The Eton 'scandal': Columnists desperately defend the right to be a tendentious prick

...to them the facts of the case matter less than the culture war claims

I was on LBC earlier this week. Walking with my partner and step-daughter on the school run, a harried young producer on Nick ‘Austin Allegro’ Ferrari’s breakfast show rang me and asked if I could come on to talk about the ‘Eton story’.

That story is the dismissal of an English teacher who refused to take down a ‘controversial’ YouTube video (‘The Patriarchy Paradox’) which the school considered to be in breach of equality law. Of course, Ferrari was taking the line that this was an egregious abuse of free speech. I was being teed up to be the ranting left-winger demanding that all teachers guilty of ‘wrong-think’ be not only sacked but fired from a cannon. Only, I didn’t say that.

Instead, my position was and remains this:

The teacher in question, Will Knowland, had every right to express his foolish, misogynistic, poorly-argued, tedious pub bore opinions. He also had every right to do so on YouTube. But where it gets tricky is that he did so while clearly identifying himself as a teacher at Eton, and with the intention of showing the talk to his pupils. Teachers have a duty to represent the school and to abide by the laws of the land and the rules of their school.

Knowland was not being censored by the headteacher — who newspapers and columnists have decided is unacceptably modern, dubbing him ‘Trendy Hendy’ — but rather being expected to abide by the conditions of his employment. He was asked repeatedly to remove the video and refused to do so. At a certain point, effectively telling the headteacher to fuck off will have consequences.

I explained all this to Nick Ferrari who found it a little disappointing as he’d obviously been hoping to verbally duff me up. Nevermind, Nick, maybe next time…

But for the columnists, this story has been fresh red meat. By strategically ignoring and eliding the details, they have been able to spin up pieces that touch on all their favourite themes — the ‘power’ of the woke left, the insidious influence of ‘PC culture’, and the ‘destruction’ of traditions — even if none of them actually apply in what I would characterise as a pretty clear case of an employment contract being applied fairly after plenty of warnings have been given.

We are now in day four or five of this ‘scandal’ and, seemingly without anything better to write about, The Times’ Jenni Russell has picked it up as the theme of her weekly despatch. From word one she mischaracterises the situation:

Britain’s most famous school has dismissed a teacher for uploading a lecture containing “dangerous ideas” to the internet. Will Knowland, who has taught at Eton for almost a decade, had intended to deliver his lecture to older students as part of a series encouraging critical thinking. Instead, Eton’s head master, Simon Henderson, forbade him from giving it, saying the boys should not be exposed to its content. When Knowland posted it online, he was sacked for gross misconduct, losing both his tied home and job.

The quote marks around ‘dangerous ideas’ suggest that’s what the school has said about the YouTube video but it’s not. Eton, as the Provost has said, is required to abide by exactly the same laws as any other school in the country. Furthermore, the headmaster — who is as the name suggests the head of the school and usually the principla safeguarding officer — has every right to tell a teacher that certain content is not suitable for lessons. Usually the authority-obsessed Times would have no issue with that, but in this case the culture war fun trumps its usual instinct.

The emotional manipulation of including the fact that Knowland, who lives in school accomodation, will lose that if his appeal against the finding of gross misconduct does not succeed, is cheap. Yes, he’s a husband, and the father of five children, but he also knew those facts when he decided to repeatedly refuse to take down the video. If he is sticking to his guns on a point of principle, that’s his choice and not the school’s — as much as it pains me to ride out in the defence of Eton — the £42,500 factory for our future rulers — of all places.

False equivalence fallacies are a frequently fumbled-for tool in the columnist’s arsenal and Russell goes straight for one here:

What thesis could be so inflammatory that Eton could not contemplate its pupils hearing it? A defence of fascism, or paedophilia, of public executions? None of the above. Knowland’s lecture was a defence of the patriarchy and a criticism of radical feminist thought.

By choosing three extremes (fascism, paedophilia, and public executions) she is attempting to make the idea of ‘defending the patriarchy’ sound minor. But that’s a matter of perspective and not fact as she would like the reader to believe. Having done false equivalence, Russell immediately jumps to another fallacy — “the slippery slope”:

This is far more than a spat within a school. It is an ominous indication of how frightened our society is becoming of free discussion. Some ideas are now defined as beyond questioning. As a journalist and feminist, I could not be more dismayed by Eton’s fear of letting boys hear a counterargument. Their reluctance implies one of two things: either that all feminist analyses are so self-evidently true that they can’t be questioned, or conversely that feminist arguments are so weak they will collapse once challenged.

Eton invites a wide range of people to talk to its students. It’s one of the many privileges that the boys there have. The notion that ‘free discussion’ is not allowed at the school is a joke. Instead, the headteacher and others are merely attempting to ensure that the pupils have some — and it’s a very small amount — connection to the world they will enter when they leave school.

The fact that pupils at the school have written a letter protesting Knowland’s dismissal actually suggests that free thought and debate is alive and well at the school. However, despite columnists like Russell using that missive as a stick to beat the head and provost with, children do not generally run schools. It is commendable that they have stood up for a teacher that they like but they are not necessarily in command of all the facts. Knowland wanted this fight and he’s got it.

Russell — bringing out an inelegant variation of the ‘think of the children’ line — says pupils are frightened they will be next: “They argue that [Knowland] is being dismissed and bullied for holding a view that varies from the mainstream, and ask, will boys who express the same ideas be similarly dealt with?” No is the answer. Because there is a difference in responsibility and position between students and a teacher. But that would undermine Russell’s high dudgeon.

Like me, Russell has watched Knowland’s video and, like me, she wasn’t impressed:

The right to think must be defended, regardless of whether one agrees with a particular view. I watched Knowland’s lecture expecting to be impressed by his cogency and intellect, andw as surprised to find its points obscured by an incoherent ramble of nonsequiturs and contradictions. Among his absurd assertions: that women aren’t repressed by rape, because men in prisons get raped even more, and that “biologically speaking, the idea that men exert power over women is nonsense”. But these arguments need to be interrogated, not repressed. Unexamined, they acquire unwarranted power.

This is another maddening assertion. Yes, students should encounter tricky concepts and arguments that are challenging to them. But there is absolutely no need for a teacher — someone they look up to and respect — to be allowed to deliver a rambling, ill-thought out semi-rant that includes fact-free assertions about rape, power, and the struture of society. There is a reason we speak of young minds as “impressionable”.

As a reader of this newsletter, an adult choosing to read a publication for adults, I encourage you to also watch a bit of Knowland’s YouTube video, which I’ve embedded below. I don’t think it’s necessary to ‘censor’ him as I suspect you will, as I did, find the lecture so boring that you won’t manage to watch the full 30+ minutes. Knowland censors himself by being so fucking tedious.

Russell concludes her column with a healthy dollop of the same drama that has been splattered all over the preceding paragraphs:

“There is a meeting next week to consider Knowland’s appeal. The board of fellows must recognise that it is the head master who has behaved dangerously here, rather than the teacher. It must do the right thing.”

After hammering on about Eton bowing to ‘external pressures’, this is a Times columnist hoping that she can… exert some pressure on the decision making of the board of fellows. There’ll be a whole rash of columns about how Eton has fallen to the ‘wokists’ (as they insist on calling anyone to the left of Franco) if the board does not reverse the dismissal. And how independent will Eton be then?

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