Britain and the United States rely on elite, private academies to mold their future leaders. Instead of cultivating statesmen, they’re producing brutish, entitled, insecure bullies.
- By Nick DuffellNick Duffell is a psychotherapist, psycho-historian, and author, committed to bridging the gap between psychological and political thinking, based in London.
Aside from their tousled hair, foul mouths, and inflated flamboyance, one might think there’s little in common between the blue-blooded English intellectual Boris Johnson and the outer-borough-born erstwhile casino magnate Donald J. Trump. But there’s one commonality in their upbringings that helps explain the common distortions in their personalities and politics — their attendance of private boarding schools.
Boarding school is a vestige of English culture, and the United States and the United Kingdom are among the few nations in the world that still cultivate the practice. Elite boarding is a seamless part of these countries’ education systems, first choice of both established and aspirant classes, if they can afford tuition that runs into the tens of thousands of dollars or pounds per year. But other countries in Europe think of it as a remnant of imperial nostalgia, one that breeds gentlemen, as E. M. Forster said, “with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts.”
They have a point. For nearly 30 years, I have studied the psychological damage inflicted on the children of the British elite by the hothousing of institutionalized boarding school life. Rather than loving parenting, these children are routinely exposed to bullying and fear. There is not a single contemporary theory of child development that supports educating young children in residential institutions, but the practice is so protected by habit and privilege that its obvious defects are almost always overlooked. Only now are an increasing number of psychology professionals revealing how “boarding school survivors” find normal life surprisingly challenging.
This background offers an important window into the political turmoil in Britain over the past several weeks. Brexit has confirmed a point made frequently by the master British novelist John le Carré: Betrayal can only happen among friends and those we love. Britain’s elite betrayed each other, and their country’s trust, because they themselves felt betrayed. It is a lifelong reaction to damage inflicted on them during childhood — specifically, during their years spent in boarding schools.
Consider Johnson, who, having betrayed his Eton and Oxford chum David Cameron during the entirety of the referendum campaign, was knifed shortly after the votes were tallied, in turn, by his Brexit running mate, Michael Gove. It was impossible to entirely understand Johnson’s actions prior to the Brexit vote without first appreciating the shock on his face in its immediate aftermath. It was clear he hadn’t predicted winning the referendum, nor had he foreseen the hostile reception from the crowd gathered around his house as he emerged. And he didn’t know how to handle either situation. And it’s precisely this helplessness that explains the irresponsibility of his actions.
Whereas Johnson was sent away at 11, Trump was sent to the New York Military Academy when he was 13, but the experience would have deeply formed him, nonetheless. In 2015, when challenged that he had been a bully at NYMA, Trump boasted his education had given him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” Brutal hazing and excessive competition are endemic in these kinds of schools, whose regimes were designed in a patriarchal past, and whenever children or young men are institutionalized, bullying and sexual abuse are inevitable. This may be a clue as to why Trump pushes such aggressive policies, from torture to mass deportation.
But by focusing on the dramatic, we may miss the more common underlying problems of privileged abandonment at boarding schools. It’s worth considering the basic, psychological trauma faced by young Donalds and Borises.
Prematurely separated from home and family, from love and touch, boarding children are obliged to speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults — think Trump’s neurotic insistence that he is a self-made business genius, or the blustering reinvention of Nigel Farage, a stockbroker’s son, as an anti-establishment man of the people. In rule-bound institutions with rigid timetables, children must also be ever alert to staying out of trouble. Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish, or foolish — in any way vulnerable — or their peers will bully them. So they dissociate from all these qualities and project them out onto others, developing duplicitous personalities that are on the run — which is why ex-boarders make the best spies.
With empathy and emotional intelligence not on the curriculum, survival, self-invention, and betrayal become second nature; entitlement becomes a compensation for loss. A false veneer of confidence — the “strategic survival personality” — endures long after school but belies an anxious core. This personality cannot afford to be wrong (think Fettes-educated Tony Blair) and needs others to carry their disowned vulnerability, which may be why, when these children ascend to politics, they easily indulge in targeting foreigners and migrants.
In my book Wounded Leaders, on the psychohistory of British elitism, I named elite residential education as the training grounds for developing a facility in duplicity, entitlement, and misogyny. I proposed developing a strategic survival personality to be terrible preparation not just for family life, but also for leadership. People who have never experienced genuine belonging will find it inconceivable to engage in communal politics like the EU; having disavowed vulnerability, how would ex-boarders understand the socially vulnerable? Ex-boarders’ mutual esprit de corps compensates for loss of family life but makes them suspicious of foreigners and liberals. Bullying becomes routine in adult life: Think institutions like the House of Commons, where members routinely and mercilessly turn on one another, with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn being the latest example.
This is all backed by the latest neuroscientific evidence. Professor Stephen Porges, research professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has discovered that under conditions of great stress, people can shut down the entirety of their nervous system related to emotional experience and social expression in order to conserve energy, like a mouse playing dead. Facial muscles are then deprived of blood so we can’t read facial signals or communicate facial gestures of our own.
Porges proposes that such states become chronic in survivors of traumatic childhoods or environments like boarding schools. Sufferers lose the ability to make correct assessments of danger, and the world is constantly framed as hostile. This explains one of the most common clinical problems reported by ex-boarders and their families: the inability to discern whether an approach is intimate, friendly, or hostile while defaulting to the latter assumption. Now add Porges’s insights to what we already know from the work of professor Antonio Damasio on brain legion data: Humans need access to their emotions in order to make good judgments. The hyper-rational education on offer at the expense of emotional intelligence at traditional boarding schools now seems a recipe for disastrous leadership.
New research into the development of resilience broadens the picture. Along with independence of the mind, resilience is one of the attributes that elite boarding schools say they promote. But corporate psychologist Olya Khaleelee recently contacted me about her surprising research results after analyzing data from many years of testing senior executives for “head-hunting” recruitment. Using methods developed in Sweden to assess the stress management of air force pilots, she found that those who suffered separation shocks early in life had a tendency, when under pressure later on, to lose touch with emotional intelligence. This left them with an enhanced sensitivity to stress, lowered resilience, and a disability in making accurate judgments.
A significant portion of those interviewed had boarded as children: Fifty percent of nonboarders were able to stay in touch with their emotional intelligence under stress, compared with 33 percent of ex-boarders, who were severely limited in their ability to differentiate and assess risk. In an article for the journal Organisational and Social Dynamics, Khaleelee wondered if this could explain what happened to Cameron who, in supporting a referendum, failed to distinguish between the splits in his party and those in the country.
What are the implications of all this for Britons and Americans and for a possible Trump presidency?
To start, I suggest that those of my own profession, with knowledge of psychological processes, come out of our precious consulting rooms to help political commentators identify dangerously grandiose and emotionally illiterate leaders. An informed media could better spot the dissociation of vulnerability, projection, and bullying that often lies behind populist politics and which typically encourages people to vote against their own best interests. And crucially, we must listen, and respond, to the fears of those who are the losers under globalization so that the wounded leaders who emerge from our elite schooling systems are less able to take advantage of them.
Brexit has showed that democracy can bring on disaster when citizens are led by elites who are driven less by their sense of responsibility than their own childhood traumas. Now the world can only count on Americans not to allow a similar mistake to befall them.
Photo credit: Christopher FURLONG/Getty Images; Gerardo MORA/Getty Images; Justin TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images; Foreign Policy illustration.