The Old School Tie, the Silver Spoon and the Glass Ceiling

Feb 4, 2020 12:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf dives into the issues of privilege and meritocracy, and discusses how that affects life paths and social mobility. He also writes about how education abroad gives students access to culture and skills for better employment prospects.

Kim Philby, David Cameron and Pitman John

Philby’s escape from justice was proof of how clubmanship and the old school tie could protect their own (Macintyre, 2014, p. 242).

Kim Philby (1912–1988) was born into an English privileged elite. As tradition dictated, he was educated at Eton, the most exclusive and expensive boarding school in England, and then at Cambridge University. He was, as the saying goes, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His life coincided with the last years of British Imperial power, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. These were momentous times and from 1933 onwards Kim Philby was at the heart of them within the British Establishment. He was a talented, charming, influential figure: a gentleman patriot apparently distinguished from his contemporaries only by his exceptional intelligence and wit.

Oxford in England

He was also “the most remarkable spy of modern times” (Macintyre p.xiv), a Communist with a deep ideological commitment to the Soviet Union. Philby secretly served the interests of the Soviet Union from the early 1930s until his defection to Moscow in 1963. He reached the highest levels of the British Secret Service and, with his compatriots Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt (all Cambridge graduates), was able to ensure that the Soviet Union was fully aware of British and, frequently, American activities. At one notable point, Philby was in charge of developing anti-Soviet policies while simultaneously ensuring that Moscow was fully aware of the policies he was developing.

Philby had remarkable longevity for treason, which does not usually last undiscovered for 30 years. One of the reasons that Philby could get away with these activities for so long was that nobody in the elite environs of the British Civil Service could really believe that “one of us” could betray values that were embedded in the air they breathed. Membership of this elite is by birth and upbringing. One of the benefits of membership is that you are invariably trusted; your loyalty is assumed. Another benefit is that you rarely need to worry about employment.

Another member of this elite is David Cameron, who was the British Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. His path goes from Eton to Oxford to the Conservative Party to Parliament and, hence, to becoming an inept Prime Minister in the UK. At no point was he employed outside of the rarefied environment of the Conservative Party. He was not required to enter into the messy, competitive world in which most of us seek to function. In short, he belonged.

Philby and Cameron trod a well-defined and predetermined path. That Philby had no loyalty and Cameron had no talent was not an impediment to their progress. Success was predetermined by class.

A diametrically opposite experience is described in Ewan MacColl’s song about a young man destined to be a miner, “Schooldays Over” (1960):

Schooldays over, come on then John
Time to be getting your pit boots on
On with your sack and your moleskin trousers
Time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman's job
And earning a pitman's pay.

While some are destined for comfort of a job in politics, in the civil service or in the upper echelons of the banking world, others are more likely headed towards mundane, menial jobs.

Neither Kim Philby nor David Cameron worried about employability. Their backgrounds ensured profitable employment. Pitman John may also not have worried much about employability as he had few other options unless he was a great boxer or footballer or wanted to risk his life in the army. In all likelihood, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather along a path that led underground.

The Silver Spoon and the Glass Ceiling

No sense carrying dreams of Tahiti in your head if you can’t afford the fare
—Philip Roth

The metaphor of the silver spoon denotes inherited wealth and privilege; the glass ceiling signifies social barriers that are simultaneously real and invisible. The examples of Philby, Cameron, and Pitman John demonstrate the manner in which class may determine and define the lives we live.

We are though beyond the times in which class was an absoluter determinant of fate. Social mobility is a reality. Below the glass ceiling, there has been discernible development and positive alterations. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was the son of a working-class Muslim family of Pakistani origin. In my own history, after WWII my father sold brushes door to door. For some obscure reason, he was particularly fond of knocking on the doors of Cambridge housewives. I used to work every summer selling shirts in the Cambridge market. Both of my children are graduates of the University of Cambridge.

To a generation more fortunate than Pitman John’s, education offers some possibility of upwards social mobility. To some degree the barriers of class can be overcome, but only to some degree. In addition to questions of gender discrimination, merit is not necessarily the sole measure of value. In short, there are groups who never need to worry about finding a job and there are groups who have very little chance of finding anything other than menial work. As educators, we are engaging in political action intended to disrupt the barriers that predetermine opportunities.

It might be argued that the USA does not operate within the same kinds of class constraints. There may be some truth in that, and, certainly, American myths of the self-made man are pervasive. The novels of Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899) were highly popular and exemplify that story. They tell of impoverished boys who rise in society through their own efforts and moral qualities. Many immigrant lives also attest to those possibilities. Louis B Mayer (1884–1957) is an example of how certain non-traditional professions created opportunities for dramatic advancement for exceptional individuals. Born into extreme poverty in the Ukraine, Louis B, originally Lazar Meir, was the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. These stories, and there are boundless other examples, tell of profound achievements. They might suggest that there are few barriers to social advancement and that American society is particularly amenable to transformations from rags to riches. The idea of the American Dream is built upon such assumptions.

