Education: Eton Bids Farewell to Fagging

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Now senior boys will have to buy their own eggs

Leaning out into the dark dormitory hallway at Britain's most celebrated public (i.e., private) school, an 18-year-old senior, dressed in the school's uniform of pinstripe trousers and morning coat, yells loudly: "Boy, up!" Before the echoes can die away, ten lowerclassmen, aged 12 and 13, scramble up the stairwell, tails flapping. Inevitably, one boy arrives last. His punishment: a trip to the store to buy an egg for the senior's tea.

Having small boys provide this kind of service to school seniors is a long tradition in British public schools. It has been a practice for three centuries at Eton, which counts among its old boys (i.e., alumni) 18 of Britain's Prime Ministers, including William Pitt the Elder and Anthony Eden, and a pride of literary lions, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Orwell. In their day, these illustrious personages, like all new boys, were on call to serve tea, run errands, and polish boots of top seniors. Eton was founded in 1440 by Henry VI, but fagging did not begin until the 17th century. The young servants are called fags, their service fagging, because in the 1660s "to fag" meant to toil.

But now, after a mere 200 years of controversy, during which fagging has been stoutly defended by most old boys and criticized by sensitive souls like Poet Shelley and others as "brutal and degrading," Eton has decided to drop fagging. The practice will be banned as of July, when the current school term ends. The decision was taken by outgoing Headmaster Michael McCrum, 55, who explains: "I am not in favor of self-indulgence of this sort."

During his ten years as headmaster McCrum nudged ten of Eton's 25 independent houses into giving up fagging voluntarily. But the rest refused. Among pupils and old boys, fagging remains popular. Indeed, ex-fags point to benefits from fagging. "You learn how to command by learning how to obey," says one Old Etonian. Beyond that, a good senior, or "fag master," helps new boys find their way around the complex campus and sometimes becomes a lifelong friend. Recalls Sir John Hogg, 62, chairman of the Old Etonian Association: "I had an extraordinarily good fellow as one of my fag masters. Our contact bridged an age gap in a very successful way." Then too, fagging at Eton created a great many social distinctions that are a British specialty. For example, "tea fags" have a softer berth than common fags. Higher still are the "library fags," who serve seniors elected to the group known as "the Library." Library fags are excused from general calls of "Boy, up!" and "Boy, queue!" (an after-dinner general work session). Top rung for newcomers is the title Keeper of the Fags, given to a young lad brawny enough to preserve discipline.

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