An interview of Will Knowland, the English teacher recently fired by Eton College, in today’s Times:
The English teacher sacked by Eton over a contentious YouTube video says that its soul is at risk. Now he is taking legal action
I love my job and I would do it for free, insists Will Knowland as he looks out of his rain-dripped study window at Eton’s chapel, built by Henry VI. “But the reason I felt so strongly about this is I felt that my job was being taken away from me before I was even sacked. Without free speech I don’t think that I have a serious job in education.”
It’s not a study view that Knowland will have for much longer. The English teacher must leave the grace-and-favour home that he shares with his wife, Rachel, and their five children by the end of next month as part of the terms of his sacking by Eton College in December. After nine years at the school, Knowland, 35, was dismissed for gross misconduct after refusing to take down a video he had posted on YouTube of a provocative lecture on gender that he had prepared for sixth-formers.
His removal has plunged the 581-year-old school, where the fees are £42,500 a year, into a bitter and very public civil war over free speech. It provoked an uprising among its boys and demands from some prominent Old Etonians for its new progressive head master Simon Henderson to himself resign. And it’s far from over.
The 33-minute lecture — named The Patriarchy Paradox and still up on YouTube — is undoubtedly very strong meat and would offend many. It attacks “current radical feminist orthodoxy” and celebrates men’s traditional role as protectors of women. Among its propositions are that women “prefer the smell of dominant males, more masculine male faces, and men behaving more dominantly when at peak fertility than at other times during their menstrual cycle”.
It also uses violent clips from films including a scene from Goodfellas that shows violence as sexually attractive to women, and Knowland quotes disputed figures about how male rape in prison outstrips the number of male-on-female rapes outside of it.
These are not his personal views, he says. He believes that “the sexes are of equal moral worth and dignity”, describing himself as “an equity feminist”. It was instead intended as a counterbalance to “the orthodox narrative” that boys are given throughout their five years at Eton.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that the boys are given half-day training sessions by an external organisation called the Good Lad Initiative,” Knowland argues, in his first full media interview on the furore with Times Radio. “That has been described by one of its former members as encouraging boys to see themselves through the prism of toxic masculinity and dysfunction.
“Now I don’t think it is fair or responsible to encourage boys to see themselves in this way exclusively. I think they should also be given counterarguments. So the aim was to provide a counterweight to what they are normally taught”.
The lecture was for a course for Year 12 boys (C Block, in Eton parlance) called C Perspectives, in which boys are actively encouraged to critically disagree with material put before them. Knowland initially intended the lecture to be delivered as one of two, with another member of staff making the opposing case to Knowland’s provocation. “Every word of it was approved by a senior female master,” Knowland says.
Then another member of staff lodged a complaint, and Knowland was told that the lecture was cancelled. So he posted it on YouTube so the boys could view it there and was ordered four times by the head master to remove it, in spite of a disclaimer on it that it did not represent Eton’s views. He refused.
Ironically, it was Knowland’s free thinking that got him the job at Eton that he adores. Comprehensive-educated (before winning a scholarship to a private school) and thick set, Knowland doesn’t have the appearance of a traditional Eton beak. He always wanted to teach and mentored young offenders while at university. From there he worked on a building site after completing teacher training and got his first job at a secondary modern in Kent.
He then moved to Highgate School, where he saw an English teacher’s position at Eton advertised, and was initially attracted to the idea of working at a boarding school to end his long daily commutes from Kent.
“I was told I didn’t have the right accent and didn’t know anyone at Eton, so I didn’t have a chance,” he recalls. He caught the head of English’s eye at his interview when he defied the norm by turning up with no lesson plan and suggesting instead that they discuss a poem (about tradition and heritage, by Helen Pinkerton).
His chutzpah impressed and in 2012 he become one of Eton’s youngest full-time masters, aged 26, and coached rugby and shot put. “I was really happy, I thought it a really exciting challenge,” he recalls. “I also love lots of sports too and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the boys.”
He confesses to still struggling with Eton’s uniform of black morning coat and a stiff collar. “I never quite got the hang of tying a white tie. Some of the older masters can now do it with one hand walking down the street.”
