The Old School Tie

This phenomenon doesn’t really occur in the United States because schoolboys don’t wear ties. Okay, I joke: it’s because school affiliation in the U.S. happens at university rather than in high school (but they still don’t wear ties).

Here’s how the thing works among the private school set, and it’s true in Britain and all its former colonies (in Britain, they’re called “public” schools, which is massively confusing to non-Britons so I’ll just use “private”, to be consistent). To be sent to an exclusive private school was a sign of both wealth and breeding (the latter more so in Britain than in the colonies, of course). The bonds one formed at school, in an age when a university degree was not a prerequisite for employment, would help one through life in no uncertain terms, because one always tried to help a fellow private schoolboy (called an “Old Boy”) where one could.

The reason for this was quite simple, and understandable. If a manager, an Old Boy from St. John’s, say, discovered that a prospective employee had been to Michaelhouse or Bishop’s, the applicant would automatically get a more favorable review than someone not wearing the old school tie: Old Boys were essentially a known quantity, having been through pretty much the same grinder that all the others had. As any employer will tell you, a known quantity is almost always better than an unknown one — a former U.S. Marine will favor another Marine for precisely the same reason, and it has to do with character rather than anything else. One of my former classmates owns a highly-successful tech company, for example. and it came as no surprise to me when I learned that his CFO was yet another of our classmates. No chance of financial skulduggery there, I bet. Unthinkable.

I once got a job because the H.R. manager saw my Old Boy’s tie and after chatting about the school for a while, she sent me off for a final interview with my future manager with barely a question. (She gave me a sealed envelope for him, and he showed it to me much later. It read simply, “Hire this man — he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”) It turned out that the H.R. manager’s young son was at St. John’s Preparatory, so she knew exactly what kind of man I was, because she wanted her son to become the same kind of man. My First from St. John’s College. along with a couple of other notable schoolboy achievements, were all she needed.

This causes all sorts of problems in today’s oh-so egalitarian society, but if we’ve learned nothing else over the years, it’s that when it comes to leadership, character matters. By the middle of the First World War, St. John’s had graduated just over one hundred and twenty boys in its history; twenty-two ended up killed on the Western Front, and one (Oswald Reid) won the Victoria Cross (posthumously). The death toll among Old Etonians, Old Harrovians and their like was equally appalling, because it was from the private schools that most of the officers were drawn. Yes, it was part of the class system; but it was also true that leadership was one of the virtues taught and encouraged — and it had been duly noted by the Duke of Wellington in a much earlier war, who said that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

And he was right. Character matters, and it seems to be that because of the harsh regimen of private school education in the past, it was inculcated as much as Latin, Greek or the Classics — and possibly even more so, because up to my time, one of the worst insults you could bestow in someone was that they were a “swot”, someone who worked hard at their studies. A “gentleman’s C” was highly regarded because it meant that one had achieved a passing grade without working too hard at it. (I should also point out that academic standards were far higher then than they are today, and a “C” back then would today equate to a B+ or even A-, depending on the subject.) I remember winning some award in a magazine for an essay I’d written, and there was considerable amusement when it was discovered that my English teacher had given me a grade of 68% (27/40) for that same essay. When he was asked about it, he shrugged and said, “His conclusion wasn’t that good.” Nobody got an A in his class, ever, so strict were his standards. What that meant was that we were forced to sweat blood to get a decent overall grade; but when we wrote our finals (graded by other teachers), most of us in his English class got distinctions for our essays.

I have mentioned that sports was a compulsory activity in all private boys’ schools of the time, and we produced our share of decent sportsmen. But when we were up against the local state (“government”) schools, we would usually get thrashed — much as, say, Harvard’s football team would fare against Michigan or Alabama — because our two senior classes of about a hundred boys stood no chance against the same pool of a thousand boys from the much-larger King Edward’s School down the road. It didn’t matter, though; as a cheer from St. Stithian’s College went, whenever they were beaten by a government school: “Your dads work for our dads!”

We at St. John’s would never have been so crass, but then St. Stithian’s was a Methodist school, after all.

But even being crap at sports against other schools was instructive: learning how to lose with grace meant that we won with equal grace; and in its turn, sportsmanship was not only welcomed, but treasured. Good sportsmanship, by the way, means following not just the letter but the spirit of the rules — which is why I’m always hammering on that something may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right. (A no-class boor like Bill Clinton would never understand that, which is why he and his equally-classless wife are such terrible people. Former BritPM and Old Etonian David Cameron, while an appalling politician, is actually quite a decent man, especially when compared to the horrible Gordon Brown. The same is true of the equally-inept but privately-schooled and very likeable George W. Bush when compared to the awful Bernie Sanders.)

