Time and Place: English Public Schools
Before and After World War I
English Public Schools
Although Mr. Chips's Brookfield is a fictional place, it is based on real English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, which have been enormously influential in England for hundreds of years. ("Public" schools are actually what Americans would call private schools, and serve chiefly upper-class and well-to-do boys, and, more recently, girls.) The culture that has grown up around the English public school system is mythic. Its values, ideals, and traditions have been embraced, envied, admired, and copied in much of the world -- although its elitism and sometime cruelty have also been detested and derided.
In his 1977 book, The World of the Public School, George MacDonald Fraser writes, "For better or worse, the public schools have had a hold on Britain for close to two centuries. They have trained most of the men and many of the women who run the British government, armed forces, civil service, church and commerce. They have influenced every aspect of Britain's national life -- and, through the old Empire, a sizeable part of the world as well."
By 1880, the year Chips comes to Brookfield, public schools were firmly established as the main system for educating upper-class boys. These kinds of schools were chiefly boarding schools, and each had its own traditions, slang, rituals, and unwritten codes to which its boys adhered religiously. According to historian Vivian Ogilvie in his book, The English Public School, public schools of the higher rank (such as Eton and Harrow), were quite similar in that all
had developed a set of characteristics which were rapidly vested with an aura of antiquity. There was a system of boarding houses, run by masters. There was the system of prefects and fags. The headmaster and house masters ruled through their prefects and, by treating them as responsible semi-adults, gave them a useful preparation for manhood. The organization of a school's corporate life and the maintenance of discipline outside school hours by the older boys, with a minimum of interference from the master, came to be regarded as an essential and differentiating characteristic of the Public School.
It is this system of hierarchies that Mr. Chips illustrates so well. The "fagging" system (see note), in which younger boys must do older boys' bidding, was widely established and seen as a means of instilling group conformity and loyalty. Initiation rites, such as the "barreling" in the film, and the general bullying of weaker boys by older or stronger boys were seen as preparing boys for manhood and leadership. (A headmaster of this era at Winchester, the oldest English public school, once said about this system, "I hardly know which is most useful -- the habit of obedience which it requires from the lower boys or the exercise of authority on the part of the higher ones. It appears to me to be admirable on both sides.")
The opening of the film illustrates how completely this system was entrenched when Rivers, an older boy, is showing Chips around the school. Approached by his "fag," Rivers says, "Henshaw, you little oik, you burnt my toast again this morning!" As the boy leaves, promising it will never happen again, Rivers says pompously to Chips, "The standard of fagging this year is deplorable." Chips chafes at the system throughout the film, and when he is headmaster he eliminates fagging altogether. But the story also shows Chips upholding the idea of a hierarchy of authority. In the film, when the new headmaster wants to force him to resign, Chips tells the boys not to fight it: "His authority cannot be questioned; we must have hierarchies in life, we must have points of reference."
Note: Students may be curious about the use of the word "fag" and "fagging." Given its current use as a derogatory American slang word, you may want to explain that the original meaning of the word fag was "weary." An encyclopedia published in 1911 describes fagging as "in English public schools, a system under which, generally with the full approval of the authorities, a junior boy performs certain duties for a senior. In detail this custom varies slightly in the different schools, but its purpose -- the maintenance of discipline among the boys themselves -- is the same.... Fagging was a fully established system at Eton and Winchester in the 16th century, and is probably a good deal older."
Before and After World War I
The world changed completely during the years in which Mr. Chips was at Brookfield. He would have entered the school in the late Victorian era, taught through the Edwardian era, and died between the two great wars of the 20th century, thus witnessing the dawn of the modern world.
This was a time of dizzying technological advance: the early years of the 20th century saw the first electric lights, telephone, telegraph, transatlantic cable, elevator, car, and airplane flight. It was also a time when Britain went from being at the height of its imperial power -- with countries under its flag around the globe -- to seeing its might begin to wane as other nations competed for technological, political, and economic advantage.
As Mr. Chips began his tenure at Brookfield, English class structure was still rigidly defined -- everyone had a place in society, and everyone knew his or her place. But the changes wrought by World War I opened up new opportunities for women, as well as for the working classes. In their first meeting, Kathie asks Chips his opinion on women's suffrage. ("Don't you think if you had a wife, you would respect her enough to believe she could vote?") By 1906 women were taking to the streets to demonstrate for the right to vote. Public sympathy for the cause grew, and when women had to take on the jobs that men left behind during World War I, they proved their capability. In 1918 women won the right to vote in Britain.
For an evocative look at English life in Edwardian time, you may want to view portions of the PBS television series The Manor House, which portrays modern-day volunteers going "back in time" to become an upper-class family and their servants. Other films that portray this era are Gosford Park and The Shooting Party.
World War I and Public Schools
When World War I broke out in 1914, it became the largest conflict history had ever seen. In the end, the British Empire sent nine million men to war and lost nearly one million of them. Of these men, many were public school boys like those in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The film shows the first ominous stirrings of war as the new headmaster brings in an Officer Training Corps, and the boys develop a growing distrust of the German teacher, Herr Staefel.
When the war first began, many in England thought it would end soon and be "the war to end all wars." With this attitude, and with propaganda everywhere urging young men to join the troops, it became embarrassing for a man of military age not to be enlisted. But as the war wore on and uses of new weapons like automatic machine guns, poison gas, tanks, and trench warfare began to claim thousands of lives, public opinion began to shift. Each week newspapers published lengthy casualty lists like those Chips reads to his students.
In the summer of 1916 the Allied troops were so devastatingly slaughtered on the Somme that whatever romantic notions were left about the war were destroyed. Soldier-poets like Siegfried Sassoon began to write bitterly about their experiences, as in this excerpt from "Suicide in the Trenches":
You smug-faced crowds with
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll
The hell where youth and
The notion of "shell shock" was born just after World War I, when thousands and thousands of men back from the front suffered psychological trauma that made them unable to go on with their lives in peacetime. We see this illustrated in the film when one of the Colley boys comes back to visit Brookfield with his face scarred and a leg missing and tells Chips, breaking down, about men he saw "drown in mud." Yet English public school -- the hierarchy, authority, and esprit de corps -- had, in many ways prepared these privileged men to take their roles as officers in the war. As Vivian Ogilvie writes, "they distinguished themselves in battle and proved that whatever effects their education might have had, it sent them into the world with the courage and ability to lead."
Activity: Exploring Time and Place
As a class, create a "museum" of the early 20th century to bring this era to life. Have each student, or small group of students, choose some aspect of the time period that is important in the story (women's suffrage, new technology, English public schools, various aspects of World War I, etc.). Then have them collect or create a range of materials -- photographs, quotations, music, clothing, statistics, poetry, paintings -- that, when collected and "mounted" in the classroom might bring the era to life. Finally, choose a day on which to assemble the museum, and, using all available wall and desk space, display the items. Have students include a brief written explanation next to the items. You might want to invite other classes to come and visit. You may also want to offer self-adhesive notes so visitors can write comments next to the various exhibits.
Using Goodbye, Mr. Chips in the Classroom
Goodbye, Mr. Chips: Plot Summary | Time & Place: English Public Schools
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