A view of Eton College, Eton, Berkshire, June 1962. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

How Eton turned woke

One recent graduate of Eton College laments how the school has transformed into a place of ideological homogeneity

I started my five years at Eton in 2015 at exactly the same time as Simon Henderson, the Head Master, and left this year. We were both new boys, starry-eyed newcomers staggered by the scale and the slickness of it all, the only thing separating us twenty-five years in age. Five years on, the difference between me — not to mention all the other boys in my year — and him couldn’t be starker.

Eton in Henderson’s early days encouraged us to draw critical conclusions from a variety of sources; to avoid thinking in broad brushstrokes; to engage with thinkers whose opinions did not conform to our existing worldviews. Yet Eton when I left it seemed a place of ideological homogeneity, in which speech rejecting the politics of Henderson and his cronies was censored by means of the school’s intricate system of punishment for the boys and by means of bullying for the beaks.

It is inevitable that the whole horrible game of politically correct ping-pong which has developed over the last five years would reach its dénouement sooner rather than later. And a few days ago, it did.

Will Knowland was a truly remarkable English teacher; universally liked for the quality of his lessons and deeply respected by a select few whom he pushed to reach new levels of intellectual attainment. He was also my English teacher in my first year, and it is telling to the quality of his work that I transformed in that period from somebody who was apathetic about art and reading to somebody who had the potential to pursue it seriously as a degree.

If he isn’t reinstated, Knowland, his wife Rachel, and their five children be made homeless

In addition to this, he was asked over Lockdown to prepare a lecture for a course called “C Perspectives”. Perspectives is aimed entirely at boys in their second-to-last year and intended to encourage intellectual development by exposing us to as wide a variety of different ideas as possible. My year’s course included speakers advocating the criminalisation of abortion, making the case for the moral propriety of the British Empire, and harshly criticising the American government for their historical aggression in foreign affairs. To this end, Mr Knowland wrote a lecture about the “Patriarchy Paradox”, the essential claims of which are simple and non-controversial: first, that there exist genetic differences between men and women which manifest themselves in average differences in interest and personality; second, that not all women would agree that the world would be better off without men in it; and third, that psychologists don’t all agree that these differences are socially constructed.

Will Knowland and his family

As might be expected from a newly “woke” institution, however, somebody complained about the content of the lecture and Mr Knowland was asked to delete it from the online platform hosting Perspectives at the time (which he did) and from his personal YouTube channel (which he did not). Both requests were made by Simon Henderson without any accompanying justification. Moreover, when Mr Knowland asked the Head for clarity about why he was being asked to delete it from his own online outlet, over which he has complete control, Mr Henderson became angry, threatening him with suspension if he did not do what he was told.

A few weeks later, he was fired for “gross misconduct”. He is appealing the decision on 8 December and the appeal is chaired by William Waldegrave, the Provost of the College, so he may conceivably be reinstated. But if he isn’t, not only will Mr Knowland, his wife Rachel and their five children be made homeless – they currently live in a grace and favour house on the school grounds – but the Head Master has apparently promised to refer him to the Teaching Regulators’ Agency, hoping to have him banned from setting foot in a classroom again.

There is, of course, a dark irony to this whole saga. Mr Knowland sees masculinity as a potent way for all people to take responsibility for themselves, settling arguments not through the exercise of power but through the spirited exchange of ideas and information. His masculinity is manifestly “non-toxic”. Yet Mr Henderson, who regards himself as the epitome of progressive propriety, appears to be over-reacting to an affront to his ego and behaving like a petty tyrant.

Is it not the job of a Head Master to model how grown up men should resolve conflicts and manage disagreements in a mature and considered way? That would be non-toxic masculinity.

The school’s Director of Inclusion said she’d like to see the BLM flag flying over the College gateway

When Mr Henderson started in his post, he pitched himself as a moderate reformer, charged with making a few tweaks to the school’s ethos while keeping its identity intact. But his treatment of Mr Knowland (who is being helped by the Free Speech Union, of which he’s a member) is only the latest incident in a systematic pattern of trying to impose a left-wing ideological orthodoxy on the school. Earlier this year, different days were set aside on which the boys were asked to think about what it would be like to have a “protected” characteristic – gay day, transgender day, etc. The school’s Director of Inclusion recently wrote a blog post for the school in which she said she’d like to see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the College gateway.

A spirited campaign of letter-writing to the Provost has kicked off over the last few days – the famous Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written a letter in Mr Knowland’s defence – and I strongly encourage any other OEs as angry as I am to donate to Mr Knowland’s legal fund. Losing this case would be a crushing blow not only to him and his family but to the British tradition of ideological tolerance and viewpoint diversity which institutions like Eton are supposed to uphold. I am grateful that, under Mr Knowland’s guidance, I was encouraged to engage with a range of difficult ideas and steer my own path through them, not be spoon-fed the latest fashionable dogma. Other boys should have the same privilege.

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