George Orwell’s School Days

George Orwell was the pseudonym of writer Eric Arthur Blair (1903–50). Orwell’s most famous novels are Animal Farm, a satirical political fable characterising communism, and 1984, a dystopian novel of an authoritarian society set in the future. Orwell’s first job was in colonial Burma, where he was a bureaucrat in the Indian Imperial Police. After leaving this position, he travelled in Europe, barely subsisting on his income from writing, supplemented by low-paying jobs. A committed socialist, in the 1930s he travelled to Spain to cover the Civil War, an experience that led him to reject communism, if not socialism. The following extracts are from ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an essay that was considered libellous and thus not widely published until long after Orwell’s death.

Orwell describes the socio-cultural dynamics of his early 20th century ‘grammar school’ education:

Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas … At St Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else … History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but—in some way that was never explained to us—important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. … I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming …

That was the patter of school life—a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people—in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

Orwell, George. 1968 (1953). “Such Were the Joys.” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume 4, ‘In Front of Your Nose’, 1945–1950. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. pp. 385–286, 411. || Amazon || WorldCat