Knowland is a strong believer in what has been the Eton way for centuries, of vigorously encouraging boys to learn by debate and challenge, of each other and their masters. He describes controversy as “essential to any kind of genuine education,” adding: “It’s the clash of ideas that education really depends upon and actually thrives in.”
With controversy comes offence. But freedom of expression should always top being offended, as long as it remains legal, Knowland says. “Why purely because one person finds it offensive should it not be game for discussion and debate? This is an important idea. Do we limit the range of ideas that we can study in educational institutions, based on one person’s line being crossed into the realm of offensiveness? If we start down that road, where do we stop? Do we not allow boys to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird, or Mein Kampf?”
It is that modern-day conundrum that pitted Knowland into a head-on clash with Henderson and the progressive direction that Eton’s head since 2015 intends to take the school in.
Even when it became clear that the row could end in his dismissal, Knowland wouldn’t back down over the video (which has now been viewed on YouTube 173,000 times). “I wanted a reason to understand exactly what invisible tripwire I’d crossed. If you look at the importance of debate to Eton’s history, and think about the fact that every boarding house has a room for debate in it, and we’ve got overtones like George Orwell saying that if liberty means anything at all, it means the liberty to tell people what they might not want to hear. I think you can see why so many people in the Eton community feel very strongly about this.”
Knowland is not alone in his fight. His dismissal exploded enduring tensions at the school about its new direction and leadership. There were bitter protests from the common room, and the master in charge of the C Perspectives course immediately resigned from the position.
A letter written to Eton’s provost, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, by some of its boys, countersigned by more than 3,000 other Eton boys, parents and old boys, demanded Knowland’s reinstatement. A series of prominent Old Etonians, led by the former Conservative minister Lord Bellingham, have threatened to withhold £2 million in funding from the school unless Henderson resigns. Government ministers have even written to Knowland to pledge their support, he reveals.
“When the story first broke, there were lots of emails coming through.”
From ministers as well as MPs? “Yes.”
Were there any from anyone in the cabinet? “I’d rather not comment, but there are plenty of people who feel very strongly about this, and see it having ramifications far beyond Eton.”
Knowland reveals that he is taking his fight to court. Next week he will file a claim against Eton at an employment tribunal for discrimination of philosophical belief. He is also considering a defamation suit against Henderson personally, as well as Waldegrave.
Knowland claims that Henderson “insinuated there might be something else” to his dismissal on top of the video and a rumour spread that he may have been fired for sexually abusing boys at Eton. Waldegrave fanned the flames of the damaging gossip, Knowland claims.
He explains: “This ‘something else’ rumour was, in my opinion, particularly damaging in the context of the most recent suspended master, Matthew Mowbray, who was recently sentenced for sexual crimes involving children. It would have been helpful to have made a public statement at that stage, saying there was no ‘something else’, but that didn’t happen. Mowbray was the last master to be suspended, with no comment why, and the boys remember that. I regard it as reckless and injurious, not just to me but to the reputation of the college.”
The college said in a statement: “Any suggestion that the school or the head master ever implied or suggested that Mr Knowland’s dismissal related to anything other than the content of his video lecture and his refusal to temporarily remove the video is categorically untrue. The provost wrote to pupils, parents and staff to explain the decision and the school has made clear public statements on the matter.”
In what will prove a very bloody airing of Eton’s dirty washing, fellow masters have also agreed to give evidence in support of Knowland. But if he cares so much about Eton’s world-renowned reputation, does he really want to drag it through a very ugly public fight?
He replies: “I think the main thing that has damaged the college’s reputation is the refusal to stand up for the college’s own aims and ethos by having this debate. I requested for somebody to give a counterargument while I was delivering the lecture, because I think that would show the college making a stand against this encroaching cancel culture. I’ve had many messages of support from teachers in the UK and also abroad, saying they feel Eton has let down not only itself but British education, which it’s seen as being a bastion of. I think greater courage is needed and the institution has lost his nerve.”
So is Knowland happy to be seen as a martyr for free speech? “I don’t see myself as a martyr, that’s not what I set out to be. I think what’s really going on is that I’ve got a strong belief in the principle at stake. It is something that I was willing to lose my job over. It has nothing to do with the Equality Act. Eton’s own internal policy is being used to stifle debate here. Eton’s soul is at threat.”
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