If Eton College sticks to its ejection of one of its finest teachers, progressive rot has truly set in.
Will Knowland is now the most famous man in England, having been fired from his job at the country’s top school for “questioning radical feminist orthodoxy” in a remote video lesson.
However, his cancellation has not been as smooth a process as the perpetrators might have hoped. Mr. Knowland’s students, for one thing, are fighting to get him reinstated. Their devotion to their teacher won’t surprise anyone who knows the man in question. It certainly hasn’t surprised me. Five years ago, I was fortunate enough to study under Will Knowland’s tutelage for a brief time, during which he changed the whole course of my education. He taught me for just two weeks, but in that time he persuaded me that studying what I wanted where I wanted was a goal within my reach. Imagine my horror, then, when I found out some weeks ago that he had been fired for thought crimes during a lesson set aside for discussing controversial topics.
Knowland teaches at Eton College in England, one of the most famous schools in the world. Since its founding in 1440 by Henry VI, it has produced 20 prime ministers, 37 recipients of the Victoria Cross, and, if the Duke of Wellington is to be believed, victory for Great Britain in the Napoleonic wars. If someone had put a gun to my head a few weeks ago and asked me where I thought resistance to woke cancel culture would make its last stand in the U.K., without hesitation I would have said “Eton.” And if Will Knowland isn’t reinstated, we’ll have to conclude that the long march of the cultural Left through England’s institutions is complete. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the culture war will have been lost in its classrooms.
But to view what’s going on at Eton right now exclusively through the prism of the culture war would also be a mistake. At the center of this story is not an issue, but a man, and right now, the story is being shaped by the impact he’s had on his students and his community as much as it is by larger social forces. Knowland is not an epiphenomenon of cancel culture writ large, a hapless victim of the times. His personal conduct and professional excellence over the past decade have triggered a huge response on his behalf by parents, donors, staff, and, especially, students. I spoke recently with an anonymous Eton alumnus who has connections with the current generation of parents. He had this to say about how the boys themselves have reacted to the dismissal:
The boys are being really careful about this. They wanted to keep the petition for Knowland’s reinstatement in house until it had reached a critical mass of students before opening it up to the wider public. They wouldn’t have done that if they were just looking to grandstand politically. They really care about the man and the injustice – it’s almost like a Dead Poets Society dynamic.
One student has already been suspended and forced to apologize for writing a letter to the headmaster. It reads: “Parents, staff and boys have been shocked by your arrogance, laziness and most of all your utter disregard for the school in handling this affair and if you have any honour at all you will tender your letter of resignation to the Eton community.”
If there is any inaccuracy, exaggeration, or unfair criticism in the lines quoted above, I haven’t heard or read anything from anyone associated with Eton who would say so. Simon Henderson, who has earned the nickname “Trendy Hendy” for his determination to oversee a progressive cultural revolution at Eton, has been an unmitigated disaster for the school. He has set himself the task of changing the perception of the Eton as an “old fashioned pillar of social and male elitism.” This sounds benign in theory, but in practice it has a lot to do with making the boys “gender-intelligent” and having them attend talks by the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project so they can be lectured about the moral gravity of their immutable characteristics. It’s all harmless enough if it’s done in moderation – we’ve all endured worse. But things begin to look more sinister when this worldview is combined with what one Eton alumnus describes as a “bullying demeanour” on Henderson’s part, which “makes the staff uncomfortable” and creates an environment resembling a “woke dictatorship.”
The Head Master has even reorganized the school’s internal discipline structures along lines that would’ve had the East German Stasi looking on with dewy-eyed admiration. Students have had a politburo imposed on them in the form of the “executive leadership team” (ELT), which in true Animal Farm style is housed in their own building, with perks such as secretaries and extra pay.
When the inevitable confrontation between Henderson and academic freedom finally took place, it was over one of Will Knowland’s lessons.
Older students at Eton take a class called Perspectives, in which they’re exposed to different takes on a topical issue. Mr. Knowland showed a video of his own making during this class called “The Patriarchy Paradox.” During the course of the lecture, he argued that men and masculinity have been indispensable to the progress of human civilization and that the two sexes differ at fundamental psychological and biological levels. He then dutifully circulated this to other teachers on the Perspectives programme and received the inevitable anonymous denouncement, which was upheld by the powers that be at the school. Remote students were prevented from accessing the lesson on the school’s website, and Henderson even demanded that it be taken down from Knowland’s private, non-affiliated YouTube channel. After repeatedly refusing to be censored in this way without any due cause being offered up by his employer, he was fired.
Very soon after, it became clear to the wider community and then the public that something sinister was afoot. Lord Waldegrave, the Provost of Eton and Henderson’s enabler and accomplice, wrote up a defense of Eton’s actions and sent it to parents. It said: “The panel expressly stated it would not have dismissed the master for the lesson content alone. But for the Master’s repeated refusal to follow the Head Master’s reasonable instruction he would therefore still be teaching here.” However, when the same piece went to print for a public readership in the Daily Mail the next day, this exoneration of Knowland from the charge of thought crime was omitted. National Review has obtained an email sent from Lord Waldegrave to parents in which he explicitly endorses this retraction:
Yesterday I submitted an article to the Daily Mail regarding Mr Knowland, which they have published today. The version you were sent by email as a statement last night contained 2 additional sentences which are incorrect. It said, ‘The panel expressly stated it would not have dismissed the Master for the lesson content alone. But for the Master’s repeated refusal to follow the Head Master’s reasonable instruction he would therefore still be teaching here.’ The panel’s written judgement in fact stated that ‘had a disciplinary process been carried out in respect of the content and delivery of the video alone, the Panel’s view is that a sanction short of summary dismissal might well have been possible. …
Different party lines are being given out to different audiences, which has led alumni of the school to believe that Knowland’s internal employment tribunal on Tuesday was little more than a show trial. Information is being marshaled and managed by Waldegrave and Henderson in such a way as to prevent the arbitration of Knowland’s case from being carried out under the auspices of clear and generally applicable standards. What’s more, the provost himself accused his students of creating a “false narrative akin to fake news” at the very same moment at which he himself was (in the words of a parent) providing “erroneous information.” The Gramscian, Alinskyite mendacity of his actions in this regard should be a scandal to any sane conscience.
