Remarks on the Eton College dismissal of Will Knowland, a politically progressive move or stifling freedom of thought?
What is there for the headmaster of a brilliantly performing school to do all day? The clue is in the name. His overriding duty is to be head of the masters, protecting their standards and interests, together with those of the pupils they teach. Quiet, patient leadership should resolve disputes before they bubble over into the public domain. Heads must be ducal in authority, yet dulce in spirit. Again, the terminology speaks for itself: education derives from ‘educare’ (to lead) and ‘educere’ (to draw out).
Most independent schools belong to charitable trusts. And a charity is deserving of a headteacher who acts with a sense of mercy that the word encapsulates. The onus on providing moral leadership at renown, Christian foundations such as Eton College is especially high, not least because it can backfire, publicly, in unexpected ways.
The media tell us that Eton’s current young head, Mr. Simon Henderson, spends time and resources projecting his views on how the values of the college might become more politically acceptable. Other independent headteachers also might appear to prioritise the ranking, fabric and perception of their schools. Perhaps they forget that a school is nothing more than a congregation of teachers and pupils, who must be at peace with one another for the school to thrive (‘Schola’ in Latin referring to a body of followers of a teacher or system).
Enter stage left Mr. Will Knowland, by all accounts a brilliant and respected Eton beak. While this reputation can only apply to teachers who care, he posts online an intense, rather bombastic lecture about the threat to masculinity of radical feminism, with views that are a little de trop and possibly uncaring about female equality.
Perhaps Mr. Knowland has pitched his lecture like an intellectual hand grenade, to make his teenage audience sit up and think. After all, the craft of many great humanities teachers relies in part on such surprise, theatrical hyperbole and faux outrage that, taken out of context might appear to be gratuitous. So context is everything. Is Mr. Knowland challenging senior boys to unmask his lecture as a pastiche, stripping away obviously tendentious data from a contentious thesis? This would be education and enquiry in a true sense – not ‘woke-hallmarked’ silver spoon-feeding.
The headmaster and the provost, however think not. They decide that Mr. Knowland’s inaccuracies simply constitute a ‘false narrative’. The lecture is banned. One imagines truth inverters in hostile regimes delighting in molly coddled Etonians being shielded from false narratives. How will they ever learn to recognise them?
Meanwhile, Mr. Knowland feels his rights to free speech are being infringed. Having refused repeatedly to remove the lecture from YouTube, he is fired for insubordination. What should have been resolved as a private Common Room matter escalates to become a significant story in the national media. Public opinion is split on the affair. But outrage from the Eton community and the press makes for concerning publicity.
If Mr. Henderson, as a head of the masters, realises that more persuasive, quiet leadership might have drawn one of his flock away from falling down a cliff, he makes no apology. The provost and headmaster, in their perceived Ivory Tower, cite advice that Mr. Knowland is in breach of recently enacted employment law. If civil law is found to jeopardise freedom to speak and teach, destroying the livelihoods of teachers in the process, seeking recourse to judicial review is a moral imperative. Instead, on receipt of a couple of opinions from barristers, these two education leaders dismiss Mr. Knowland proactively, perhaps even zealously, expressing no regret for the impact on his family.
The reputation of the respected young Eton beak is broken on the wheel of a digitalised media, that never forgets. Mr. Knowland will also lose the home of his five children. And this sorry story comes to pass during the season of goodwill to all men, at the end of a year of pandemic that has seen a national outpouring of altruism and kindness. Sometimes the best thing for a headmaster to do all day is to just let the storm clouds pass over and the waves rush in.
by Charles Bonas, Founder Bonas MacFarlane Education
Mr Knowland’s dismissal will be appealed on the 8th of December by the Provost and Fellows.
Watch Will Knowlands’ controversial 30 minute lecture here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTHgMxQEoPI
A Letter from the Boys to the Provost and Fellows, asking for Mr Knowland’s reinstatement. https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/letter-from-boys-to-provost-about-mr-knowland.html
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/eton-was-right-to-sack-will-knowland Interesting response and another angle on Eton’s sacking