lists. He has, in addition, certain qualities which make him a good colleague. This is an essential point. However clever an official he may be, he has to pull with the team …”. The abiding ambition of most all-male private schools remains not only to produce good examination results, but also to develop a cast of mind disposed to “pull with the team”, rather than swim against the tide. Jesuit institutions have led the way in this regard.

Since independence a disproportionate number of high office holders in this state have been educated in Jesuit schools, especially Clongowes Wood SJ in Kildare, Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, and after its foundation in 1950, my own alma mater Gonzaga College SJ, also in Dublin. All three of these are all-male and private, while the first is also a boarding school.

The appointment of John Marcus O’Sullivan as Minister for Education in 1926 marked a tipping point such that non-combative Clongownians in the Cabinet outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising. Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton continue what is a long line of Clongownians, though the former was expelled, seemingly for underage drinking.

This elite education is now more likely to produce managerial material for a thrusting private sector than diligent civil servants. But in these academic hothouses, creativity is still conflated with rebelliousness. After school, positions of influence, and wealth generation, are preserved by ‘old boy’ networks. Pressure is felt in middleclass families to reproduce this status in their sons and, to a lesser extent, daughters.

A dominant Catholicism permitted horrific abuse against an older generation in Ireland. Nonetheless, professional lawyers applying Thomistic principles built a State founded on principles of universal justice. For good, and ill, Bunreacht na hEireann, our Constitution, is promulgated “in the name of the Holy Trinity”. The 1960s witnessed the advent of an era of unprecedented judicial activism. By then many of our judges were drawn from all-male, Catholic, especially Jesuit, schools. They ‘discovered’ “Unenumerated Rights”, based on a ‘Catholic’ Natural Law interpretation of the Constitution, an expansive approach the Court has since grown wary of.

Moreover, Fine Gael’s ‘Towards a Just Society’ document, conceived by Declan Costello in the 1960s, aligned closely with Catholic social teaching after Vatican II, contemplating a society built on socialist principles, including state ownership of banks.

There are still Jesuits, such as the visionary Father Peter McVerry, who maintain a missionary vocation for social justice. But arguments for a fair distribution of wealth did not figure prominently during my own ‘Jesuit’ education, where charitable activities tended to be characterised by noblesse oblige, and an assumption that it was valuable to witness how ‘the other half’ lived. Class divisions were, if anything, upheld by an awareness of a pronounced economic fault line.

The 1990s was a peculiar era to be a teenager as Irish society embraced the conformities and staid hypocrisies, of 1950s America, which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg decried in his ‘Howl’ (1954). He asked: “What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. In both, a hypocritical conformity was maintained. We abided: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”. Binge drinking, and later bad hashish, were some of our preferred responses to a creeping sense of purposelessness.

We stared agog at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and encountered foggy notions of an End of History. A pervasive popular culture, beholden to Mammon, including the exotic promise of sex in the sun played out on Australian soap operas, leached away instincts towards radical politics. The Leaving Certificate-obsessed and rugbybesotted Gonzaga I encountered demanded a dull conformity that did not give room for progressive post-Catholic ideas to flourish. Free-ranging speculation of a sort associated with the intellectual, or poet, was widely scorned. We passed from strangling religiosity to Neoliberal vacancy without coming up for breath. This has hobbled some of our best minds.

Well before revelations of serious sexual misconduct, a Catholic ancien regime was already creaking, their pronouncements at odds with an upwardly-mobile generation of businessmen, who really ruled the roost. The emerging financial and technological sectors also boosted the professional classes, many of whose earnings spiralled.

Gonzaga College SJ is still among the leading all-male secondary schools in the country, claiming a thoroughbred stable of academics, lawyers, and politicians such as Anthony Clare, Michael McDowell, and Peter Sutherland, the socalled “father of globalisation”. A sense of meritocracy was based on an entrance exam and Leaving Certificate results that often bred a preening elitism, without consideration of the worth of either.

In my time, shades of Eton and Oxford cohabited with bog-Irish institutionalism, dissolving individuality into a corporate body toughened on rugby, and kept in check by cruel humour. Endowed with superficial polish, for many, meritocracy provided a fast train to plutocracy.

