We must tread very carefully in discussing the story of Will Knowland, the Eton teacher sacked for disobeying the head’s orders to delete a YouTube lecture in which he defended masculine traits against feminist attack.
When I first read the reports, I thought his dismissal was an all-too-familiar, open-and-shut case of an assault on free speech in the name of political correctness.
Here was yet another great British institution, I thought, reduced to a quivering jelly by the vindictive warriors of the woke brigade, who have so often shown themselves determined to silence any view with which they disagree.
TOM UTLEY: Eton teacher Will Knowland (pictured) was sacked for disobeying the head’s orders to delete a YouTube lecture in which he defended masculine traits against feminist attack
Yet as so often in these cases, the facts may not be quite as straightforward as at first they appeared.
For one thing, it is said that when a female teacher complained about Mr Knowland’s lecture — which contained highly questionable assertions about women and rape, backed by incorrect statistics — headmaster Simon ‘Trendy Hendy’ Henderson sought legal advice.
He was told that the complainant had a prima facie case under the Equality Act, which accords women something like the status of a protected minority.
For what it’s worth, I reckon that if Trendy Hendy had looked further afield, he would have found plenty of lawyers happy to argue that Mr Knowland was within his legal rights to express controversial views to pupils — no matter how bonkers — in the hope of stimulating their minds.
Equally, many would say the school had nothing to fear from the courts if it had allowed him to deliver his talk as he planned.
But even the headmaster of such a proud and ancient institution as Eton can be forgiven for being nervous of breaking the law.
With the school’s welfare in mind, he must also be careful to keep on the right side of the notoriously woke ‘Blob’ of the educational establishment, which has the power to make life extremely difficult for schools, even in the private sector.
Perhaps this helps explain why Mr Henderson has risked infuriating many Old Etonians and parents of boys at the school by imposing a modernising programme, promising to rid the school of ‘toxic’ traditions, working to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum and arranging lectures for staff on the gender pay gap.
He is also reported to have promoted a drama teacher to the achingly politically correct post of Director of Inclusion Education — a woman who wrote a blog for the school’s website earlier this year saying she’d like to see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the college gateway.
Enough to say that the likes of Cherie Blair and Diane Abbott would be proud of Mr Henderson (though less so, many of the parents who stump up £42,500 a year to give their boys a rounded education and a taste of good, old-fashioned tradition).
TOM UTLEY: Mr Knowland’s lecture contained highly questionable assertions about women and rape, backed by incorrect statistics
But 34-year-old Mr Knowland is a stubborn soul, who appears to have no stomach for sucking up to the thought police of the Left.
Though his lecture was never delivered in a classroom, nor did it appear on the school’s own channels, he repeatedly refused to take it down from his personal YouTube account — even on pain of losing his job and the grace-and-favour home he shares with his wife and five children.
Rightly or wrongly, the head decided he had no choice but to sack him — not for expressing incorrect thoughts, but for gross insubordination.
As for myself, I’m in the maddening position of seeing both sides of the argument, and will perch on the fence until after the hearing of Mr Knowland’s appeal.
Just a few observations. One is that if I were a feminist (which Mrs U and our Lefty sons will confirm I’m decidedly not) — I reckon I’d be far less angry about one controversial lecture than about the fact that Eton refuses to admit girls.
Yet this seems not to trouble either Trendy Hendy or the teacher who complained. Indeed, even the school’s Director of Inclusion Education appears content to work for an institution that excludes more than half the school-age population on grounds of sex (and most of the rest on the grounds of their parents’ bank balances).
Then there’s the matter of whether a woman teacher would have been disciplined if she’d delivered a lecture on toxic masculinity, in which she had advanced the feminist argument that all men are rapists at heart.
You have only to put the question to know that the answer is ‘No’.
But though I’m reluctant to hold up Mr Knowland as a wholly blameless champion of free speech, who simply wanted to raise an alternative to woke orthodoxy, I will say one more thing in his defence.
Yes, he sounds like a bit of an oddball —and not only when he quotes approvingly an article that said women want to be ‘overwhelmed by the sheer power of masculinity’.
I also find it mighty odd of this English teacher to post a YouTube video of himself lifting weights.
But then some of the most inspiring people who taught me in my own childhood were wildly eccentric, with views, habits and teaching methods that would be sure to land them in trouble in today’s oppressive climate.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest a degree of eccentricity is a great asset in a schoolteacher.
For the weirdos are the ones who stick in our minds — along with much of what they taught us — while the less colourful the character of a teacher, the less attention children tend to pay to their lessons.
I think of the headmaster of my prep school — a former prisoner of war, who loathed the Germans and Japanese with such a passion that it extended to any Englishman he saw driving a Volkswagen or riding a Honda motorbike. (I dread to think what he would have thought of me today, at the wheel of my beloved Merc).
I wonder what modern LGBT campaigners would have thought of his ‘leavers’ talk’, in which he warned those of us going on to our public schools about the foul diseases we would suffer if we succumbed to the advances of older boys intent on the ‘dreadful crime’ of homosexual activity.
Then there was the Maths master who chain-smoked through his lessons — and another, later, who sang loud snatches of Italian opera as he wrote simultaneous equations on the blackboard.
When I went on to Westminster School, I was taught Latin by a master who used to fine us hard cash if we made mistakes in our weekly tests.
TOM UTLEY: Even the headmaster of such a proud and ancient institution as Eton (pictured) can be forgiven for being nervous of breaking the law
I’m not sure how much effect this had on the richer boys, but it worked wonders for me after the first couple of times I had to walk the four miles home, having been relieved of my bus fare.
Another, the late, great Theo Zinn, would recite from memory long passages from Virgil and Horace.
I can still see him, tears streaming down his cheeks as he delivered the passage from the Aeneid in which Pyrrhus drags Priam trembling and slipping in a pool of his beloved son’s blood.
Thanks to the interest Theo inspired, I am proud to say I myself can recite a few lines of Virgil in Latin. Well, five, to be exact.
Meanwhile, Eton itself has a long tradition of eccentric schoolmasters. Friends tell me of one who kept two Labradors, and would often bark at his dogs, rather than they at him.
Or there was David Cameron’s favourite history teacher, Michael Kidson, who was famous for his vicious insults to his pupils.
He dismissed one Scottish boy as a ‘Hebridean cave-dweller’, while telling a young man from Wales: ‘I make every allowance for your nationality, but this is really not good enough.’
As for the future PM himself, Mr Kidson described the top grade he achieved in an exam as ‘among the most inexplicable events in modern history’.
How long would such teachers survive, in an age when all must win prizes, political correctness is obligatory and hurting a child’s feelings is regarded as one of the most serious crimes in the book?
Dammit, I’m going to come off the fence. By all means, sack Mr Knowland if he’s a bad teacher — though his support from many of his pupils suggests otherwise. But don’t sack him for saying controversial things on the internet, or for being a little mad. The best teachers often are.