It’s said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Two centuries later, Britain’s most venerable school has become a battleground in the War on Woke.
On one side is English teacher Will Knowland, who was fired after standing up for his belief that students need to hear a broad range of opinions.
On the other is headmaster Simon Henderson, who sacked him for gross misconduct amid the fallout from a lecture about the nature of masculinity.
Hundreds of pupils and members of the wider Eton community have now accused the school of hypocrisy, cruelty and a ‘complete lack of backbone’, and asked if Eton was ‘protecting its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own’.
Will Knowland, who taught English at the £42,500-a-year school in Berkshire for nine years, said he was dismissed over a lesson titled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’
In a petition supporting Mr Knowland, they say: ‘Young men and their views are formed in the meeting and conflict of ideas… which necessarily entails controversy and spirited discussion.’
Mr Knowland, they add, ‘is loved by all who have encountered him’ and the students ‘feel morally bound not to be bystanders in what appears to be an instance of institutional bullying’.
It’s a plea of such erudition that any English teacher, not just one in a politically correct pickle, would be delighted to know his students had written. It may not, however, be sufficient to save him.
‘Eton has been here for almost 600 years,’ said one source close to the conflict. ‘And this is a battle for its very soul. Cancel culture has arrived with cult groupthink reaching right into the heart of the school. It’s meant to be a bastion of learning and free speech. George Orwell went to Eton. What would he think? 1984 was meant to be satire, not a how-to manual.’
Mr Knowland’s sin was to question the current radical feminist orthodoxy. In September, he created an online lecture called The Patriarchy Paradox examining the prevailing idea of ‘toxic masculinity’.
In it, he argues that science and history offer evidence that masculine virtues such as strength and courage can be beneficial to women, the family and society.
A niche, knuckle-dragging opinion? Hardly. While it might be considered provocative to some, it is part of mainstream thinking. Mr Knowland believed Eton’s boys had the right to balance in a curriculum he felt had become dangerously skewed.
‘Suicide is the biggest killer of young men and I suspect this jaundiced view of masculinity currently so fashionable, is partly responsible,’ he wrote privately to colleagues after his shock dismissal.
Eton’s headmaster Simon Henderson sacked Mr Knowland for gross misconduct amid the fallout from a lecture about the nature of masculinity
One member of staff complained about the lecture, alleging it amounted to harassment in the workplace and was illegal under the Equality Act. (It’s not). That person was said to be particularly upset that Mr Knowland was asking students to consider the idea that a world without any men in it might be worse for women. The head sided with the complainant.
There could hardly be a better example of how the toxic diversity rows which have riven Britain’s higher education institutions are now heading for the country’s high schools and not just Eton, which has educated 20 British Prime Ministers and the Duke of Cambridge.
For Mr Knowland, those battles are no longer theoretical but a harsh reality. He is a father of five children, one of whom is disabled. He and his wife Rachel live in a grace-and-favour detached four-bedroom house owned by Eton. If he fails to win back his job on appeal next month, they will be homeless.
Nor does he have the kind of family fortune enjoyed by the majority of pupils at the £42,500-a-year school to soften his fall. He is from a modest background, educated at an independent school on a 100 per cent bursary.
Wife Rachel was a similarly gifted student, on the same kind of fully paid for place. Said to be soulmates, they have been together since they were 14. She glimpsed stardom as a singer eight years ago when she made it to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent and was told by Simon Cowell: ‘You could have a really good career in this business…’
Instead she chose a life out of the spotlight, leaving Knowland the family breadwinner. Now they have everything to lose, including Mr Knowland’s future as a teacher, if he is ultimately censured by his professional body the Teaching Regulation Agency, as the headmaster has threatened.
Mr Knowland and his wife Rachel, pictured, live in a grace-and-favour detached four-bedroom house owned by Eton. If he fails to win back his job on appeal next month, they will be homeless
‘The headmaster felt some of the ideas put forward – such as the view that men and women differ psychologically and not all of those differences are socially constructed – were too dangerous for the boys to be exposed to,’ Mr Knowland wrote to his colleagues.
‘At Eton… we have always prioritised open, rigorous, discussion over concepts like ‘safe space’, ‘trigger warnings’, and ‘micro-aggressions’. I am concerned the college is in danger of succumbing to an educational trend that prioritises emotional safety over intellectual challenge. That’s why I staked my career on my belief in freedom of speech.’
But, he acknowledges: ‘They have the power to stop me setting foot in a classroom again. If that happens, I’m not sure how I will make a living.’
What, then, of the half-hour lecture that proved so controversial it cost him his job? Mr Knowland was in no doubt that it might become a talking point. Two and a half minutes in, he warns it might bruise some people’s feelings.
The video turns out to be a thicket of academic citations, with more than 40 references to other writers and thinkers.