For ten years I spent most of my waking hours in a gilded cage: surveying the copper beech on the front lawn we were prohibited from setting foot on; running a gauntlet between the cynicism of peers and the naked ambition of certain teachers who saw students as examination numbers, or fodder for the rugby trenches. Fortunately I found interstices, where kindness and humour were weighed in the balance.

When I began the secondary cycle I dared opt out of playing rugby, and despite obtaining the necessary parental permission – I believe – I was selected for humiliation by the coach, who was also a teacher. I remember – as an awkward twelve-year-old – in one class being ordered to stand with my back to the door for some minor infraction. He warned menacingly that if anyone entered the room I would be stabbed in the kidneys by the knob. This version of Russian Roulette did not last long – the door never opened – but it had the desired effect.

In Gonzaga the real nastiness was expressed not in physical bullying but in contempt and exclusion – the not-so-subtle suggestion your face did not fit. This method honed a capacity for cutting speech advantageous in subsequent managerial careers. I acquired a forked tongue myself too, and am sadly aware that at times I threw my weight around.

Still, I recall tears welling inexplicably when it got too much. The memory of a “scrap” one lunchtime lingers. Tears flowed as the crowd bellowed “AG-AGR-AGRO-Agro”. My opponent repeatedly came at me with fists, which failed to land. I responded by putting him down with headlocks. At the end of ‘the fight’ he boasted he had won, because I had cried.

I lived with a sense of being devoid of intelligence for many years. As a contrarian I viewed homework with suspicion, but would work hard if I found a subject compelling. This brought inconsistency: I fell behind in mathematical subjects, whose contents read like manuals of machines I had no use for. The contest we were involved in required a loser, and that’s how exam results often portrayed me.

In later years, my worst experiences came in English class, where a teacher shredded my selfconfidence as a writer. This in a subject that should have transcended the educational trough I felt I was feeding from. His poignant remark at the end of sixth year was that he never liked me for accurately mimicking him.

We were embedded in the white noise of a Catholicism that had lost its lustre; chained to catechism that nobody bothered uttering. We bowed before creaking of authority, choking any wonder in a divine creation our youthful minds might have conjured. There were a few Jesuits still teaching in my time, but they had none of the vindictive clarity inspiring James Joyce’s Portrait. Instead we found inchoate conviction in some, and angry pedantry elsewhere; no manifest evil, but misplaced servitude.

For a period in the early part of my schooling, a cabal of rugby coach-teachers instituted a system of chastisement known as the ‘Levels’ (proceeding unimaginatively from one to three), requiring us to copy out meaningless texts for designated offences. It was nostalgia for the biff on their part: offending boys were compelled to queue up after school to await the sanction, and its accompanying venom. It worked as well at rehabilitation as most forms of punishment.

The power of dominant teachers was inversely proportionate to the authority of the more sensitive, whose lives we made a misery. Our shrill arrogance is still probably ringing in their ears. Alas, the unquestioned authority of the disciplinarians demanded this sacrificial contrast.

Human warmth was rare in those insipid corridors, least of all in toilets emitting such noxious odours that some pupils avoided defecation over the entire course of their schooling. I took to smoking in the bike sheds as a palliative to the recurring blues of each morning’s bell summoning us to classrooms loaded with the tedium of the syllabus. The Leaving Certificate was a results business, and Gonzaga was primed for that purpose. This remains the case: the Sunday Independent list of feeder schools published in January shows that Gonzaga had the highest proportion, at 85 per cent of pupils going on to university.

In a throwback to another age, Gonzaga maintained instruction in Classical languages. I revolted instinctively against Latin as the language of oppressive scholasticism, but at least I was exposed to the pagan marvels of ancient epic, when Classical Studies was introduced to those who bridled at conjugations. The muses whispered through the cracks of a frigid structure, their contemplation assisted in later years by a female teacher who brought quietly subversive, feminist ideas.

Another teacher I encountered with genuine charm taught biology. There at last wide-ranging speculation was permitted, of a type usually denied to us in religion classes. I became an atheist when the simplicity of genetic inheritance was explained, cohering with a growing contempt for an institution that drew legitimacy from blind faith.

