Discuss the Public School System in Forster’s “Notes on the English Character”


Forster’s second note in his essay Notes on the English Character is on the public-school system of England. The significance of the public school system is well emphasized by him at the beginning of this discussion, “Just as the heart of England is middle classes, so the heart the middle classes is the public school system.” He has already asserted “that the character of the English is essentially middle class.” The public school system is the creation of the middle class and dominates the academic sector of the land with the dominance of the middle class in English society.

Rise of public School

The public school, as the name signifies, is the institution run by the public exchequer for the interest of the majority of people. These schools are managed by the government or by the semi-governmental organizations. The expenses here are much lesser than those of the private schools, very much high in England and America. Naturally, the public schools have become popular in England and popularized by the middle class, for this justly caters to the needs of the class that stands in between the aristocratic rich and the needy poor.

Of course, as pointed out by Forster, this public school system is absolutely “local” in England. This is not found all over the British isles. It is little known in Ireland and almost unknown in Scotland and scarcely seen in different European countries. Of course, the system is found to have inspired some great institutions, such as Aligarh in India and some of the big schools in the United States of America.

The English public school is somewhat unique. A creation by the Anglo-Saxon middle classes, this is found to flourish only where the Anglo-Saxon middle-class flourishes. Forster also mentions what are the characteristic marks of the English public school. These have the well organized boarding houses, the compulsory system sports and games, regularity. and strict discipline in conduct, good manners and the spirit of respect for what is reverential.

The middle-class people believe that this public school system is necessary for the formation of a stable, sober, spirited English character.

The students of the public school in England, after their schooling, set to work, without delay. Some of them join the army, some start business, or some even emigrate. A few of them proceed, for the higher and specialized education, to some university. After their stay there for three to four years, they enter some other profession. They go to the profession of law, medicine, teaching, or journalism, and some of them prefer to be civil servants. Their steady public school career continued in their steady after-school profession.

Impact of Public School

What is, however, particularly remarkable is the impact of the public school on its students. The memories of their school days haunt them and often flashback on their minds. A good many of them consider their school days the happiest period in their lives. They love their school warmly and believe this to be perfect, the model school in the world. They even remain associated with it through The Old Boys’ Society called by them. The students have rich tributes to pay to their schools and even they falsely believe in certain popular dictum such as “the battle of Waterloo was won at the playing-fields of Eton”.

The public school system according to Forster, casts a distinct impression on the characters of the students. Worshipping their school, almost as an idol, they follow even in their practical after-life the tenets of their school code. They have learned to understand but not to feel. Their world is very much limited after their school codes and manners. So they least realize the richness and subtlety of the world around them. In the language of Forster, “They go forth into it with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts”.

Indeed, Forster has rightly noted what is wrong with the public school system that restrains a student’s normal emotion and makes him look often cold and indifferent. As a result, their character is misconstructed, not seldom, particularly by a foreigner.