Other factors need to be considered, however. The film industry was relatively new and had not developed barriers to advancement for newcomer Jews like Mayer. Elsewhere barriers were constructed at many major US universities to limit Jewish student enrollment from the mid-1920s until the early 1960s.

In 1925, Jewish students were over 25 percent of Harvard. Then the fast-growing Jewish population in America dovetailed with nativist movements, and criteria were introduced that reduced Jewish representation to 15 percent for the following three decades—with similar unspoken quotas at Yale, Princeton, and elsewhere (Telushkin, 2018).[1]

In contrast, “hereditary enrollment” ensured the perpetuation of privilege within these institutions. The “glass ceilings” that protected elites from alien intrusion in the USA illustrate some of the limits to meritocracy. Alternative histories also reveal the degree to which aspects of US political and economic life, particularly issues of class, have been excluded and minimised.[2] American society is, as Nancy Isenberg argues, far from classless:

How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people? … Let us recognize the existence of our underclass (Isenberg, 2016).

The stories of Horatio Alger are, Isenberg argues, “fables we forget by,” mechanisms for obscuring social and economic schisms.

Barriers to social and economic advancement exist in diverse forms, sometimes more, sometimes less visible, and to different extents, everywhere. We are engaged in the task of trying to move students into positions of relative privilege. As international educators, we believe that the skills students learn abroad help them move up whatever ladder they find themselves on.

Hierarchical structures are sometimes clearly visible and simultaneously invisible, not necessarily or inevitably built by talent or merit. That is an underlying reality in the social, economic and political environments in which we all live.

Up the Ladder? The Employability Agenda

Education is about creating hierarchies based on merit rather than birth. At a very simple level, educational systems create judgements based on perceived achievement. Thus, we say that a GPA of 3.75 is better than a GPA of 2.5; in the UK, the degree classification 2:1 is better than 2:2. Students get marked according to some form of hierarchical system.

The job of higher education is not about creating equality; it is about adjustment. Education abroad demonstrates this explicitly in the rhetoric of employability. Students who study abroad are, we say, given access to experiences that enhance their employability, a pathway into a privileged position not open to their more lumpen contemporaries who stay at home. Our objectives are, for the most part, not focused on eradicating distinctions but about adjusting them in ways that reflect a greater sense of social justice.

Concerns about creating greater diversity in participation in education abroad are not about equality. We aim to redefine the elite not to eradicate it. An objective is to make accidents of birth less significant than intellectual capacities and personal qualities.

The employability agenda in education abroad is about reform not revolution. We function in already privileged environments in developed economies. Nothing about our rhetoric addresses global inequality in employment opportunities. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong in seeking to improve the employment prospects for our students; we are educationalists and reformers not utopian revolutionaries. The objective is to teach our students those codes that will gain them entry into the land of opportunity.

It is misleading and naive, however, to ignore the power of unearned privilege. The best most of us can do is not only limited by our talent or capacities; it is also constrained by those barriers that we may not always see or understand.

What Happened to Philby and Blake?

Philby’s treatment exemplifies the protection offered by class. Once his treason was suspected he was not subject to immediate arrest or physical restraint. Instead and in all probability, Philby was allowed to escape to Moscow to avoid the embarrassment of a trial that might expose the network of privilege that advanced him and protected him for so long.[3] Philby had been appointed and promoted throughout his career without any but the most cursory background checks. After all, his family were well-established and ensconced in the British hierarchy.

Another spy, George Blake (1922–not known), was the son of foreign parents: a Dutch mother and an Egyptian Jewish father. In contrast to Philby, Blake was an outsider, a foreigner, an upstart, not “one of us.” Blake received rather different treatment. He was tried in 1961 and was sentenced to a draconian 42 years in prison.[4] Blake said "To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.”

Unlike Blake, even after his treason became apparent, Philby retained his membership of a “club” with its codes and behaviours that were written nowhere but understood very well by its members. As a senior figure in the British Secret Service said at the time: “Though he might be a traitor, Philby should be treated as a gentleman” (Macintyre, 243).


Works Cited:

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, New York: Random House, 2016.

Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Shira Telushkin, “The Vanishing Ivy League Jew”, Tablet, October 15, 2018, 

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, New York: Harper Row: 1980 (subsequent updates).


[1] See also Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 2005.
[2] See for example Zinn (2005).   
[3] This is, of course, speculation but it is widely believed that the Secret Services felt that in allowing Philby to escape they were protecting the reputation of the services as well as that of the elite that dominated senior positions.
[4] Blake escaped in 1966 and fled to the Soviet Union. There is no information about his death, if indeed he has died. At the age of 90 he was alive, unrepentant and living comfortably in Russia.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad