The private school dilemma – are toxic cultures of misogyny and racism inevitable?

Sep 9, 2022
Knox Grammar School Sydney building and sports field
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Knox Grammar School, one of Sydney’s top private schools, has hit the headlines this week with several boys suspended or withdrawn after posting “misogynistic, racist and anti-Semitic comments” in an online private chatroom.

This report bears a striking similarity to a 2019 story from Melbourne wherein a group of students from St Kevin’s College, a private school in Toorak, were seen to perform – loudly and boldly – an “offensive” and “misogynistic” chant on a public tram, in front of elderly passengers, young women and children.

Whilst it is easy to dismiss such stories with the comment: “boys will be boys”, the mindset underlying such behaviour clearly reflects a disturbing deficiency in the boys’ up-bringing and education – something that one would not expect from such high-profile private schools.

Perhaps more significantly, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2015 investigated several instances of sexual abuse of Knox boys by their teachers as far back as the 1970s – and a disturbing pattern starts to emerge.

As an old Knox boy myself, I have followed such stories with interest and unease, and my preoccupation has been tinged with an uncomfortable familiarity. I have abiding memories of a culture in which elitism, hubris and “unquestioning competition” were keynotes.

In 1962 my father took up the position of Biology Teacher at Knox and he was offered the opportunity to educate his children there for free. The fees at Knox normally made it accessible only to well-to-do Sydney families and the sons of the Squattocracy. So he put it to me – which did I prefer, Knox or (the alternative) North Sydney Boys High? In my naiveté and inexperience, I had no idea, so I opted to be near Dad and chose Knox, something I think he privately was grateful for, but about which I have always had quiet regret.

I spent six years at Knox. I was an impressionable and shy youth with limited social skills and dwindling self-confidence at that time – not a good mix of qualities in a school that pursued its competitive objectives vigorously. The school motto said it all: Virile Agitur – “the manly thing is being done”.

My abiding memory of the school is of long shady corridors of dark red brick, verdant expanses of lawn, old ivy-covered buildings, unrivalled sports and football fields and a smell of chalk and changing-room sweat. It had that ambience that inevitably accompanies battered school cases and metal lockers lining the hallways. It was bells ringing and empty corridors suddenly bustling with hundreds of pimply youths eager to leave classes, and dragging their heels to the next. It was blazers and boaters, and kilted uniforms for cadets. It was football and cricket and the annual cross-country. It was morning assembly with good old British hymns by Blake and Bunyan, and harangues by the headmaster about the twin evils of smoking and students peroxiding their hair (which the “surfies” of the time were prone to do).

Knox’s ethos was based on affluence and influence, and it aimed to preserve both. It was an elite school, and it bred an elitist spirit. We were firm in our belief in Queen and country, in the Protestant work ethic (which other people called the “Judaeo-Christian ethic”), and the innate right of those with the proper backgrounds, the right connections, and the necessary traits (that is, “leadership qualities”) to dominate. We were British to our bootstraps, Aussies to our chinstraps, and plutocrats to our belt-buckles. We were also a product of “our time”, which at Knox in the 1960s was the 1920s. An intrinsic part of our school uniform was the straw boater – a hat that was popular forty years earlier in the “Roaring Twenties”, and the wearing of which clearly reflected the traditions to which our teachers believed we should aspire. It was all very Goodbye Mr Chips – and not at all appropriate to the “Rebellious Sixties”.

Knox’s students were divided into “houses” for the specific purpose of providing entities to compete against. Hence, the distinction between them and us was drilled into us at an early age as an important lesson for life. We were “the house” or, with that breadth of vision only possible in a private school, “the school”, they were everyone else. We were there to succeed (at sport mainly), they were there for us to beat. There was no other rationale necessary. There was no other rationale possible. There were “leaders” (who became the favourites of influential masters) and “followers” (who lacked the necessary sporting and competitive instincts), and I fell into the latter category.

Not having any sisters, and being a student at an all-male school, I found girls to be a mystery of massive proportions. I had no idea what interested them or motivated them. At home and at school I was taught to defer to them, to give them my seat on the bus, and to regard them with awe; I dutifully complied. The nexus between respect and sexual contact in those days was implicit albeit highly problematic, unlike today when pornography is available on every computer and “sexting” has become commonplace.

