But it isn’t even a question!

Over in that imperialist undemocratic monarchy across the Atlantic (we can be smug because we got rid of the “monarchy” part), people are wondering how the country got to the point that democracy can be suspended by a buffoon, and further, how said buffoon can actually be appointed prime minister — a question that we non-monarchists have been asking ourselves as well. At least part of the answer has to be that our respective upper classes are trained to be pompous buffoons, either at Eton or in our equivalent prep schools for the rich elite. At least in Great Britain bits of the training have been exposed.

Laurie Penny explores the implications of an amazing question from the entrance examination for Eton. This is a question that 13 year old boys are expected to address.

The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.

I am impressed by how the question is not even a question. It assumes the answer and demands that you justify it. There is absolutely no latitude to question the actions or condemn the policies that led the army to be deployed against civilians — nope, every action we have performed was right and just, no matter what it was, and your job is to keep doing the same thing and tell the populace that their murders are “necessary and moral“. I have to marvel at the implicit arrogance of this thought exercise. So this is how you get Boris Johnson. Great Britain apparently didn’t learn a thing since Peterloo.

We don’t have one Eton, but instead a network of elite prep schools, mostly in the Northeast, some in the South — Phillips Exeter Academy might be the closest thing to Eton that we’ve got. Now I’m wondering what kind of biased drivel you have to recite to get into those, although we’re also different in how one gets into the civil service, anyway. My impression is that most of the training our ‘elite’ kids get is to coach them in glorious capitalism and how to trample on the middle class and the poors in your stampede to excessive wealth.

Sometimes it isn’t the answers that matter, but the questions asked that shape your mind.


  1. George says

    As has be pointed out quite a bit recently, the main point of going to Harvard, Yale, and the like is Contacts, Contacts, Contacts!

  2. djh says

    To be fair to Eton College (can’t believe I just wrote that) it is common practice in teaching argument and debating skills to be given a position and have to defend it whatever your own position happens to be. That said, defending the indefensible seems to be a lost art to our glorious leader despite him having attended the establishment in question on his way up the greasy pole, his preferred response to being called to account now seeming to be to ignore the question (forcibly if necessary).

  3. cartomancer says

    Of course we learned from Peterloo! What some of us learned was that you need to give speeches justifying your imperialist brutality now, because people won’t just put up with it unsweetened. Progress!!!

  4. drmarcushill says

    Yeah, as djh #2 said, Eton subscribes to the ancient tradition of valuing the art of constructing an argument for any given position over the philosophical and ethical thinking necessary to arrive at that position in the first place. It’s almost as if they are training people to aim for positions of power and influence where they can push decisions to benefit themselves and their peers regardless of the effects on others, and to later rationalise those decisions to those disadvantaged others whom they need to vote them back into power against their own best interest.

  5. cartomancer says

    I am, however, reminded that last year I was teaching thirteen year olds (girls in my case, not boys, because apparently single-sex education is alive and well) and as part of their English class they were reading Animal Farm. As a part of their end of unit assessment they had to write a speech as Squealer, the propaganda pig based on Goebbels and Molotov, justifying why Napoleon’s takeover of the farm was necessary and good.

    The point was, however, to show that they understood how rhetorical techniques could be used to justify the indefensible. That rhetoric could make even morally repugnant arguments seem plausible in some contexts. Which is, of course, why Aristotle decided it needed to be taught thousands of years ago.

  6. cartomancer says

    I should probably point out that the article was written in 2013, and “the current one” was then David Cameron. We’ve had two since then, only one of whom (the current “current one”) went to Eton. But since the intervening one was a woman, she couldn’t have gone there.

    But no, we couldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbin. Because he’s an atheist, anti-monarchist vegetarain with an allotment and is willing to talk to Palestinians. Which is clearly unforgivable.

  7. PaulBC says

    How about:

    I am smarter than you are. I went to Eton. Trust me. It was both necessary and moral. Just thank God we do not live in a horrible, totalitarian nation like China.