It deftly weaves in contemporary cultural references to the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex And The City and Gerard Butler’s sweaty, bronzed Hollywood portrayal of Spartan King Leonidas.
It’s got everything from the classics to chick-lit, and from Nobel prize winning theories to cartoons. The Etonians who signed the letter conclude: ‘The common opinion is that Mr Knowland presented the ideas in his video with as much academic nuance and sensitivity as could reasonably be expected. His video is arguably a model for how to convey a contentious argument impeccably.
The lecture, created online because of the Covid crisis, was written for Eton’s Perspectives curriculum, introducing older boys to issues which are the subject of fierce public debate (file photo of Eton College)
‘We struggle to identify where Mr Knowland’s video steps out of the realms of academic debate and into genuinely discriminatory private opinion.’
The lecture, created online because of the Covid crisis, was written for Eton’s Perspectives curriculum, introducing older boys to issues which are the subject of fierce public debate. Mr Knowland uploaded it to the school intranet, and sent a link to the head of Perspectives (who has now resigned from the role) before it was circulated to all Perspectives teachers.
After that solitary complaint, Mr Knowland agreed to withdraw it before it was made available to pupils. Crucially though, he declined to take it down from his personal YouTube channel – Knowland Knows – which he runs with the permission of Eton.
The channel carries two very clear disclaimers: ‘The statements and opinions on this channel are not necessarily agreed or authorised by Eton College… and because of the nature of interpretation and discussion in English literature, the statements and opinions aren’t necessarily my own either.’
In his letter to colleagues, Mr Knowland says: ‘Because I believe passionately in free speech, I said I would only take it down [from YouTube] if given a clear reason, which is how I ended up being dismissed.’
‘He was treated in a very high handed, vindictive and aggressive way,’ says the Eton insider. ‘Will Knowland essentially challenged this woke ethos the head and some of his colleagues are trying to embed in the school. They seem to have got it into their heads that Eton has to be trying harder than anyone else to look progressive, but they’re over-compensating.
‘The head seems to think, misguidedly, that if it gets out that Eton is teaching a course saying masculinity isn’t toxic, it will be used by a woke mob to criticise the school, that they’ll be accused of upholding the patriarchy.’
Until his confrontation with the head, it appears Knowland had enjoyed a harmonious relationship with senior colleagues. Now he finds himself banished to Eton’s shadowlands, even as the number of signatories to the pupil petition for his reinstatement rose to more than 1,000 last night and donations to the fighting fund for his legal expenses approached £12,000.
Whatever happens, the aftermath is going to be tricky for headteacher Simon Henderson who was yesterday obliged to reassure parents about this ‘difficult and emotive issue’ (file photo)
Eton is committed to diversity. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, the school announced it would be ‘decolonising’ its curriculum. Boys are shown a film about a trans man who conceived and gave birth, and the school hosts workshops run by a gender equality charity.
So perhaps Mr Knowland should not have been as surprised as he was at the reaction to his lecture.
His appeal will be heard on Founder’s Day, December 8, by a panel chaired by former Cabinet Minister Lord Waldegrave, himself an Old Etonian. Mr Knowland will have the support of the Free Speech Union, whose founder Toby Young said: ‘This is a landmark case.
‘Schools must be places where children are taught all sides of these big questions and allowed to make up their own minds, not indoctrinated with the latest political orthodoxy.’
Whatever happens, the aftermath is going to be tricky for Simon Henderson who was yesterday obliged to reassure parents about this ‘difficult and emotive issue’.
‘We are limited in what we can say at the moment, given that a disciplinary process is ongoing,’ he wrote in a message.
‘Mr Knowland has chosen to publicise his version of events in advance of the disciplinary panel to which he has appealed. So as to be fair to all parties, the school cannot provide substantive comment before a final decision is reached. I appreciate that a lack of information is frustrating and leads to increased speculation, however the school needs to respect the integrity of the process.’
He must be anxious about the passionate response of the pupils. One, from a seven-generation family of Etonians, has asked him to resign and gossip yesterday suggested posters demanding the same could go up around Eton’s quad.
Then there’s that devastating letter from the boys which speaks of ‘very grave implications about the nature of freedom in this school and the moral stature of those in charge.’ It refers to the head’s order to remove the lecture from public view as a ‘capricious request,’ and urges Lord Waldegrave to overrule him ‘in favour of freedom of thought and expression’.
Mr Knowland, meanwhile, is longing to return to Eton and doesn’t see why he can’t.
He writes: ‘Respect for Eton – its past present and future – means upholding its traditions of discussion, argument and persuasion and eschewing the culture of intolerance that has swept through other institutions.
‘As Hailz Osborne [the school’s head of inclusion education] has said, in promoting diversity, which includes intellectual diversity, ‘the challenge is to enable people to say uncomfortable things’.’
It’s a challenge the college appears to have flunked.