As for sex education, well the truth is – I had none. Dad was a Biology teacher, and he had explained to me at length about fertilisation and genetics and meiosis & mitosis, but nothing about sex. At about the age of thirteen I was taken to a “Father and Son” night at a public hall in Lindfield where, with scores of other fathers and sons, we watched a slide show featuring the mechanics of reproduction – cutaways of male and female sex organs, lots of sperm swimming upstream, and pictures of resultant pregnant women. But nothing about sex! Fortunately, in the decade after leaving Knox I was able to learn much about this topic and to discard the prejudices and misconceptions that I had acquired at school.

That seems to be the difference between then and now: in the 1960s we were (generally-speaking) sexually-naïve, and respectful of girls despite the hormones that raged through our bodies. In the 2020s, however, (it appears) teenage boys are vastly informed by the available pornography, and provoked by the seeming availability of access to the female body (both virtually and actually). Such exposure tends to result in a misogyny that is more brutish in nature.

But perhaps that is the nature of the teenage years generally – a well-to-do home-life leads to complacency and self-satisfaction in our social attitudes. We need to experience occasional hardship to feel true empathy – and that is rarely achieved in an affluent environment.

One of the more colourful and flamboyant aspects of life at Knox in the 1960s was the school cadet unit. As an educational institution that supported the conservative free-market policies of a Capitalist society, Knox was keen to promote the merits of our military heritage with all its traditions and conventions. And, in truth, the military ethos was just not too different from the hierarchical organisation of a private school anyway.

A particular activity that reflected the stupidity and the cruelty of boys of teenage years was a practice known as “black-balling”. Some of the more arrogant and supercilious of the senior cadets would choose a victim considered to be a little gauche. They would attack him in the tent-lines or the shower block and hold him down while other boys applied black boot polish to his scrotum. This was considered to be great fun, and a lesson for those who failed to meet the “high standards” expected of us all. I never participated in such things – and I don’t believe it was a common occurrence. But it did happen, and I am sure that the victims were highly traumatised. It would now be called sexual abuse, and categorised as a criminal offence; then it was merely young boys up to “hi jinks”. Thus do psyches become distorted and broken.

I learned little more than the basics at Knox – all tinged with the complacent glow of elitism. Knox taught the basics reasonably well, but anything smacking of “erudition” or “intellectualism” was considered unnecessary for its young plutocrats whose primary purpose on leaving school was “to lead” – in the simplest sense of that word: that is, “to command and control lesser mortals”. A childhood spent at Knox imbued its boys with a certain hauteur, and that was really all that was necessary. We were born to rule – the headmaster told us so.

I have had scant contact with the school since leaving in 1967. Most of my schoolmates came from privileged backgrounds and they rapidly absorbed the lessons that were inherent in merely attending such an institution. Many were scions of rich and powerful families in whom a sense of entitlement became inter-generational. But such ideas did not come so readily to me.

There can be no doubt that the Knox Grammar School of 2022 is firm in its belief that it has changed – that its “Integrated Positive Education” program, and its emphasis on “creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, character, and citizenship” actually do make a difference. Similarly, St. Kevins’ headmaster, Stephen F. Russell, commented that “we have been following through in both a disciplinary and pastoral manner… We have always and will continue to challenge such poor behaviour and misogynistic attitudes through programs at school and with the co-operation of parents.”

I fear, however, that the mindset is too ingrained, and that the mere existence of schools like Knox and St. Kevins inevitably leads to the reality of pupils for whom hubristic ideas (involving such things as misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism) become acceptable.

And that saddens me greatly.


Adrian Lipscomb is a lawyer, travel-writer, academic, and political observer. As a young man he was conscripted into the Army. He then travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for several years before embarking upon university studies. In the 1980s he worked in policy areas with the Department of Defence in Canberra and with the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO – later renamed the Defence Intelligence Organisation). In the 1990s he spent two years in the Solomon Islands under the auspices of Australian Volunteers International (AVI). He moved on to lecture at university, and was the co-ordinating author of the 1998 edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Papua New Guinea. In 2015 he was awarded the OAM. He is currently retired, and lives in Urunga, NSW.

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