Childhood Training of Elites of Imperial Europe by Kaustav Bhattacharrya

A version of this article was published in the in the Sunday Guardian on 2 June 2018 with the title, “Childhood was given a new meaning in European schools” 


Classical Ancient Greece had influenced profoundly Western education and culture particularly in the arena of concept and philosophy of education. The European Empires and their nation-states which arose during the 18th and 19th centuries increasingly turned towards the Spartan ideal with its accent towards developing a strong military and a robust state necessitated by the demands of the Empire to possess a cohesive effective ruling class. Since the expansion of their Empires required extensive military campaigns which needed to be managed by a cadre of officer-soldiers and her obviously Military-State model of Sparta made lot of sense for their ruling elites. Hence in this specific article we consider the three largest and most prominent imperial nation-states or empires and their disparate educational systems which were English Public Schools, Lycées of France and Cadet Corps of Germany.


Lycées were state-run secondary level schools and their history can be traced back to the educational reforms initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte and the first lycée was established in 1801. Their curriculum was defined by the decree of 1808 as “ancient languages, history, rhetoric, logic and the elements of mathematical and physical sciences”. Lycées were boarding schools with militaristic discipline enforced on the students and were recruiting ground for Napoleonic higher military officers and high officials, in other words the ruling elite of Napoleonic France. French lycees were influenced by the post-revolutionary Jacobin values which drew its inspiration from ancient Spartan ideal as manifest in the comment by Étienne-Gabriel Morelly, a French thinker and educationist, “Let us take the children at the age of five years,” said Morelly, “and bring them up in a uniform fashion, imbued with the true Jacobin principles, at the expense of the state.” In this way the father or the parent bequeathed his rights of child-rearing to the French post-Revolutionary State. Hence in post-Revolutionary France the State was supreme and its unity was indivisible and the child belonged to the state. Hence Sparta emerged as a role-model and inspiration for a post-Revolutionary State. The children were to be inducted into the lycées between the ages of five to twelve and were to be reared in communal setting with minimal common attire, food, amusements, lessons, speech, shoes and ideals. The teachers were instructed to churn out youth who were good citizens, and they should adhere to the ideals of the state. Intriguingly with the ascent of Napoleon as Emperor/Ruler of France the Spartan-modelled system of lycées were left intact as evident in his address to the State in 1806: “In establishing a teaching France my chief aim is to furnish a means of directing and moral opinion.” There are rich anecdotes and records of the experiences of attending a lycée by intellectuals and writers during the mid-19th century which recount how Classics lessons were interrupted by wails of Vive l’Empereur! and geography lessons were glorification of the Napoleonic onward marches into the alien territories and often the themes of essays were the military conquests of the Bonaparte Napoleon. Hence the French lycées of the post-Revolutionary Napoleonic France were inspired by and modelled along the lines of ancient Spartan agoges and were crucibles for educating a militaristic nationalist elite which were to only serve the State.


The fabled militarism of Prussia and its abiding nationalism predisposed the elites to being inspired by the ideal of Sparta which manifested in the arena of military education. This facet of Prussian history of Spartan inspiration in military education has been lucidly and brilliantly captured by the historian Helen Roche in her book, ‘Sparta’s German Children: The ideal of ancient Sparta in the Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps, 1818-1920, and in National-Socialist elite schools (the Napolas), 1933-1945’ which has provided a lot of insight and information for this article which the author wishes to acknowledge here at the outset. Royal Cadet Corps were established as training school for military officials in 1717 by Prussian Emperor Frederick William-I inspired by Spartan ideals. The motto which echoed through the corridors of these Cadet Corps for a long period until about the early 20th century was that of the inscription on Simonides’s epitaph at Thermopylae located in Greece: “Go tell the Spartans, strangers passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Initially the admission into the cadet corps was meant for the sons of the military officer and nobility, which in case of Prussia were the same entity, who aspired to be military officers. The entire inspiration and role-model was that of ancient Sparta and hence the cadets were known a ‘SPARTANJUNGELINGE’ or Spartan youth. Curriculum at the Cadet Corps consisted of German, English, French, Latin, Mathematics, physical exercises and military training. Spartan self-identification of the students helped in reinforcing the loyalty, obedience and sense of duty towards the State, which in this case was synonymous with the Monarchy or Crown, which was closely aligned with the state. There was constant indoctrination of the sense of mission in their life for the cadets to sacrifice their lives and die for the country or Vaterland as part of their character building. Again in striking similarity to Sparta the family and parents played a nominal role in the meaning of the lives of the cadets. Hence the character-building along Spartan ideals of unflinching devotional service towards the State with sense of duty, obedience, loyalty, honor, camaraderie amongst the troops and sense of self-sacrifice. A large part of the training at the Cadet Corps consisted of attaining highest level of SPARTANERTUM (Spartanness) which implies silent and smiling endurance of physical pain and hardship. Apart from the self-inflicted extremities of pain there were plenty of gruesome and cruel games played amongst the cadets which amounted to torture and harassment. Cadets at the Cadet Corps were placed under harsh and uncongenial living conditions like rugged bedding, limited food and rooms with sparse heating to the extent that in winters the water in the washbasins froze. The Cadets were restricted in their choice of attire with a thin jacket during bitter cold winters and were denied warm socks. Fundamentally there was a consensus that if the cadets could successfully negotiate over their tenure at the Corps cold, hunger, heat and thirst then they were well-poised to glide into responsible roles of military officers and generals. Perhaps of the three elite European education models the Prussian Cadet Corps approximated closest to the Spartan ideal and adopted their methods of inculcation most seriously.


