In the 1959 novel, “Walkabout” by James Vance Marshall (later memorably filmed by Nicolas Roeg), an accident leaves two American children, a boy and a girl, alone and stranded deep in the Australian bush. With no experience of managing in such adverse conditions, their prospects look bleak. Yet the children have the good fortune to meet an Aboriginal boy. As is the custom amongst his people, this young man is undergoing that six month period of solitary separation from his kin known as “walkabout”. The rite of passage both marks and creates the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The maturity that the young Aborigine is acquiring is but one of the attributes that helps him to provide the care that the American children need to survive:
“Unless he looked after them, they would die. That was certain.”
Many cultures recognize the need for adolescents to separate themselves for some time from the regime of the family in order to attain the fullness of adulthood. Such distancing serves many purposes: young people are free to experiment with new identities and new friends, to take a few risks and, on occasion, to fail in all these endeavours. All these adventures can take place away from the ever-watchful and, one fears, over protective gaze of anxious parents.
In the USA, UK and elsewhere, young people have, traditionally, experienced this necessary separation by “going away” to college. For many years, we have thought nothing of seeing young people travel hundreds of miles (or, in the USA, thousands) away from the family home to experience higher education. In my own case, I sought to put the Proclaimers’ “Five Hundred Miles” between my home in the North London suburbs and my university city in Scotland. Those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed higher education in that way readily agree that living on one’s own, away from parents for the first time is as much part of the learning experience as the lectures, seminars, clubs and societies.
The appeal of the boarding school for the adolescent is, of course, exactly the same. However, since, traditionally, boarding school has been, perforce, an experience for a minority, the mystique of such institutions has been, it would seem, all the greater. It is now a well-varnished cliché to speak about Harry Potter and Hogwarts in articles about boarding education. Yet, perhaps we overlook a singular aspect of J.K.Rowling’s creative genius. It may be that the true magic of Hogwarts lies not in spells and potions but in the extraordinary outcomes that can ensue when any group of clever, creative, charming and diverse young people are gathered together in an extraordinary place, allowed to venture and to fail, yet all the time protected, challenged and influenced by wise mentors who know when to stay in the background.
All this is what those of us who work in such places know that boarding schools can provide.
Today we are seeing university tuition fees rise everywhere. Furthermore, many continue to question what is actually taught during short terms at university. Against such a background, higher education hundreds of miles from home may, one day, seem too expensive or too impractical. It is not difficult to foresee a time when the majority of the population studies for higher education degrees whilst resident in the family home, as is the case already in Brazil, for instance. Meanwhile, the primal need to “go walkabout”, to find oneself in a place far from home remains as deep as ever. Indeed, as aspects of adulthood seem to arrive earlier in our children’s lives, there may be an increasing need to find such self-determination in the teenage years, rather than in the early twenties.
At this point, then, with all the freedom, self-determination and maturation that they provide, enter our boarding schools with a new role to play in the first decades of the twenty first century. We embrace our role in helping teenagers mature and to follow the songlines of youth. Though we might not find ourselves up to the task of teaching students to skin wallabies.