HAZELWOO: A new school for boys, self-governed, with abundant classroom, assembly hall, scientific labs, museum, observatory. Curriculum including shorthand, English, science, modern languages learned in conversation; in addition, plays, a school magazine, etc. Nothing special about that, pleasant as it sounds, but in 1803 Hazelwood was revolutionary, an experiment that flourished for a generation; then, faltering, closed ranks with the great public schools of England where Greek and Latin grammar, sermons, organized games, guilt, flogging and fagging were the rule. One of the mind-boggling questions Jonathan Gathorn-Hardy raises in his enthusiastic study of the public school, is why parents preferred the grim and amid rigors of Eton, Harrow, and the rest, to schools like Hazelwood, with their attractive mix of utilitarian and remontic values.

The English public schools boast of roots in the cathedral schools of the 6th century, where Latin was learned by rote and continued to be so taught as if Gutenberg had never existed. What gave public schools their deforming influence on boys began willy-nilly in the dark ages: scholars who came from a distance boarded at school instead of living at home. This came to mean that a seven-year-old was taken from his nursery to be delivered into an institution from which there would be little escape for eight years.

A thousand years on, the curriculum had not changed: Greek and Latin were still taught to the exclusion of any grossly utilitarian subject like science. "If you want your son to learn anything else you must have him taught at home," advised a headmaster in 1837. One of the things not taught was English, with the result that few educated Englishmen could do much more than sign their names. "I don't know why there is all this fuss about education," Lord Melbourne told Queen Victoria. "None of the Paget family can read or write and they do well enough."

Classes might contain over 70 boys the famous Dr. Keate of Eton early in the 19th century could manage 200 at a time. He was only five foot high, his temper was terrible, and like most headmasters, he flogged mercilessly. Birch switches "armed with buds as big as thorns," ash plants, canes weighted with lead, thongs, "knotted blackthorn sticks," solid rubber truncheons, were among the instruments of chastisement commonly used. There were deaths and there were suicides. Flogging was so universal a part of school life that when King George Ill met Eton schoolboys near Windsor he would ask about their latest beating, much as Nixon adverted to football when faced with young people. Stephen Spender, who was at school in the 1920s, said he might as well have been educated at a brothel for flagellants. Besides the cane, boys had to endure homesickness, nauseating food, squalor and cold, and the crippling boredom of memorizing Latin and listening to sermons without let. One remembered "blank, cold, hungry, church-wearied, sermon-stunned, forever-and-everish despair."

But if masters were sometimes violent, drunken, and corrupt - one 18th century head pocketed the equivalent of $2 million in fees - the boys were a handful. At Harrow during a captions uprising organized by Byron, boys smashed windows, tore up the headmaster's papers, burnt his desk, and laid a train of gunpowder to blow up the school, though matters stopped short of that. Harmless revels with bottles of wine smuggled up in baskets on ropes, a pregnant sow kept on a roof until she provided roast suckling pigs were the sort of thing someone had in mind in 1835 as he remembered "wild revelry, and fun and the rollicking freedom of that land of misrule."

But there was much worse. Bullying was institutionalized as fagging - the enslavement of little boys to big ones - and it was more hellish than a master's flogging. A victim might be roasted by the fire, smothered in a trunkful of feathers, tossed in a blanket over a stairwell, stabbed with a penknife, given a pair of "tin gloves" made by stroking the hands with a red-hot poker, or even killed in a 30-round barefisted boxing match with the whole school looking on.

Their surroundings did little to encourage anything but brutality. The most notorious scene of horror was Eton's Long Chamber, where a horde of unsupervised boys buggered each other in the beds, while packs of rats romped under them and dead ones rotted under the floorboards. One man claimed he would rather murder his son than have him see what he had seen in the Long Chamber.

The evangelical Dr. Arnold arrived at Rugby in the 1840s to meet a system ripe of reform. He was as passionate a flogger as any headmaster of the old school, and though he forebade the possession of guns and dogs, stipulated that fighting should be done within sight of his windows, and helped propagate the obsession with games that was to rival religion, his real innovation was concern with the boys' souls: they must be pure and manly, i.e., sexless. Dr. Vaughan of Harrow went further: with iron discipline he put an end to drunkenness and flaming homosexual "irregularities" that ran to tirls' names for handsome little boys and unbridled buggery. Yet Vaughan's own career was tragically destroyed by a desperately repressed homosexuality.

More dread a vice than sodomy, once the spirit of manly purity took hold, was masturbation. The popular novel Eric, or Little By Little (1858) thrillingly demonstrated that the wages of frigging is death. In some school pockets were sewed up and lashings administered when inspection foundholes large enough to admit one or two fingers. As late as the 1920s a headmaster walking in the autumn woods remarked that the foliage was beauitful - "beautiful, but corrupt within, like the boys."

Corruption among the masters and heads was easier to put a finger on. When it came to light that the revenues from ancient endowments were going straight into the pockets of headmasters and their staffs commission to investigate the great schools was established in 1861. Had its findings not been successfully sidetracked by headmasters united by the threat to their life styles, England would be a different country today. For a new system of secondary education was envisaged, generously funded by pooling all school endowments, with a national exam system and a realistic curriculum including science. Those who could would pay fees; those too poor would get the same education free. But it didn't happen.

Instead change came gradually, grudgingly, and haphazardly. One novelty discussed at length is girls' schools, with their masterful headmistresses, their rugger and lacrosse, their passionate crushes and hideous uniforms (complete to regulation green underpants subject to inspection on parade at one school a few years ago). In the great schools, and in their middle-class umitators, sedulously mirroring upper-class ideals and codes, science and math were finally admitted only in the 1880s, and as the 20th century advanced they adapted themselves to modern realities in some measure. The present century offers no Keate or Vanghan, no Rev. Bradford, author of such innocently inspired lines as "Eros is up and away! . . . Strong, self-controlled, erect, and free!" But there was the sardonically witty Roxxburgh who created at Stowe a great traditional school humanized by his concern for individual boys; the egregious Kurt Hahn of Gordonstoun and Outward Bound, with his determination to direct boyish sexual energy ("a malady") into extremities of physical peril - rescuing people from fires, shipwrecks, and avalanches; the unflappable A. S. Neill of the lawless Summerhill period.

Remembering his days at school in the 1870s, someone later said in all seriousness, "We are often told that they taught us nothing at Eton. That may be so, but I think they taught it very well." What then did boys learn, besides Latin and rugger? First, though they may not have been sons of gentlemen when they came to school, they always left gentlemen, as a headmaster assured an anxious parent - though with culture. They had learned the amateur's credo that how you play is more important than winning. They had learned the right accent, of course, and those virtues that oil the works when people live in close proximity: the value of modesty, the need to conceal feelings, to deprecate achievement, to be amusing. Eight years of this had prepared them for the Old Boy Network that ran the nation's institutions of government and finance. They had learned the arrogance of class that made it natural to take justice into their own hands if need be, in the manner of the fictional ex-schoolboys from Bulldog Drummond to James Bond. They had learned at the same time to conform: the headmaster of Peter Ustinov's school wrote in his report, "He shows great originality, which must be curbed at all costs."

They had also learned a lot about homosexuality and hero worship, and very little about how to get on with women. Harold Nicolson speaks of "the Wimskies," who perplexed the once-idolized head of his school: "The women, you know - I always call them that." Cyril Connolly, one of the most plaintively elegaic of Old Boys, who also failed to make up his mind about women, remembered how "the walk to the fields, to the bathing places or to the chapel across the cobbles of the School Yard, evoked a vanished Eden of grace and security; the intimate noises of college . . ."

But why this sense of unrelinquished adolescence, of paradise lost? Gathorne-Hardy's supplementary readings in anthorpology have persuaded him that the inability to form a more mature attachment than that to school is a case of cultural imprinting at a vulnerable age, not at all unlike that achieved in primitive societies by a brief "extrusion" of the boy from his family in rites designed to give him a larger loyalty to the tribe, with the big difference that boys of the tribe are separated for weeks, English boys for eight years. The boarding system that began by chance became a sacred tradition, shaping a unique national character, admirable and maddening.

Gathorne-Hardy's book puts one in mind of his description of a headmaster: "a confused, abundant speaker, whose ideas pured out in a creative torrent." It isa voluminous, rickety structure of anecdote, history, and speculation, with a drizzle of statistics, sometimes eloquently written, more often clumsy, obscure, and garrulous. A good editor could have done wonders. But it is always vigorous, full of strong feeling and opinion, with generous acknowledgement of the many sources from which he has drawn his ideas, including several references to his own Unnatural History of the Nanny as an indispensable supplement to this ambitious effort to trace the formation of English gentlemen.