• Reading Level 5
Geography | Citizenship

Fierce row over free speech at top school

Is Eton suppressing free speech? Tomorrow, Britain’s most elite school will face an appeal from a teacher it says it had no choice but to fire – over a controversial anti-feminist video. At his home near the picturesque English town of Windsor, the teacher sat at his desk, opened his laptop and pressed record. But this was not another Zoom lesson or online tutorial. In a rambling 30-minute lecture posted on YouTube, Will Knowland, an English teacher at Britain’s prestigious Eton College, argued that, far from being a toxic stain on society, the patriarchy is actually a force for good. In the lecture, Knowland espouses views that many today consider abhorrent. He argues that women are to blame for the patriarchy because they prefer strong men over weak ones, and provides dubious statistics on issues such as rape. The decision to upload the video, and his refusal to take it down, had drastic consequences for the tutor: Knowland was sacked after two lawyers concluded that the lecture broke equality law. It is a move that has provoked outrage among pupils and parents alike, who accuse the school of censorship. More than 2,000 pupils and alumni have signed a letter calling for Knowland’s reinstatement. And another member of staff, theology teacher Luke Martin, has resigned from his position as “Head of Perspectives” in protest, accusing the headmaster of promoting progressive ideology in a style akin to “religious fundamentalism”. Indeed, from schoolchildren to politicians, many are rushing to defend the teacher. “Schools must be places where children are taught all sides of these big questions and allowed to make up their own minds,” said Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union. Some commentators go even further – it is the legislation that is wrong, not Knowland, says former MP Ann WiddecombeA Conservative MP (1987-2010), she became a Brexit MEP in 2019. She has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and collects soft toys.: “The only guilty party is the law itself: oppressive, anti-libertarian and lacking in proportionality.” One thing is clear: as the row hits national headlines, Eton’s headmaster is feeling the heat. Simon Henderson became the youngest head in Eton’s history when he was appointed five years ago. Since then, he has gone on a modernising mission, keen to shake off the school’s elitist image. He turned over its facilities to key workers in the first lockdown and pledged £100m to help disadvantaged children. But now some say “Trendy Hendy” has gone too far. Eton has a long history of exposing its pupils to controversial ideas. The school has hosted everyone from Julian Assange to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It even has a debating hall modelled on the bouleuterion in the ancient Greek city of Priene. In the description on his YouTube video, Knowland quoted a member of the school’s own alumni, George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Yet Eton’s provost has hit back at critics. “Eton will never cancel debate,” said Lord Waldegrave last week. But, he added: “everyone accepts that such freedom cannot be absolute”. For now, Will Knowland’s fate hangs in the balance: an appeal hearing will not make a final decision until tomorrow. So, is Eton suppressing free speech? Eton mess Yes, say some. Knowland’s lecture may be offensive to some, but his views should be heard. If he is silenced, his ideas cannot be interrogated. Eton has been at the forefront of free speech for 580 years – it should not insulate its students from controversy now. As journalist Sarah Vine says: “No one in an open society, least of all a teacher, should be punished for pushing boundaries.” No, say others. The boys at Eton today will become the men of tomorrow. Knowland’s lecture contains misogynistic ideas – and many of his claims are without evidence. He may have the right to express any opinion in public – but he does not have the automatic right to be a teacher at Eton. And the headmaster’s hands were tied – lawyers concluded the speech broke regulations. KeywordsPatriarchy - A system of society where men hold power and women are excluded.

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