British costume dramas enjoy enduring international popularity. The people watching them may be slouching about in T-shirts and tracksuits, but they love to watch the ladies and gentlemen in their finery. It’s not just about the clothes, of course. Costume dramas take you back to a time when public shame resulted from actions which rarely raise an eyebrow nowadays. What people did really mattered enough for the community to take note, and even to take action. This makes for great stories, because it places characters in situations where they must make significant moral decisions, even to the point where they must give up their own desires in noble acts of self-renunciation.
It is not only the wealthy people who look dignified in these dramas. Those who are struggling against starvation still brush their one suit and try to hide the missing buttons on their one shirt. They nobly strive against almost impossible odds, their cheeks pinched with hunger and their cravats immaculately tied.
What can modern life offer in comparison to this immense sense of personal dignity and the significance of personal actions? It’s no wonder we tune in by the millions to watch people who suffer and struggle in a world without the palliatives of modern existence: the government handouts, the video games and the Prozac pills.
Still, there is at least one place in our drugged up modern world where the costume drama can continue unabated: in a no excuses school which insists on high standards. Here, people notice what you do and you are held to account for it. Your peccadilloes aren’t politely hidden. Here, if you let people down, the community will demand reparation. Here, you must be smartly turned out, not just for the sake of the school’s honour, but for the sake of your own dignity.
In a school with high standards which accepts no excuses, everything you do matters. You are saved from the crushing insignificance and petty self-indulgence which characterises so many people’s lives. Given long enough in this environment, you might just start to believe in your own personal dignity, and resist the crippling notion that it doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. No: it matters because you matter, because other people are depending on you.