Sic transit gloria Etona

...or more demotically, how Eton has trashed its brand

Eton College

Much of the comment about the sacked Eton teacher, Will Knowland, has focused upon the dire implications for freedom of speech at the UK’s most prestigious and historic school.

Eton fired Knowland for posting on his own YouTube channel a video entitled “The Patriarchy Paradox”. In this video, he attacks feminism and its obsession with patriarchal power, extols masculine courage and the nuclear family, distinguishes between chivalry and machismo and makes certain assertions about the differences between men and women and their respective life roles and experiences. You can view it here.

His video is a full-throated defence of a traditionalist viewpoint about the sexes that is shared by millions of people. Undoubtedly, it would also be vehemently rejected by others. 

The criticism that it isn’t objective, however, misses the point. It was not intended as a factual lesson but as an argument to be balanced against contrary views. Eton first told Knowland he couldn’t advance this argument in a floor debate because of Covid; when he suggested a video debate, he was told no again; and so he said he'd run it on his YouTube channel instead.

Eton claims it is committed to freedom of speech and only sacked Knowland because of the disciplinary offence he is said to have committed, presumably by refusing to remove the video from his YouTube channel.

The importance of this issue, though, goes beyond freedom of expression or the apparent injustice done to this teacher (who has now lost his appeal against his dismissal*). For Knowland produced his video to counter what he perceived to be a noxious, one-sided agenda of identity politics being imposed upon the school by its headmaster, Simon Henderson. 

A  number of parents of boys at the school have expressed their concerns about the effects this agenda is having on their sons: 

One parent said children were being indoctrinated by a “partisan, political" Woke agenda, which involves contested ideas about gender and race being presented as fact with any opposing view silenced for being politically incorrect. 

One presentation, entitled a “sex positivity, feminism and pornography workshop’”, was given to boys as young as 13 and 14. The session was run by a group called the School of Sexuality Education. The “guiding principles” on its website include:

the promotion of “intersectionality”, which holds that “gender and sexual-based power inequities’"combine with “age, disability, sexuality, race [and] class”to create oppression.

The group — which boasts of holding classes for thousands of pupils — says that is “committed to the process of decolonisation” and references New Zealand by its Maori name, Aotearoa. In a separate section of the website, the group announces its approach is to “support students to question social and cultural norms around gender and to develop gender equitable attitudes”.

…One mother, who has a son and several other relatives at the school and asked to stay anonymous to protect them, said: “Parents are really concerned about the pushing of age-inappropriate sexual content to children below the age of consent.”

Parents also spoke out about other workshops that the school has been running about issues of gender and masculinity, including from a group known as the Good Lad Initiative (GLI). The organisation, which carries out talks in hundreds of schools, aims to challenge "toxic masculinity” — the concept that society requires men to act in particular ways that are harmful to themselves and others.

However, parents raised concern about the content of some of its sessions. The unnamed mother who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “One mum called me and said her child had phoned her and asked whether it was still ok to be a boy and like rugby and rock music.” Another parent said that in one workshop young boys were asked to role play “coming out as straight”, which one parent claimed left some pupils approaching their teachers in distress.

Knowland has also had considerable support from Eton boys. A group of pupils wrote a petition to the school’s Provost and Fellows protesting at his dismissal and supporting his presentation of material in the video. They  wrote: 

…the problem cannot lie in the way he sets out the ideas, but in the ideas themselves…Mr Knowland is being dismissed for having a different view to the view of the majority. His view is not very uncommon or exceptional. It is simply different…Are the boys also bound by the same restrictions to expression? Should boys who express the same idea as Mr Knowland expect to be similarly dealt with? 

Good question. The boys wrote that Henderson had told them how he decides what kind of ideas are “illegal”: 

For him, anything that can be deemed “hostile” by any single member of one of the school’s designated minority groups will be censored. We think this test is too severe. Young men and their views are formed in the meeting and conflict of ideas. A conflict of ideas necessarily entails controversy and spirited discussion. The Head Master’s “hostility” test excludes nearly all of what makes up a liberal education.

Quite so. These boys really do get it.

Further corroboration of Knowland’s views about the school’s “woke”agenda has come from an Eton theology teacher, Dr Luke Martin. He has resigned his role as leader of the “perspectives” classes (the series for which Knowland’s presentation was originally designed) accusing Henderson of presiding over an atmosphere of “religious fundamentalism”. Martin, who called for Knowland’s reinstatement, said he didn’t agree with his views but added: 

Why should I? The point of perspectives is that boys are exposed to various perspectives, some of which they will disagree with. 

There is a growing promotion of a so-called ‘progressive’ ideology, which claims to be inclusive, tolerant and kind. But what has dawned on me over the last few years is that it is remarkably similar, in a particular respect, to the forms of religious fundamentalism that I'm familiar with. If you disagree with it, you're excluded; if you think differently, you're not tolerated; and if you raise objections, you're mocked or face formal discipline.

I've become increasingly concerned that some schools, including Eton, are moving towards a point where it will be accurate to say that they are trying to indoctrinate their students into this worldview.

Other parents, though, who presumably endorse this “progressive” worldview, have supported the school, with one mother praising it for trying to teach privileged Etonians to be “kind”.

But identity politics does not promote kindness. It imposes power and trashes its victims. Promising tolerance, it is intolerant of any dissent from its own world-view. And far from relieving the pressure on potentially vulnerable minorities, such as gay or black pupils, it singles them out for pressure.

Black Christian boys at the school have reportedly been made to feel uncomfortable. One such pupil was apparently laid off with stress, having been repeatedly put up to discuss racism during the school’s Black History Month.

In another case, a  former pupil who joined at the same time that Henderson started as headmaster wrote that his decision to come out as gay had been made much worse by Henderson’s agenda: 

As this culture consolidated, with the notion of “protected groups”, gay people at Eton became seen not as individuals who happened to be gay, but as part of a monolithic community with the same aims, the same politics and the same beliefs. As a result of this shift, and a sense of being labelled or categorised, I no longer felt able to come out, and ultimately I spent another miserable year and a half in the closet.  

Eton is far from alone in imposing this agenda. The girls’ independent boarding school, Roedean, has said it will decolonise its history lessons: 

It will now become one of the first private schools to rewrite its history syllabus, abandoning the “island story” beloved of Michael Gove and challenging the “white western narrative” after this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Girls will learn about black Tudors, Queen Victoria’s black goddaughter and how Africans helped to resist the slave trade. As well as the Norman Conquest, they will have lessons on the Song dynasty that ruled in China from 960 to 1279. Pupils will be encouraged to see the Second World War in a global context, examining how it was experienced in countries other than Britain. They will also study global societal changes in the postwar era.

A number of leading universities are similarly replacing objective scholarship and the free exchange of ideas by identity politics propaganda.

When a country’s most prestigious academic institutions turn themselves like this into weapons against the historic identity of a culture and its core values, you know the writing for that civilisation really is on the wall.

*Updated
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