    Does that work or am I giving away the game too much? [make sure the mic is off when you say that part]

  8. drmarcushill says

    Thanks for the link, Rob. Reading the whole paper, the excerpt is actually more justifiable. The question starts with the “better to be feared than loved” excerpt from Machiavelli, asks the candidates to summarise the argument and then, just before the bit in the OP, asks them to “Explain, in your own words, to what extent you find the author’s argument unappealing”. So they do give the candidates an opportunity to question the morality and even, by the phrasing of the second part of the question, encourage them to think of counterarguments. The speech writing part is just asking them to use the arguments in a given context, which is actually a good way to see if they have understood them.
    I have absolutely no love for the elitism of Eton or its most well known alumni, but I think the excerpt in PZ’s post has been deceptively contextomised.

  9. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@7

    I failed already. I spent (slightly) more than three minutes on the digital watch question trying to understand why the digit could not be either 3 or 7. I didn’t notice it said that the three horizontal elements are not working. (My bad for not reading the question carefully.) It also did not say that the remaining elements were working correctly, so I still think it does not have a unique answer. (Also specifying which segments are out kind of wrecks the puzzle.)

    This doesn’t bother me now, but it would have bothered me as a kid. Tthe reference to digital watches is almost comically culture-specific and makes me think of Douglas Adams. The person who made up this exam “still thinks digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

    On the essay part, I’m reminded of the rule in debate that you should be able to argue either side of the issue. I can sort of see the point in terms of developing rhetorical skills, but my big takeaway as a child was “Aha, so the people who want to tell us what to do are all basically trained liars.”

  10. Zeppelin says

    Right, I’m sure it’s just a debate club-type exercise. It’s useful for Eton students to flex their mental muscles by imagining themselves in a far-fetched scenario like…uh…being a powerful politician using state violence to enforce the status quo.
    The next problem will be “you’ve just overthrown the government in a socialist workers’ uprising. The royal family and all members of the nobility have been executed by firing squad. As the recently elected chairman of the Greater London Soviet, explain why this was both necessary and moral.” Right?

  11. PaulBC says

    Whatever the provenance of this question, I still think it gives some insight into how someone like Boris Johnson can be trained to believe that being the smartest boy in the room makes up for being a compassionless sociopath.

    It’s not just Eton or elite schools. There are many steps throughout culture grooming through which the elite are persuaded implicitly or explicitly that they’re better than the rest of us. You can say this was a theoretical question on Machiavelli, but how much of the aim is to suppress the ethical gag response that a naturally ethical person would feel at this scenario?

  12. PaulBC says

    When I was in 8th grade, we had a “lifeboat scenario” class discussion about who should go in the fallout shelter in a nuclear war. That was the late 70s. (And Catholic grade school!) So asking kids the unthinkable seems to be part of a longstanding tradition. Nobody was expected to write a speech to justify it though.

  13. PaulBC says

    Finally, let it never be said that Billy Bragg’s Thatcher-era songs like Ideology haven’t aged well.

  14. drmarcushill says

    Oh, absolutely – I stand by what I said at #4, it is all about being able to construct arguments to defend your actions which don’t necessarily reflect your reason for undertaking them in the first place. I just like to hold ourselves to the same standards as everyone else, and not leave open the door for an “out of context” rebuttal.

  15. petesh says

    @13: Al Johnson (I think we should all piss him off by using his given first name, it’s exactly what he would do) was never “the smartest boy in the room” but did think so, and clearly still does. In my experience, most Etonians have that tendency; the rest become junkies. I am so glad my parents refused to send me there, even on a full scholarship.

  16. leerudolph says

    Incidentally, here‘s a recent Guardian article about an interesting difference between state (i.e., public) schools and private schools [1] in Great Britain.

    Top universities are giving privately educated children an unfair advantage by not differentiating between the rigorous GCSEs compulsory in the state system and less demanding exams taken in many fee-paying schools [2], MPs and educationists have said.

    Just days after GCSE results day last Thursday, Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by Labour MP Lucy Powell show that almost all Russell Group universities treat the two types of exam – the regulated GCSEs used in the state system, and IGCSEs, which the government admits do not meet the same high standards – as exact equivalents in admission processes. […]

    Responding to FoIs requests from Powell, only Cambridge University [3] among the 24 Russell Group universities said it did not take exam results at key stage 4 (14-16 years) into account when deciding which students to admit. The other 23 said they did take them into account and made no distinction between the two.

    [1] Apparently sometime recently when I wasn’t paying attention, UK English no longer uses “public school” to mean what American English has always (in my lifetime, at least) called “private school”.

    [2] Ah, meritocracy.

    [3] Good for Cambridge!