Of course it could have been a lot worse, more violent anyway. For me at least, the first ever lay headmaster who arrived in my fourth year felt like a breath of fresh air, conveying a decency usually sorely lacking. An occasionally mincing authority figure, he probably made being gay seem less of a mortal sin. However, he may have contributed to the entrenched elitism of our “little Eton”.

School life became more tolerable as the years passed: livelong summer afternoons playing pick-up games of football on the back pitches come to mind, and activities with neighbouring girls schools diluted the overpowering maleness. I rose to officer class, performing in plays, once even captaining a rugby team. Thankfully, I was excluded from the full-blown hypocrisy of being made a prefect. This prohibition came about after a friend and I recited a salacious poem at an interschool debate: “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

In rugby, a sense of duty, not fun, was instilled, and certain coaches seemed to look favourably on a capacity for violence. In one senior second’s game I recall a member of our team kick an opponent full-force in the head. This required an ambulance to be called to the pitch. The next week the offender was elevated to the senior team.

I had been subjected to a similar attack in an earlier age group, when an opponent from another school stamped on my head, missing my left eye by half an inch. The next week I made my debut for the As, seemingly for sucking it up. Nevertheless I came to enjoy the game, on my own terms, mainly for the comraderie it brought.

I enjoyed the company of brilliant people growing up. Wits and raconteurs who would leave you breathless with laughter, but for anyone to emerge from that experience as an artist, or even entrepreneur, probably required purgation, and maybe a trip to a psychedelic Underworld. Sadly, great talent has been lost to artless corporate jobs. We were not encouraged to look askance at that grey world of conformity. It took me many years to escape that fate, and confront my background.

Children require space for new ideas to germinate, especially as the social and economic fabric of post-Second World War societies unravel under the weight of grotesque inequalities, climate chaos and the epistemological confusion wrought by the new medium of the Internet.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, all-male private schools have long incubated an upper stratum, who accumulate wealth and set cultural norms. But a simmering violence and sense of entitlement damages many students, ossifies class divisions and muzzles creativity.

It pains me to think of hundreds of young boys together co-existing for years without an admixture of femininity. Most of us hardly set eyes on girls of our own age, who were not family members, for months on end. Studious boys, especially, didn’t tend to hang out with other kids in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have, I think, found it difficult to develop meaningful friendships with dangerous creatures pointedly referred to as the “opposite sex”.

All-male educational institutions, including Gonzaga College SJ should be abolished altogether in my view. Men may come together positively of course, even through rugby, but to segregate boys and girls from one another entirely throughout their formative years creates unhealthy gender divisions. Statistics show boys perform better academically in mixed environments, and measures need to be taken to address the growing preponderance of girls in higher education.

Moreover, when all-male environments coincide with wealth and privilege this taps into energies that are the source of much of the corruption in the world. This seems brutally apparent when the aggrieved male ‘winner’ brings a sense of entitlement into his sexual relations.

The damage to many boys is also apparent from the number of young men who commit suicide in a society where all-male education is the norm. Survival often demands emotional suppression: the tears that welled inside me were the accumulation of years spent in a setting where showing your feelings was a sign of weakness.

Embracing best practice would see all abilities being taught in a single classroom until the age of sixteen. This is what the Finns have done, while topping European league tables in reading and science for fifteen-yearolds. The great benefit of this approach is that weaker students “scaffold” their learning on those who excel. This could play a vital role in generating wider equality.

It seems an odd situation where the state pays the salaries of teachers alongside fees averaging €6,000 per annum for a private day school in Dublin. This is an added burden on anxious middle class parents who fret about their children being disadvantaged by attending a state school.

A Gonzaga education did not involve the infliction of torture on me – or any contemporaries I know of – unlike other institutions have done. Savagery was expressed in taunts rather than blows. But it is at the apex of an educational system that encourages a competitiveness that is the foundation of our growing inequalities, and where an often clandestine violence smoulders.

Gonzaga carried the pretence of a Liberal education with its copper beech and Classicisms, but it merely equipped some of us for financial success. It did little to encourage the pursuit of social justice the Jesuit order claims as its vocation. Moreover, originality was – in my team at least – conflated with rebelliousness. Above all, it strove for its pupils to achieve high Leaving Certificate grades, and also to develop a mentality conducive to “pulling with the team”. Gonzaga was the worst, precisely because it was the best.