Amongst all the three European elite education systems or child education systems the Sparta-inspired one which left the most enduring legacy with the most dramatic impact on global affairs had been the English Public School. Although most of the English Public Schools trace their origins to the institutions founded by wealthy patrons during the Renaissance to educate the modest and underprivileged students with the first one being Winchester College founded by Willian of Wykeham in 1382 it emerged as nurseries of British ruling elites by the 19th century. However the brainchild behind the emergence of these Public Schools as cradles of the British ruling class was Thomas Arnold, the legendary Headmaster of Rugby, a Classics scholar who turned his gaze towards the ancient Sparta, its society and its Agoges for a framework to educate the burgeoning elites of the British Empire in the mid-19th century. The pervasive influence of Sparta in the curriculum and educational practices of the British Public Schools have been explored and discussed in a seminal work by Anton Powell, ‘Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain’ which provided several insights for this article. The expanding British Empire and its successful imparting of governing institutions required well-trained, well-endowed, educated ruling elite in terms of administrators and military officers. The saga of British Public schools is inextricably intertwined with the British Imperium and its project of global governance, ‘Britannia rules the waves’ since the products of Public Schools and their ethos, values, morals, manners and character shaped the way the Empire was governed. General Gordon of Khartoum who went down fighting the attackers with valour and courage on his palace stairs nonchalantly is the symbol of that Public School spirit of ‘stoic defiance of physical injury and pain.’ Hence General Gordon’s sterling qualities and virtues of facing death with a straight face stiff upper lip were the perfect embodiment of English Public School values which in turn were inspired by the ideals of Sparta. Spartan influence manifested in the artificial construct of ‘social setting where the scholars were separated from their parents and families. Parents were described as hindrance towards progress of the child and an instance of this was the idea purported by Marlborough, a Public School that ‘parents are the last people who ought to be allowed to have children’ (Powell, 2017). Self-sacrificial ‘esprit de corps’ which formed the honour code for most of the boys which demanded displays of extreme physical courage, endurance of physical pain and torment and an athletic ability which was encapsulated in the popular term ‘pluck’. Orwell termed them as ‘belonging to a certain tradition…..where the duty of dying for your country is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments’. All of this meant subjecting the children to routine flogging, athletic sports, gruelling physical drills and selecting students who can play leaders to the younger crop, the proverbial prefect system. Food served in these schools was inedible and insufficient and living conditions were harsh to dissuade any luxuriant indulgence on part of the boys. Public School boys were persuaded that they were different from rest of the children attending the ‘lesser’ schools which bred a camaraderie based on the notion of shared status of being a ruling elite. They were meant to live together like a flock and standing by each other in times of turmoil and distress hence we find the famous lines from Eton’s boating song ‘swing swing together’. Hence the Spartan ideal was integrated and assimilated within the Public School education philosophy and practices to formulate the ideal Imperial ruling class elites.


Intriguingly all of these European Empires and nation-states isolated the family from child-rearing practices geared towards churning out the role-model ruling elites. Family was perceived as a disruption to the grandiloquent project of educating and training of the future ruling elites which started through child education. This is a leitmotif even in contemporary discourse on child welfare practices albeit in very different form and shape where family is always suspect in case of a conflict. Children were treated as instruments in the imperial or nation –building project and where State assumed complete responsibility for rearing them to be the desired ruling elites. The imperial state considered children as precious resources in its broader mission and higher project of creating a powerful entity.

Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London. He is an entrepreneur and commentator on Indo-European affairs.