A piece in yesterday’s Telegraph:
Eton College students are in open revolt against their headmaster as a row over free speech threatened to boil over into a major fall-out.
Pupils at the 580-year-old school have accused it of acting in a “heartless and merciless” way by dismissing one of its masters amid a dispute over a lecture that questioned “current radical feminist orthodoxy”.
Hundreds of students have now signed a petition accusing Eton College of “institutional bullying” claiming that it was a “gross abuse of the duty of the school to protect the freedoms of the individual”.
It comes after The Telegraph revealed that Will Knowland was allegedly dismissed for gross misconduct following a dispute over a lecture he was due to give pupils earlier this year.
The lecture, titled The Patriarchy Paradox, was part of the Perspectives course taken by older students to encourage them to think critically about subjects of public debate.
But Mr Knowland, who has taught English at Eton for nine years, claimed that he was banned from delivering the lecture and dismissed after he refused to remove a video of the lecture from his personal YouTube channel.
The students’ petition, addressed to Eton’s provost, Lord Waldergrave, said they felt the episode has given rise to “some very grave implications about the nature of freedom” at Eton.
They said: “There is a sense that, by dismissing Mr Knowland, the school is seeking to protect its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own. If this is true, it points to a complete lack of moral integrity and backbone.”
The students went on to say that they disagreed with the Head Master’s assertion that ideas which can be deemed “hostile” to minority groups at the school could be censored.
“We think this test is too severe,” they said. “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.”
Last night a number of former pupils threw their support behind pupils. Douglas Murray, an old Etonian and author of The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, told The Telegraph that Eton had “discredited” itself by failing to allow the free exchange of ideas between students and lecturers.
“The main thing is that the prerequisite for a good education is to make the students in your care think and there’s no sure-fire way of doing it but the best way is to introduce them to ideas they otherwise wouldn’t or haven’t encountered – as far as I can see, this teacher was merely doing that,” he said.
“Any educator in charge of informing or instructing or demonstrating how to acquire knowledge to young people ought to be able to explore such things. The fact that he did is to his credit and to the benefit of the pupils.”
Cornelius Lysaght, the former BBC Radio 5 Live racing correspondent, added: “Once you start stifling debate, that gets concerning. It strikes me as a difficult area but one that schools like Eton should be examining.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, senior Conservative MP and old Etonian, said: “We are going far too much in this country down the path of telling people what they should think rather than allowing them to make up their own opinions.”
On Friday Bim Afolami, the MP for Harpenden and Hitchin, urged the £42,500-a-year school not to “succumb to what it feels is an outside pressure to be ‘woke’ or to avoid controversial subjects”.
Meanwhile, Lucy Allan, the MP for Telford and private secretary to the Leader of the House, wrote to Mr Knowland to offer her support.
Prof Steven Pinker, an expert in experimental cognitive psychology at Harvard University, has also written to Lord Waldegrave urging him to intervene on Mr Knowland’s behalf.
Mr Knowland said he is appealing against his dismissal and if this fails he intends to take the school to an employment tribunal.
An Eton College spokesperson said: “The school has engaged with senior boys on the issues involved, within the limits of what is possible at this stage. In this case, Mr Knowland has chosen to publicise his version of events notwithstanding the fact that he is engaged in an ongoing disciplinary process.
“The College will not provide substantive comments at present in order to respect the integrity of Mr Knowland’s appeal. There will be a time for Eton to say more about the issues raised by this case, but that time is not now.”
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