  17. numerobis says

    I wonder what happens to the kid who writes a resignation speech.

    That’s what a PM who just had 25 protesters killed should write.

  18. says

    Apparently sometime recently when I wasn’t paying attention, UK English no longer uses “public school” to mean what American English has always (in my lifetime, at least) called “private school”.

    Wait, what? When did that happen?

  19. blf says

    @18/@20, That is, in part, a Grauniad thing. From their style guide:

    public schools
    are actually private schools, so that is what we should call them

  20. blf says

    @22, From Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    The term public school emerged in the 18th century when the reputation of certain grammar schools spread beyond their immediate environs. They began taking students whose parents could afford residential fees and thus became known as public, in contrast to local, schools. By the late 20th century the term independent school was increasingly preferred by the institutions themselves.

    Other sources imply the term, dating back to the c.1600, did originally mean something like “publicly-funded”. When or why it lost that meaning (assuming it ever did have such a meaning) is not known to me. Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge has a rather long article which may contain hints… but my stomach is also providing me with hints, which should be more tasty than wading through screenfulls of dry prose.

  21. jefrir says

    Note that while British “public schools” are private, they are not the only private schools in Britain – they are a small, elite group, even within that broader set.

  22. cartomancer says

    PaulBC #22 and blf #23,

    The 1868 Public Schools Act formalised the use of the term, but it is actually quite a bit older – at least 17th Century. They were called “public” schools to distinguish them from the other kinds of schools available in England at the time – church schools, trade schools and local schools, which limited admission to members of specific religious congregations, sons of members of specific trade guilds, or people from a local parish. A “public” school, meanwhile, admitted anyone, irrespective of religious, family or regional background. Most were originally set up as charitable foundations to teach (a handful of) the children of the poor, who couldn’t afford school fees from other schools. The poor were soon usurped by the rich, however, and kept out with huge fees, because the rich have been universally awful throughout all of history.

  23. brucegee1962 says

    England in 1819 by Percy Shelley

    An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
    Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
    Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
    Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
    But leechlike to their fainting country cling
    Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
    A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
    An army, whom liberticide and prey
    Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
    Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
    Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
    A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
    Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
    Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

  24. PaulBC says


    How about the speech to explain how it’s 2040 and we’re still in a fossil fuel economy (and why this is both necessary and moral).

    The cynic in me (and software engineer) says the real problem with this question is jumping straight to implementation without considering requirements. The goal is to get the public to acquiesce to oppression. Delivering a highfalutin speech doesn’t work outside the most tawdry fiction (like something Ayn Rand might author). In a “democracy” you just rely on the media to present the government’s actions in a favorable light. Half the population would do the dirty work for you. In a “totalitarian” society, you let the death of the 25 protesters hang in the air as a threat. The big question is how do you preserve the power of your government under these circumstances.

    I think it is interesting that the question stipulates that the protests are “riots” and that the protesters are “violent” (or will be portrayed as such in the speech). This partly undermines the view that the whole thing is an exercise in rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be an even more interesting exercise if the protesters were assumed to be entirely justified?

  25. nomadiq says


    Talking to the taxman about poetry…. now there is an album I have to listen to again. Tomorrow… when I wake up. Tis late here right now.

  26. Sophie Jane says

    I went to a school that prepared pupils for those kinds of entrance exam – more often Winchester than Eton, but the same attitudes – and the key thing to understand is that learning irony and ironic detachment is very much part of the package. So a question like this is simultaneously a debating-society exercise and a dry joke about politicians and a test of detachment. An answer that referred to (say) irresponsible protesters stepping in the path of bullets would be entirely appropriate and appreciated – probably more so than something merely convincing. A gentleman is never seen to take anything too seriously.

    The other thing to notice is that this a just a more polite version of the edgy irony that created a pipeline between 4chan and the alt-right.

  27. PaulBC says

    Sophie Jane@29

    Yikes. Well that’s interesting. Is there a parallel educational track for those who don’t want to go in for full desensitization? It sounds like a process for filling the ranks of “leadership” with sociopaths. The sociopaths are going to get there anyway, so I don’t see why they need extra encouragement.

