Just what is the special Eton magic that allows it to turn out epic oafs year after year?

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Catherine Bennett
Who can blame these emotionally stunted old boys from defending an indefensible teacher?
Back view of Eton boys wearing tails and pinstriped trousers
Eton boys: ‘Unbelievably assured and yet so ordinary.’ Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Stock Photo
Eton boys: ‘Unbelievably assured and yet so ordinary.’ Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Stock Photo
Sun 13 Dec 2020 03.00 EST

‘An elephant sea cow will cry out in protest if a low-ranking male tries to mate with her, summoning all the males within earshot to come and fight over her.”

How like women! Or “human women”, as we are known to Will Knowland, the Eton English teacher who is, notoriously, fighting dismissal for not having taken down when the school requested it his YouTube lecture, “The Patriarchy Paradox”, featuring the above sea cow reference. (The title seems to be lifted from a popular Times report about some – contested – research suggesting that more sexually equal societies may foster increasingly gendered thinking.)

Old boys have joined forces with familiar anti-woke suspects and – until last week – Johnnie Boden and Stephen Pinker, to protest that Knowland had every right as an Eton teacher to disseminate his weird talk, and that preventing him is censorship. The other side, possibly more alert to non-Etonian developments since 1918, appears to have spotted that Knowland could have made his argument elsewhere, even after Reddit banned incels.

Elephant sea cows are expected to be the next extramural group involved, on the basis that Knowland has entirely misrepresented their mating behaviour to suit his tiresome “deadlier than the male” agenda. Could he not have stuck with male-eating spiders, like a normal misogynist?

For the rest of us, “The Patriarchy Paradox” is surely more useful, offering as it does the beginnings of an answer to one of the great questions about Eton: what process repeatedly produces disasters on the scale of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Jacob Rees-Mogg? If we knew, we might be better able to protect ourselves. Anyone who met Etonians at university will probably have wondered at some point what went on for five years to leave many of them both so unbelievably assured and yet so ordinary. Thanks to Knowland, everyone now has some insight into Cameron’s humming.

Yes, the lecture definitely makes you think. Is it normal, inside boys’ boarding schools, to learn, as we do from Knowland, who confidently mangles the historical record for this purpose, that women’s suffrage was a fuss about nothing? “Regarding the vote,” he says, “women have always had it at the local level.” On masculinity: “You might think that a real man prizes showing vulnerability and talking about his feelings or wearing rainbow laces, but he can’t do that if he’s dead.” As for unfairness: “Throughout history, women have been spared the worst work.” Childbirth? “It demands great courage of women,” Knowland concedes, adding, in a way that possibly makes sense to a classically educated male audience, “but you can’t lose childbirth by running away.”

Just a few minutes of Knowland are enough to make you wonder if something as horrifying as Boris Johnson is less the outcome of a rarefied, all-boys culture in which customs, costumes and ancient buildings add refinement to pedagogy, and more that of cramming the already privileged occupants of this theme park with twisted proofs of their own superiority. Actually, any school that still excludes girls should by now have sacrificed all intellectual pretensions, but Eton benefits, with loyal PR from prominent old boys, from being treated reverently, more like the royals or the Proms than as a school, as if unalterable.

There is no shortage, of course, of existing, some of them fine, accounts of Eton life. Thanks to these memoirs, it’s easy to feel that you know more about the school, from basic survival mechanisms to its special game, its Founders’ Day hats, the unforgettable joys of Pop, than you recall about your own school – not that this matters, because nobody wants to hear about it, nor the effortless superiority it mysteriously failed to instil, generation after generation. But what makes even cooler accounts unintentionally promotional is that, when they come from writers as brilliant as Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and, more recently, James Wood writing in the LRB, they afford the school a cultural importance that could seem to compensate for its grosser products, and even for the trauma at the heart of the boarding school experience.

In contrast, the conspicuous feature of Knowland’s lecture, even if it makes viewing near-unendurable, is its crudeness and bias as it illustrates what sort of values might still be inculcated inside traditional boarding schools, far from parental or other scrutiny. I wonder if even Professor Pinker struggled through to the final minutes, where, via some selective name dropping, the speaker associates feminism with paedophilia, and declares: “Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical and mental health on average than do children in other family forms.”

Did Knowland know – to borrow his catchphrase – when he broadcast on ideal child rearing, that an Eton housemaster, Matthew Mowbray, had recently been charged with sexual assaults on pupils? Only a week before Knowland’s martyrdom made headlines, Mowbray was found guilty of sexually abusing boys in his care, one of whom said he would “freeze” during night-time visits. In Mowbray’s defence, his solicitor said he had banned a form of hazing, tolerated by predecessors, where new boys were made to dance for older ones.

Eton parents will know from Nick Duffell’s work on boarding school syndrome, if not from experience, that this separation leaves children “ill-prepared for relationships in the adult world and the nation with a cadre of leaders who perpetuate a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny affecting the whole of society”. They can see Johnson. They presumably also accept, given the absence of indignant letters and petitions about Mowbray, that truly devious child abusers still occasionally escape detection in boarding schools.

But how do parents reconcile their ambitions with today’s equivalent to Wackford Squeers – a video in which a boarding school teacher celebrates male violence and pronounces women’s inferiority therefore a given? The most hardened elephant sea cow would cry out in protest.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist