What is the ugliest aspect of woke culture? Is it the inconsistency: the way we are supposed to celebrate differences one moment and pretend they don’t exist the next? Is it the irrationality: the elevation of imagined grievances over empirical facts? Is it the intolerance: the high-pitched demands that people’s careers be ended over clumsy phrasing? Is it the cowardice: the readiness of institutions to drop individuals whom they know to have been misrepresented? Or is it the sheer revolutionary violence: the eagerness to tear people down simply for articulating views that were universal until the day before yesterday?
Many of these characteristics are on display in the case of Will Knowland, a teacher who said that he was sacked following a dispute over a lecture he had prepared suggesting that the differences between the sexes are not socially constructed, and that many of the traits traditionally associated with manliness are laudable. The only unusual thing about l’affaire Knowland is that it is playing out, not in the humanities department of some ultra-liberal North American university, but at Eton. Once identity politics has captured Britain’s chief school, it can truly be said to have been “mainstreamed”.
Eton is – quite properly – maintaining a discrete silence on grounds that Mr Knowland is appealing against his dismissal. And Mr Knowland is – again, quite properly – refusing to talk to journalists. But the facts, according to a letter by Mr Knowland addressed to the Eton Community, are as follows.
Mr Knowland had prepared a lecture on the theme of masculinity as part of the “Perspectives” course, which is designed to introduce older Etonians to controversial issues. Because of Covid, the lecture was recorded, and sent to the various Perspectives teachers, one of whom complained. The headmaster backed the complainant (who had apparently objected to Mr Knowland’s suggestion that a world without men would be bad for women) and ordered the video to be taken down, which it was. He also told Mr Knowland to remove it from his personal YouTube channel. Mr Knowland responded that he would do so if he were given a good explanation, and was allegedly told that he would be dismissed if he didn’t comply. Mr Knowland says he did not receive an explanation, left the video up and was fired for gross misconduct.
The video itself, though one-sided, is in no sense extreme. Mr Knowland argues that some masculine characteristics – physical courage, for example – are innate rather than being a product of what feminists call “patriarchy”. He backs up his claims with a number of academic studies. He closes by arguing that what used to be called chivalry – the expectation, rooted in biology, that men will act protectively towards women – is better for society than the pretence that gender differences are a product of culture.
Even if he had been advancing a speculative case, it would have been wrong to silence him. The essence of education is that we test different theories and let the true ones win out. But, in this instance, what Mr Knowland was arguing was not especially controversial – at least, not among biologists, geneticists or neuroscientists. The idea that there are innate emotional and behavioural differences between the sexes is assumed by most specialists in those fields.
As Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor who has written to Eton on Mr Knowland’s behalf, has argued for decades, equality between the sexes rests on the idea that individuals should not be assumed to hold the average characteristics of their group. It does not rest on the claim that there are no inherited psychological sex differences. Oddly enough, the idea that male and female brains differ in the aggregate is common both to specialists and to the general population.
But it is violently opposed by a group in between – a group whom the Czech philosopher Tomáš Masaryk might have called the “half-educated”, and who dominate sociology departments, BBC editorial conference and teacher training colleges. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole business is that Eton is appearing to align itself with this group.
What Mr Knowland suggested in his lecture – that boys become men by learning to channel their aggression, thus fitting themselves for good citizenship and fatherhood – would have gone without saying for the first 575 or so years of Eton’s 580-year history. Boys’ schools saw it as their task to inculcate virtue – a word deriving from the Latin “vir”, “man”, and suggesting precisely the attributes that Mr Knowland was praising.
Were all those beaks down the centuries wrong? What fools our fathers were if this be true.
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