  28. PaulBC says


    I used to listen to Billy Bragg a lot while driving, not as much in recent years. I love the narrative setup in Levi Stubbs’ Tears. “With the money from her accident, she bought herself a mobile home.” I also love the lack of irony to There is Power in a Union (an entirely different song from Joe Hill’s though it lends itself to confusion.) “Money speaks for money / The Devil for his own / Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?” The romantic songs are also remarkable for pop music, since they seem to be as much about Catholic sexual guilt as infatuation.

    I wish I could say I was cool enough to have listened to him in college, but it actually wasn’t until the mid-90s that I realized what I had been missing.

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @30:

    Is there a parallel educational track for those who don’t want to go in for full desensitization?

    I went to a mere grammar school*, with mostly boys from working class backgrounds, but the detachment/desensitization was prominent there as well. When my family moved to Canada, it was a culture shock to have to stand in home room class for “God Save the Queen”, and to see people with flags in their front yards. Moving to the States would’ve been a real nightmare, with all the ostentatious hands over hearts “honoring” of flags, troops, etc going on constantly. Yeah, we had the monarchy, but it wasn’t in your face all the time.

    Also, another take on Eton, from Tom Hiddleston:

    People think it’s just full of braying toffs, who are arrogant and chauvinistic, senseless and ambitious, who are destined to run the country and steal all our money. It isn’t true. There are a few people like that but that’s one or two in a school of 1,200. It’s actually one of the most broadminded places I’ve ever been.

    *Strictly speaking, not a grammar school, but still one for boys who had passed the 11-plus exam. It was more science-oriented than most grammar schools.

  30. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@12

    Take it from Loki. “We’re not evil! Seriously! Anyway, most of us aren’t, just a couple bad apples who go on to run the country. The rest of us become broadminded human rights activists or highly paid MCU actors.” (Sorry, cheap shot and I couldn’t resist.)

    I’ve met (to my knowledge) one person who went to Andover. He was a professor in a technical field and a smart and interesting guy who oscillated (I would say) between Kurzweily futurism and conservative politics, which he could argue well to the point of being a prick about it. He mentioned the Andover thing once with some reluctance. I also know someone who worked at Lawrenceville, another school in the Eight Schools Association. That sounds like an awesome place to go to high school, at least in its 21st century incarnation with a lot of emphasis on developing passion and intellectual curiosity (but who knows, really).

    I see the main problem with elite schools not in any specific point of view but the fact that by definition they don’t solve the real problem of mass education, which is to support a populace broadly capable of making good decisions both personally and politically. We’ve completely failed in the US. I like the public high school my kids attend, but this is what you get in an affluent Silicon Valley community (an integrated Leave it to Beaver world populated by millionaires; I love it here, but it doesn’t seem scalable). Anyway, this is off the point, but with the emphasis on “Tiger Moms” and cutthroat competition for college, we are headed in essentially the opposite direction from attaining a moderately informed populace (And why not both? Fine, but in practice we clearly favor the elite.)

    I went to an all boys Catholic prep school on a scholarship, and I wouldn’t say irony was really favored in that environment (This was in the early 80s, and I remember one student alluding comically to the death Óscar Romero in El Salvador and being shot down instantly by the math teacher–a brother–who said ‘That is in poor taste.’ though he didn’t lose his cool about it, and kept on with the class.) I haven’t kept in touch with anyone from high school. I get the impression (from visiting an alumni facebook page) that the purpose of that school was to cultivate a class of affluent middlebrow Catholic suburbanites who think about golf a lot.

  31. Sophie Jane says


    I don’t know that I’d say sociopaths, exactly – it’s more a way of building common attitudes within the elite and cultivating distance from those who aren’t in the club. And not everyone in a position of power is part of the club – there are plenty of alternate routes into politics, in particular – but it’s a recognisable thing that exists, all the same.

    (I was at the Dragon – a prep school in the English sense – in the early 80s. An eccentric place, but also one that had half of Thatcher’s cabinet as alumni.)

  32. PaulBC says

    Sophie Jane@34

    I wonder if there is anything analogous in elite American education. I don’t know from experience, but I would guess not. The rightwing stereotype is that higher education is dominated by liberals, though it obviously doesn’t explain the Ivy-educated conservative SCOTUS justices. I think it might be true that Republican politicians are more likely to have degrees from state universities, but I don’t have any statistics on this either.

    I also think that American “elites” are expected to present a front of earnestness, whatever their actual beliefs. Maybe that’s just for public consumption, but it seems very different from maintaining ironic distance.

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