In a letter written Mr. Knowland to “Members of the Eton Community,” he addresses some of the provost’s misrepresentations. Knowland begins by clarifying the reason for his dismissal:
I was fired for the contents of the video. As someone with a clean disciplinary record, I could only be fired for a first offence if it was ‘gross misconduct’ which the College police defines as including ‘harassment on the grounds of sex’, which is what the video was deemed to be.
You read that correctly: Will Knowland’s critique of radical feminist ideas was taken by the school’s authorities to constitute “harassment on the grounds of sex.” I encourage readers to watch the video and wonder at the malevolence of this charge. There’s simply no other way to characterize Waldegrave and Henderson in light of this accusation than as jackboot Jacobins with nothing to their name but fourth-rate moral fiber and an axe to grind.
Knowland makes other salient points. It’s not at all clear how the Equality Act of 2010, cited as a legal basis for discipline by the provost, applies to YouTube-account holders. If it did, then half the videos on the Internet would have to be taken down immediately on pain of prosecution.
However, by far the most important line of his letter is this one: “I was dismissed, then, not for process but on a point of principle: I made a stand for my freedom to express information but also, and more importantly, for the boys’ freedom to receive it.” Waldegrave and Henderson are social engineers more than anything else, and social engineers cannot allow this untrammeled dissemination of ideas throughout schools and societies if their plans for turning people into putty are to prosper. Knowland’s insistence that boys be allowed to weigh arguments and information on the scales of their own intellect is nothing but an obstacle to the vainglorious egomaniac in the Head Master’s office. The academic freedom that has flourished at Eton for over half a millennia stands in the way of his attempts to turn the boys entrusted to him at the age of 13 into Homo Hendersonicus: weak-willed, identitarian milksops trained to feel shame and guilt instead of gratitude for the bounty bestowed upon them by providence, tradition, and the life of the mind.
Happily, Henderson appears to be in free fall in terms of the confidence reposed in him by staff members. Another teacher broke ranks to support Knowland today, addressing a strongly worded letter to the Vice-Provost. Luke Martin recently resigned as Master in Charge of Perspectives, the course for which Knowland created his video, and he paints a harrowing picture of life at Eton under Henderson:
In the last few years at Eton I’ve become aware of a worrying trend. There is a growing promotion of a so-called ‘progressive’ ideology, that claims to be inclusive, tolerant, and kind. This ideology is, of course, present in other institutions. 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.
Martin also fleshes out more fully what the perspective module entails and points out that Knowland actually solicited another teacher to offer an opposing view to his in the class and was declined!
The course aims to get boys thinking critically about contemporary issues, in keeping with the college’s central aim to promote the ‘best habits of independent thought’. . . . The discussion lessons aim to ‘foster open debate’ and boys are ‘encouraged to intelligently disagree’ with the speaker’s views . . . [Mr Knowland] requested that another master speak with him at Perspectives, to offer a different view to his own. I asked a senior master at the college to speak at the event with him, but she declined the invitation.
The more one learns about this whole sordid affair, the clearer it is that Eton has a choice to make between Waldegrave and Henderson on the one hand, and Will Knowland (along with its academic reputation) on the other. “Eton” has been recognized the world over as a synonym for excellence for over 500 years. To break that semantic association in the minds of the public so that the very name of the school conjures up images of Orwellian intolerance requires a caliber of leadership so abjectly destitute of basic competence and sound judgment that it might be justly characterized as accidental sabotage: The work of men who share the politics of Andrea Dworkin but have been saddled, either by nature or by nurture, with the political savvy of Winnie-the-Pooh.
The irony of ironies is that Will Knowland represents the best chance that Eton actually has of shedding its image of patrician disdain. I live in what used to be government housing in North Belfast. Nobody in my family had ever gone to university before I did. When I told my teachers that I wanted to go to Magdalen College, Oxford, they looked at me like I’d said I wanted to go to Mars. “Only posh boys get in there, Cameron. Pick an obscure subject and an obscure college and cross your fingers.” The first person I met as a teenager who took my ideas seriously was Will. He didn’t just grade my essays, he engaged with them. He introduced me to the professor who would later teach me at Magdalen, advised me through the application process, and congratulated me when I got in. And for all he knew, I could’ve taken the place at Oxford of one of his paying customers. But born educators are born educators: They can’t resist giving of themselves when they come across a diamond in the rough (in my case, the very rough).
Failing to reinstate Will Knowland would be an act of institutional masochism the likes of which Eton has not seen in its recent history. Heads must roll at that school – two in particular – but his cannot be one of them.
By Cameron Hilditch, he is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.