by Sherbhert Editor
Freedom of thought at Eton

Stifling debate, calling out or “cancelling” people who do not agree with them and having them removed from employ, or frightening them into passivity, are tools, and maybe objectives, of the more aggressive and illiberal of the woke. Recent journalism has recalled how the Guardian writer, Suzanne Moore, was forced off the newspaper by colleagues who disliked her writing that trans women and biological women are not the same, and so declared their office an unsafe place for trans people. Commentators such as Trevor Philips are despairing of how discussion and tolerance are retreating in the face of fear of the woke.

Substantial attention has been given in the press in the last week of November and beyond to the Head Teacher of Eton and his sacking of a senior English teacher, Will Knowland. His mistake had been to craft a video lecture on the special virtues of masculinity, such as courage, and apparently suggesting that a world without men would be bad for women.  A single member of a minority group objected, and so the teacher was banned from delivering it to senior Eton boys. But he published it as a video on his personal YouTube, and when ordered to remove it, refused to do so. That was the offence which cost him his job. No doubt the Head Teacher took legal advice and acted on it as he judged fit. However, it is reported that the Head Teacher has been challenged by, among others, over a quarter of the pupils at Eton in a petition: “The boys perceive a hypocrisy on the part of the school about its role in the protection of minorities. Mr. Knowland is being dismissed for having a different view to the view of the majority. His view is not uncommon or exceptional. It is simply different”. Apparently, the Head Teacher’s policy is to censor anything that can be deemed “hostile” by any single member of any of the school’s designated minority groups. Is not censorship of anything that a single person finds offensive a dangerous policy – hardly objective and hardly likely to build the resilience to survive in a world where , in order to survive, a person must be able to cope with insult. (It is interesting to note perhaps that Cambridge University governors are now proposing a code of conduct requiring “respect” for all opinions. This has drawn wide criticism  that it would be better to require “tolerance” instead: because, for example, if a person espouses a pro Brexit view, it would be odd for a leaver to have to respect that opinion, but they should tolerate it while perhaps respecting the person).

The video’s arguments purported to have support from academic sources at least in part. But Robert Crampton of the Times suggests the content of the video is hardly educational and he derides its value. But what does it matter if one agrees or disagrees with its statements of opinion or if some may think the video lacks great substance? Is it not the job of a teacher to educate, to bring out potential, and not to indoctrinate with modern politically correct platitudes? This lecture was apparently designed for a “Perspectives” course for senior boys, almost adults, and such a course contemplates discussion of controversial issues. A lecture, which is designed to provoke pupils into comment and debate, questioning propositions, to listen, think and argue and learn to arrive at well-informed conclusions, would be the food for such a course. If the opinions expressed are not progressive enough, then surely it is for the progressive view to argue its case.

It seems that even the leadership of Eton may be infected with the wokeness which seeks to silence contentious views in the name of protecting minorities from offence. Is this not insulting to minorities who are perfectly able to argue their corner? Censorship is an abandonment of freedom of speech and thought, as well as tolerance which is touted as one of the core British values. This judgement by the Head Teacher has ironically stirred a debate, and so may prove educational by accident.  

It is nevertheless encouraging that at least the pupils of Eton, receiving perhaps the very best of educations available, are demonstrating their learning of values. They have shown an understanding of tolerance of different viewpoints and the fundamental vitality of free speech, so much so that they are willing to publicly stand and criticise the one who has charge over them, risking consequences for their proper beliefs. Perhaps, the UK should be relieved.

The facts of this incident and the reactions it has generated could form an excellent educational workshop to discuss freedoms, the importance of rational and respectful debate, the virtues of listening and discussion, openness and tolerance. Maybe a video could be recorded and made available to all schools, public and private. Perhaps too, the governors of Cambridge University might learn something from it.

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