Wednesday, August 13, 2014

July 2: Stowe School

Today we visited Stowe School, an extravagant boarding school in the English countryside, and I must say I am ambivalent about it at best. The building is massive and massively ornate: built in the 1730s, transformed into a palace in 1822, sold as an estate in 1921, and turned into a boy’s boarding school soon after, Stowe
is the embodiment of the long-lasting and insidious English class system. The rooms here are opulent to the point of gaudiness. The library, which is extremely small, has hundreds of rosettes on the ceiling, all of which are made of 23.5 karat gold. We were told the ceiling, which was remade several years ago, cost 86,000 pounds, 23,000 of which went to the rosettes alone. There are ornate sculptures and wall-length paintings in every room, and the rooms themselves are massive. I would estimate my own home could fit into the cafeteria twice.

Expensive Rosettes
The house itself is on a large estate, as you can see. There are miles and miles of open land, much of which was covered in grazing sheep. I do not mean to imply the estate was “bad,” necessarily; the estate is beautiful. But like a strong perfume, Stowe is too beautiful, overpoweringly beautiful, and can cause physical symptoms of revulsion when ingested too deeply. Indeed, I felt enthralled by the beauty of Stowe, but simultaneously sickened. I could not help thinking about the lower classes and exploitation upon which this school was built. To attend this school, one must pay 33,000 pounds a year—roughly $60,000—which is more than many people pay each year for college and even exceeds many people’s salaries. The students here are in the highest crust of the aristocracy, and I’m sure many of them were born into histories of wealth.

With the Fourth of July approaching and after learning more British history, I feel proud to be an American. We have a class system, too, and it’s in need of reform; however, we do not have a socially engrained legacy of titles and monarchy. Indeed, I am grateful to have had this trip on the eve of the Fourth because it has really impressed upon me the meaning of the Revolution. In spite of all our problems, America does have a different kind of freedom from the British. In creating our own country, we not only did away with the medieval traditions of earls, dukes, and villages living to serve them, but we also created a new kind of individualism, one built on identity and above all freedom.

Stowe School is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life, but its legacy ensures only an infinitesimal percentage of the UK will ever partake of its guarded beauty. 

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