Sunday, November 29, 2020

A Brilliant Letter From the Boys of Eton in Support of a Fired Teacher

The first 55 seconds of the below video sets the scene: 


Here is a letter from the Boys to the Provost and Fellows of Eton College asking for Will Knowland's reinstatement.
Dear Lord Waldegrave,

The dismissal of Mr Knowland raises a number of concerns for the boys. We perceive in his dismissal some very grave implications about the nature of freedom in this school, and the moral stature of those in charge.

So that you are able to factor these concerns into your judgement of Mr Knowland’s appeal on the 8th, they are particularised in this letter.

The common opinion of the boys is that Mr Knowland presented the ideas in his video with as much academic nuance and sensitivity as could ever be reasonably expected. He makes at least 41 academic citations. His video is arguably a model for how to convey a contentious argument impeccably. We struggle to identify where Mr Knowland’s video steps out of the realms of academic debate and into genuinely discriminatory private opinion. The boys have concluded from watching the video that the problem cannot lie in the way he sets out the ideas, but in the ideas themselves. This dangerous conclusion must not be confirmed by a judgement against Mr Knowland.

Second, 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 very uncommon or exceptional. It is simply different. Mr Knowland’s dismissal presents as a gross abuse of the duty of the school to protect the freedoms of the individual, especially where those freedoms run up against the norms held by the majority. We feel morally bound not to be bystanders in what appears to be an instance of institutional bullying.
Why has the school not extended the protection to Mr Knowland that we hope it would to any boy who voiced a similar idea, be it on religious or secular grounds?
Are the boys also bound by the same restrictions to expression? Should boys who express the same idea as Mr Knowland expect to be similarly dealt with? Is there a difference if this idea is voiced privately, or, as with Mr Knowland, in an academic context?

Third, in a meeting on the 24th of November, the Head Master explained the test that he applies to determine what kinds of ideas are illegal. For him, anything that can be deemed ‘hostile’ by any single member of one of the school’s designated minority groups will be censored. We think this test is too severe. Young men and their views are formed in the meeting and conflict of ideas. A conflict of ideas necessarily entails controversy and spirited discussion. The Head Master’s ‘hostility’ test excludes nearly all of what makes up a liberal education.
How can the school reasonably expect teachers to engage in the promotion of free thought inside and outside of the schoolroom when the consequence of overstepping some poorly-defined line of acceptability is to lose their livelihood and home? Is this not an abuse of power?

Fourth, in a previous meeting with Pop, the Head Master stated his view that female teachers would be in some way ‘compromised’ by having to discuss the video in class. This appeared to be the Head Master’s principal objection to the video. Does this not patronise female staff? The undersigned believe that women are no less equipped than a man to contend for or against the video’s arguments.

Fifth, the school now prides itself on being a more compassionate place. This is justified; any B Blocker’s experience will confirm that the school is more tolerant and understanding than when they first arrived, no doubt as a result of your efforts. However, the dismissal of Mr Knowland – at least on the facts available to the boys – points to a heartless and merciless spirit at the top of the school. Mr Knowland is loved by all who have encountered him. He is an obviously and thoroughly good man. We know he has many children, one of whom is disabled. We are struggling to reconcile the school’s opinion of itself as tolerant or compassionate with this instance of cruelty. Mr Knowland’s dismissal truly seems cruel.

There is a sense that, by dismissing Mr Knowland, the school is seeking to protect its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own. If this is true, it points to a complete lack of moral integrity and backbone.

Sixth, it is not really the concern of the boys to what extent the teachers can feel secure in the school, or be confident in the support of their Leadership Team. However, the dismissal of Mr Knowland sets a precedent that we would imagine the teachers are apprehending with some deal of mistrust and fear. Teachers have privately articulated to many boys their inability to speak up about this and other issues for fear of being dealt with in the same way as Mr Knowland. Is the school content that this is a healthy environment?

Seventh, in the meeting on the 24th of November, the Head Master admitted that Mr Knowland’s video was in fact “not the real problem”, and was not the ultimate reason for his dismissal. The Head Master said that Mr Knowland was dismissed for some action subsequent to the video which could not be disclosed to the boys. In the Head Master’s words: for “what happened after the video”. It has been made clear that this subsequent action was Mr Knowland’s refusal to take down the video from his private YouTube page. We urge the Provost and Fellows to recognise that the rightness or wrongness of Mr Knowland’s refusal to take down the video still consists in the rightness or wrongness of the video itself. If, as the Head Master accepts, the video is “not the real problem”, we struggle to understand where Mr Knowland has done wrong. In sum, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing in the video nor in the declining to remove it at the result of a capricious request.
Moreover, we believe the Head Master should not expect absolute obedience from his staff. They are not children. It is unsurprising that the Head Master has had to resort to punishment and threats to enforce such a style of government.

Those who have signed below do not necessarily support the ideas presented in Mr Knowland’s video. We all, however, support his freedom to express them.

We urge the Provost and Fellows to rule in favour of freedom of thought and expression. We hope that you will rule compassionately, and that you reinstate Mr Knowland.

Yours sincerely,

Knowland's dismissal will be appealed on the 8th of December by the Provost and Fellows.

 -RW

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