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March 06, 2007

A Window on the English Class System

For the past week or so, David and I have been watching the "Up" series: a series of television specials produced in England that interviewed the same group of people every seven years beginning when they were seven. So far we have seen the first four films: 7 Up, Seven Plus Seven, 21, and 28 Up. The series is based on the saying, "give me a child to the age of seven and I'll give you the man." They never say where this phrase comes from, but the series continually questions whether, at the age of seven, you can predict how a child will turn out, or what kind of adult he or she will become.

In England, for the most part, you can tell what kind of adult a seven-year-old child will become because the class system basically determines it. For example, at the age of twenty-eight, the four children from the East End are still working class, while the three boys from the exclusive Kensington pre-prep school are lawyers and BBC producers. The two boys from the children's home are manual laborers. The kids who went to "public" (private) school plan to send their kids to "public" school, while those who went to "state" (public) schools plan to send their kids to "state" schools. There were, however, a few surprises: the poshest boy (who is already in boarding school at seven years old because his father lives in Rhodesia) ends up teaching school in the East End and living in a Council estate, but you can tell that he is headed there by the age of seven because he is super-sensitive and wants to help people. Another surprise is the Yorkshire farm boy who ends up becoming a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, but again this isn't a real surprise because, at the age of seven, he has no interest in farming and wants to "learn about the moon." Some of the kids turn out just how you would expect. John, the smarmiest of the bunch, is already defending his privilege at the age of seven. When he and two friends were asked whether prep-school house captains should be elected or appointed, one of his friends says that it is fairer to have them elected. John agrees that it is fairer to elect them, but goes on to say that it is "better" to appoint them. Over the next three films, he continually defends the class system and the "public" (private) school system, having no qualms about getting advantages that the East End boy or the boys from the children's home didn't have. When asked if he wants to be rich when he grows up, he says no, he just wants to have enough money so that he doesn't have to work and can pursue other interests, like collecting art. If that isn't rich, then what is?

The first time I went to England, it was January 2000 and I was twenty years old. This class system was still firmly in place, and I was shocked and disgusted by the upper-crust among whom I found myself surrounded at Cambridge University. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be an American. When I expressed this view to my fellow Americans, they told me I was naive: the U.S. had just as much of a class system, they said, but it was more insidious because it was hidden behind a facade of supposed meritocracy. They are probably right, but at least we have an ideology of equality even if we don't have equality in practice. For me, the ideology provides hope. In England, the poor kids, even as adults, didn't have any sense of outrage at the system that had produced them and, for that reason, it will probably never change.

Posted by eklanche at March 6, 2007 07:25 AM

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