Harry Mount

Six rules for picking the wokest school

Six rules for picking the wokest school
Illustration by Anna Trench
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One of the great advantages private schools offer is an ability to change with the times. While some hold on to traditional notions, many are adapting nimbly to the new woke world — expunging their problematic historical figures and educating pupils in the new equivalent of U and Non-U. But how do parents ensure their little treasures aren’t triggered and are always confined to the safest of spaces? Here, then, is our guide to the wokest schools.

Rule one: lots of schools were woke decades ago

At my alma mater, Westminster, the history curriculum was pretty much decolonialised in the 1970s by left-wing teachers. An Old Westminster told me that, when he was at the school 50 years ago, there was a lurch to the left in the history department, which meant colonial history was off the menu. Certainly, by the time I was at Westminster in the late 1980s, the teaching was excellent but colonialism-free. I studied Richard III, the Russian Revolution and the second world war — but not the British Empire.

Rule two: be on the lookout for lessons called Perspectives

In the row over the sacking of Will Knowland, the Eton master, for refusing to take down a YouTube lecture on masculinity, there was a telling detail.

For centuries, Etonians have called lessons ‘divs’, short for divisions. But Knowland’s lecture on YouTube was also an online school lecture in its ‘Perspectives’ course for boys in their penultimate year.

As Francis Emerson, an Old Etonian taught by Knowland, wrote: ‘Perspectives… included speakers advocating the criminalisation of abortion, making the case for the moral propriety of the British Empire, and harshly criticising the American government for its historical aggression in foreign affairs.’

All this is a valuable example of pupils being taught opinions rather than pointless, hard-to-remember facts. Knowland’s lecture was a fine piece of dim, low-wattage agitprop — short on intellect, long on tendentious academese. Keep up the good work!

Rule three: protest, protest, protest

Forget studying the best of what’s been said or thought in previous centuries. The best schools celebrate the causes of today.

So, at Eton in 2020, wrote Francis Emerson: ‘Different days were set aside on which the boys were asked to think about what it would be like to have a “protected” characteristic — gay day, transgender day, etc. The school’s director of inclusion wrote a blog post in which she said she’d like to see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the College gateway.’

As L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between (1953): ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there.’ So best just to cancel it altogether.

Rule four: keep an eye out for historical names

Seaford Head School in East Sussex has done some useful work here. And it is the woke pupils who are leading the progressive drive.

In a letter calling for a house not to be named after Winston Churchill, the pupils said that they didn’t want to ‘promote anyone or anything’ that encouraged ‘intolerance and discrimination’.

It isn’t just historical figures who are getting the chop. Seaford Head is also renaming a house originally called after J.K. Rowling. The go-ahead pupils doubted whether she ‘represented the school’s core values’ after the controversial comments she made about transgender issues. In an infamous tweet last year, she questioned the term ‘People who menstruate’: ‘People who menstruate,’ she wrote. ‘I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’

The fashion for cutting historical names from schools is spreading like wildfire. In recent years, six schools have been renamed and eight others have changed the names of their houses and halls. Two schools in England have removed statues. So Haberdashers’ Adams, a Shropshire grammar school, has renamed a house originally called after Clive of India.

The Dragon School in Oxford, one of Britain’s most famous prep schools, alma mater of John Betjeman, Tim Henman and Hugh Laurie, has also joined in with the renaming fervour. One of the boarding houses, Gunga Din, named after the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem, is now called Dragon House.

Who cares that the new name is unimaginative? Who cares that Gunga Din is the hero of Kipling’s poem — the water-carrier who saves the life of the rude Cockney narrator of the poem and, in doing so, dies? Who cares that the final line of the poem is ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’?

The chairman of the governors at the Dragon, Andrew Webb, acknowledged the good intentions of ‘Hum’ Lynam, the Dragon’s headmaster from 1920 to 1942, who named the house ‘Gunga Din’: ‘It is understood that Hum chose Gunga Din as the name given to the boys’ boarding house to highlight the higher ideals of equality, fairness and human dignity; these align with today’s core Dragon values of Kindness, Courage and Respect.’

But, despite Hum’s good intentions and Gunga Din’s heroism, the name had to go, Webb wrote, because ‘sadly the term “Gunga” has become derogatory, and even used as a racial slur’. This is a rare reversal of the usual cancel culture, where the past is cancelled because its mores don’t match today’s. In this instance, good intentions a century ago are cancelled because modern nastiness obliterates them.

Rule five: worship St Greta

Howden Junior School, East Yorkshire, has cancelled the wicked old house names: Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Nelson and Francis Drake. Instead, they’ll be named after Malala Yousafzai, Marcus Rashford, Amanda Gorman (the poet who spoke at President Biden’s inauguration) and Greta Thunberg.

The head, Lee Hill, acted after a former pupil condemned the ‘despicable deeds’ of Nelson et al. Hill said none of the pupils knew who these figures were, anyway, because they weren’t on the curriculum. Full marks for neglecting famous bits of history.

Rule six: look out for Latinate buzzwords

If you want a shortcut to a woke school, look out for general positive words that have the right scientific, neutral feel conferred by Latinate and Greek-derived buzzwords. Thus Andrew Webb referred to the Dragon School’s ‘ethos of inclusivity and diversity’.

The only problem is that, in order to select those mighty Latinate words, you might have to learn a bit of Latin — and that brings on horrible connotations of the bad old days when facts, not opinions, were taught at school.