The Old School Tie goes deeper than that. As a rule, our dating pool was the local girls’ private schools: Roedean, St. Andrew’s, Kingsmead and St. Mary’s Schools for Girls. (I think I first seriously dated a government-school girl when I was twenty-four, and my experience was not uncommon.) Once again, it was because the girls were a known quantity: of good / wealthy families, well brought up, with ladylike and genteel manners. (Yeah, they were bitchy and obnoxious because teenagers, but it was a very ladylike obnoxiousness.) It also worked for the good. One of the Old Boys date-raped one of the Old Girls one night; word got out, and he never dated in our circle again — he ended up marrying some tart from Cape Town who didn’t know his story. The last I heard, he was miserably unhappy because he was savagely cut from the group and lost all his friends. To be called “a nasty piece of work” was pretty much a death sentence, socially speaking, and he was. The very tightness of the circle thus gave security against nonsense like that, just as it would almost guarantee that my tech-company owner friend would be inured against financial impropriety by his CFO.

So there it is: the Old School Tie, the Old Boys’ Club; call it what you may, sneer at it all you like, but the fact of the matter is that without the efforts of this tiny group of men and women over the past few centuries, society and civilization would be much the poorer.

Your opinion may vary, of course, but we don’t really care.


  1. “But even being crap at sports against other schools was instructive”

    Rice was like that. When I was there, we were in the Southwest Conference(?) playing UT, A&M, etc. Our football team got creamed. But we had a great band!

    I kind of wish private schools like that were more prevalent here. We’d be better for it. I went to a private, college-prep high school that probably had a glimmering of what you write about, though not close enough. No school tie. And my class graduated 66, so I don’t run into them.

  2. I’m not sure such a system can work well today, simply because of the increase in population.

    An Old School Tie system relies, to a large degree, on having limited separation between any two members. If you tried to play “Six Degrees of Separation”, you couldn’t…because every member of the group knows every other member at second or third-hand. A poor reputation spreads rapidly…and when dealing with his peers, a man will do nearly anything to avoid that.

    It depends on the community size. There are some professional communities that are very much like this – flight test comes immediately to mind. I often tell new engineers to guard their reputation, for it will precede them in their careers. But the flight test world is small. Military aviation is small. Out there with the thundering hordes, it’s easy to get lost in the noise.

  3. Interesting stuff. As it happens I went to a boarding school, and we all wore jackets and ties to class every day. But is was (is) a much smaller school with and odd but vary rigorous method of instruction (classes are only 30 minutes each, but you are expected to do approximately 1.5 hours of work outside of class every day for every class. It is a LOT of work, but prepares you for working independently and there was no leeway for not being prepared.) They do not have a school tie to my knowledge, but even if they did it would not have been any benefit to me. Being small, and a boarding school with students from all over the world, I just have never run into another graduate either professionally or socially except for my brother. I live in the same city as the HS and most people have never even heard of it.

    For my undergrad I went to USNA (wore a tie there most days too), but while there are stories of the “old boy’s network” for grads, I think they are mostly stories from the old days. They way promotions and assignments are handled these days, there is not a lot of opportunity to put a finger on the scale and a lot of good reasons not to. In civilian life, I occasionally run into other grads, but it is entirely a social thing. I don’t even know of any other grads in the division of the company I work for. Now, I know that it has helped me professionally because of the reputation of the school, but not to the exclusion of my experience. This is living in the Midwest, if I lived on the coast where there was more of a critical mass of grads around maybe it would be different, but I doubt it.

  4. I think the sticking point for most Americans is the idea that “private” school kids are “well bred”, Americans don’t do breeding.

    Then again, when I attended NYC public elementary school (graduated 6th grade in 1975) boys wore ties every day (and on Monday when we had Assembly we had to wear a white shirt too) and girls wore skirts or dresses (pants under them to keep warm in winter, and pants removed when they got to school). And the principle had a paddle, if you misbehaved the next morning you were up on the stage in the auditorium getting your ass paddled, which also gave you overnight to think about it.

  5. I see the allure. The same exists around here with the Catholic high schools as well as some of the top tier magnet state schools.

    My only caveat is that if you are an outsider with talent and ability, it seems like such a closed society and network wouldn’t allow for your upward mobility. That downside is, to me who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, significant.

    1. > My only caveat is that if you are an outsider with talent and ability,

      One thing Kim didn’t mention is that private schools – at least in the UK – have plenty of scholarships. Failing that, you grow up and get rich enough to send your children to those schools.

  6. About the high school sports, I have always maintained that the primary focus should always be character. Unfortunately, most people in my circle don’t agree, and instead focus on winning, and on the all important college scholarship, which in fact, is much more elusive than they are led to believe. While it is a fact that I was offered one for football, they are only offered for one year at a time, and are difficult to keep. I also had other offers, and choose to forgo college to enter the workforce, but many who have started college based upon sports scholarships have been sorry that they chose that route later.

    Also, character is something that follows you throughout your life, even if you have not received a pedigree or are not able to wear a tie from a certain school. If you possess good moral fiber, gained from both good parenting and long time spent cultivating it on your own, it will pay tremendous dividends throughout your lifetime.

    But this was a good post, Kim, and it does show just how important it is to not only have good character, but also to have the kind of friends to prove that character. My grandmother had many truisms. One of her favorite was ‘ Birds of a feather- Flock together.’

  7. Kim alluded to it – if I’m hiring, and I’m facing two applicants; one, a civilian, and the other an Army vet, I’m taking the Army vet every time. The Army vet has taken orders, given orders, performed in a high-stress environment, taken responsibility of other people, safely dealt with items that would make most civilians wet themselves, and in this current day an age has probably seen and handled more complicated situations than an average civilian could even THINK of handling.

    Even in the active ranks, it’s not a tie that counts, it’s a right-shoulder patch. Plenty of Americans have The Old School Tie, it’s just a different article of clothing.

    1. I’ve experienced similar situations from the other side. A couple of times I’ve been quizzed after a review of my job history, and since most of it was intel it was hard to get into specifics in an open enviroment. I’d get asked “did you know Capt. So and So?”. Nope, but it was a big base. “How about MSgt whoever?” Oh yeah, Mike was there about six months and then transferred to Korea.

      I’m pretty sure the first name was always bogus and saying yes would have ended the interview pretty quick. The second name established our bonafides to an extent to each other. The community was large enough that you couldn’t know everyone, but small enough that most people in at the same time would have at least one acquaintance in common.

  8. There are bits and pieces here of Old School matters.
    I went to the University of Wyoming for Graduate School in Geology.
    To say the small Graduate School was rigorous was and under statement – my thesis Advisor, who taught a Paleontology Environment Graduate class specified that A’s were 100-90, B’s 90-80…….At the end of the semester one lady had a 99, I had an 89 and change and the next was in the lower 70’s. I figured that I would get moved up to the A group – NOT: there was one A, the B’s went down to 60. When I went in and whined, Dr. Boyd told me that I could forever tell folks I got the highest B.
    But for the past 37 years, when changing jobs or groups, I always got instant credibility because of my Wyoming connection since little Wyoming Geology Graduate School is one of the Top Ten in the Country, right there with UT, A&M, Kansas, Oklahoma, MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Columbia, etc.

  9. Four of the Cambridge Five Communist traitors were Old Boys: Kim Philby (Westminster School), Donald Maclean (Gresham’s School), Guy Burgess (Eton College), Anthony Blunt (Marlborough College).

    Patrick Heenan attended Cheltenham College; he spied for Japan during the fall of Singapore.

    James Crosby attended Lancaster Royal Grammar School (founded 1472), and became CEO of the Bank of Scotland. Gordon Brown appointed him to the Financial Services Authority, and knighted him just before BoS went bust for £10 billion.

    Russell Williams attended Upper Canada College (founded 1829), rose to colonel in the Canadian army, and was a serial rapist and double murderer.

    Robin Peverett was headmaster of Dulwich College from 1967 to 1990. He raped numerous male and female students.

    I would say these incidents are evidence that an Old School Tie is not a guarantee of good character, nor is an Old School always a good place for children.

  10. Seminary was a bit like that. No “School ties” though we were required to wear a tie, and god save you if the prefect noticed you had a clip-on tie at inspection. Kids who failed there went to the local public school and were straight A students. Mandatory sports, though I sucked at that, mandatory music, though I sucked at that, and in fact sucked at most of it because I was wishing I was out hunting or fishing or doing anything instead of listening to Father Hull drone on and on about the Assyrians. Or conjugating Latin verbs until my brain cells rearranged themselves into a sort of multidimensional Rubik’s cube. Still, some of it must have taken hold because I’m very good at what I do.

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