You attend Eton College and Cambridge University if you want to learn how to rule. A total of 20 British prime ministers have been educated at Eton, a 580-year-old private school that costs $57,159 per year to attend, and 14 of them studied at Cambridge. Both are prestigious, historic seats of learning that wear their reputation like a badge of honor, and both are currently engulfed by two separate furors about free speech.
We’ll start with Cambridge, where the dustup hinges on a single word. This spring, the university drafted a policy requiring all academics, students, and visiting speakers to be “respectful of the differing opinions … [and] diverse identities of others.” Outraged by the threat this posed to their rights, more than 100 academics furiously demanded that “respectful” be dialed back a fraction of a semitone to “tolerant.”
The argument, they claim, is that a world of difference exists between the two. Respect is earned, whereas tolerance is not. Tolerance is a foundation of liberal thinking, while respect is steeped in dogma. You can satirize things you tolerate, but none that you respect. As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Spectator last week, you don’t find many gangsters who demand tolerance.
“We are fast approaching the point where one of our colleagues is sacked from the University for research or beliefs that ‘disrespect’ a religion,” the academics wrote. “The proposed amendment, though modest, at least removes one of the pretexts on which that could happen.”
More than 100 academics furiously demanded that “respectful” be dialed back a fraction of a semitone to “tolerant.”
Meanwhile, at Eton, things have become slightly less hypothetical. As we speak, pupils are frantically O Captain! My Captain!–ing English teacher Will Knowland, who was recently sacked after creating a lecture entitled “The Patriarchy Paradox.”
The half-hour lecture was written as part of Perspectives, a curriculum designed to introduce older boys to issues that prompt debate and challenge assumptions. Along with “The Patriarchy Paradox,” over the years, the series has also included seminars advocating the criminalization of abortion, and the moral propriety of the British Empire. It might sound hard to believe, but Perspectives has backfired enormously.
In “The Patriarchy Paradox,” Knowland argued that women would be worse off if it weren’t for traditionally masculine men. At one point early in the lecture, Knowland shows a cartoon of a bleach-blond Superman tugging down a pair of underpants to reveal tufts of pubic hair, while an excited child cries, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Non-Binary Superthey!” Knowland comments that “nobody wants to watch films about characters like this.” The fact that Marvel currently has a film in production featuring a trans superhero is presumably neither here nor there.
Slightly more pressing is Knowland’s assertion in the video that “rape is not a unique claim for male oppression of women, because male-on-male rape in jails dwarfs male-on-female rape outside them.” Or his argument when challenged in a comment that “40–60 percent of rape accusations are false.” The F.B.I., for balance, puts the figure closer to 8 percent. Many of Knowland’s initial backers—including Richard Wrangham, a Harvard professor who had written a letter arguing against his dismissal—have since withdrawn their support.
When it was uploaded to the school’s intranet, the lecture prompted a complaint from a staff member. That complaint was investigated, and Eton released a statement acknowledging that, based on legal advice, the video did violate both the Equality Act and the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations. An appeal is now pending.
The complaint was upheld, and the lecture was withdrawn from Eton’s pupils. However, it remained available on Knowland’s YouTube channel, where, having now developed a sheen of rebellion, it has been watched 90,000 times. (For the sake of comparison, this is 85,000 more views than garnered by a video Knowland posted of himself doing dead lifts in the gym.) It is Knowland’s unwillingness to delete the video that has led to his dismissal.
Over the years, the series has also included seminars advocating the criminalization of abortion, and the moral propriety of the British Empire.
Pupils have retaliated with a petition calling for his reinstatement, and it has so far gained more than 2,000 signatories. “Eton has been here for almost 600 years, and this is a battle for its very soul,” one source told the Daily Mail, adding that “George Orwell went to Eton. What would he think? 1984 was meant to be satire, not a how-to manual.”
Some pupils, however, have been more outspoken than others; one was sent home this week after writing an exceedingly Etonish letter demanding that the headmaster be sacked. “Parents, staff and boys have been shocked by your arrogance, laziness and most of all your utter disregard for the school,” he wrote. “If you have any honor at all, you will tender your letter of resignation to the Eton community.”
And now the master in charge of Perspectives, Dr. Luke Martin— outraged at the notion that deliberately teaching boys a series of very bad ideas has somehow gone wrong—has resigned from his post in protest, comparing Knowland’s treatment to “religious fundamentalism,” and stating that he is “beginning to lose faith in the college’s commitment to one of its core aims: that of promoting the best habits of independent thinking in the boys.”
The flap puts Eton headmaster Simon Henderson right in the middle of a tug-of-war between the opposing forces of wokeness and militant free speech. The latter sees Knowland’s removal as further proof of Henderson’s left-wing ideological orthodoxy, following on his vow to re-frame the school’s curriculum to put more focus on the ills of colonialism. The former might argue that, since Eton produced several figures key to the Indian Rebellion, the Zulu War, and the Ambela, Malakand, and Somaliland campaigns, the decision might qualify as too little, too late.
Decisions are due soon on both arguments, but the free-speech debate is now raging so fiercely in both institutions that a neat conclusion seems increasingly unlikely. What you’d give for a little tolerance right now.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL