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The Dragon school’s bizarre decision to ban Gunga Din

Why do schools want to erase the past?

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

Why should radical leftists bother destroying institutions when the establishment will do the work for them? The governors of the Dragon, the prep school in north Oxford, have decreed that one of its boarding houses, Gunga Din, shall now be known as Dragon House. Presumably no consultancy fees were incurred for that name.

In a letter to Old Dragons, which as an alumnus I received, the chair of governors, Andrew Webb, sets out the wonderful contortions that led the board to the decision. The name was originally chosen by ‘Hum’ Lynam, headmaster from 1920 to 1942, from Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem. The poem’s hero is a regimental bhisti (a water-carrier) in the service of the British military in India, whose activities are narrated from the view of a British soldier. Despite being insulted by the soldiers, Din performs his duties until the last, when he is shot while treating our narrator. In the final line of the poem he acknowledges the Indian’s worth, saying: ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’

According to Webb: ‘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 here’s the twist: ‘Sadly the term “Gunga” has now become derogatory, and even used as a racial slur. Such potentially offensive language is against the Dragon’s ethos of inclusivity and diversity. Kipling’s poem was of its time and… it is no longer appropriate to continue using the name Gunga Din.’ It is pure madness to acknowledge that the naming was entirely benign and yet justify changing it anyway.

Let’s start with the specifics. An internet search for ‘Gunga’ or ‘Gunga Din’ as a term of abuse yields only two results. In 1997, the Independent reported that an Asian fireman won a discrimination case against Gloucestershire Fire Service; his workmates nicknamed him Gunga Din and left him in the station to make tea when they went out on call. More recently, in 2009, the Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow wrote an unsolicited blog apologising ‘more than I can say’ for ‘never check[ing]’ the poem in adulthood and ‘affectionately dub[bing]’ a young colleague with the name many years before. By the standards of today’s offence diviners, we should expect Mr Snow to be unemployed by next week. Sorry Jon.


So much for Din. But follow the governors’ rationale and it becomes absurd. Any word is potentially offensive; it just needs to catch on. If Black Lives Matter activists prevail and statues of Mary Seacole spring up everywhere, the counter–revolutionaries need only start dubbing black nurses ‘Seacoles’ and the statues will have to come down. If you want to cause trouble for Her Majesty, then get ‘Buckingham’ into the dictionary as a slur word. Or indeed if you are one of those nasty people who often ponders how the alumnus of such a wet school as the Dragon became the current commissioner of the Met Police, why should you have to think of the male member? Should Cressida Dick not be forced to change her name by deed poll to, say, Cabbage to preserve public decency? By this logic, the names of the present are prisoners of the people of the future.

Clearly, however, there is little logic at play. This is one of the weirder attempts to sanitise the present by obliterating the past. Under the newly installed Dragon headmaster, the innocently named Crispin Hyde-Dunn, alumni have been treated to updates about the ‘virtual holistic curriculum’ and the ‘development of a growth mindset’. Even the headmaster of Eton, Simon Henderson (who attracted the moniker ‘trendy Hendy’ in his time as a mere master), has fallen for the same trend, pledging ‘to decolonise the curriculum’.

What is the mindset of the person who joins an institution only to proceed to dismantle it? Why can’t he just build his own? In his 1926 book On Education, Bertrand Russell writes about cultivating constructiveness in children. Construction and destruction both ‘satisfy the will to power’, but destruction is easier. Children initially like knocking down others’ sandcastles or towers, but once they learn how to make their own they hate to see their efforts ruined. Many virtues arise from enjoyment of construction — respect for the labour of others, incentives to patience, persistence and observation. Russell argues that in the later years of education, social constructiveness is to be stimulated so that a man is more likely to see society as a tree, rather than a mould or machine. Trees of course will lose branches or become rotten and likewise some traditions naturally become obsolete or fall out of use. But like a tree, an institution has an essential core and a specific nature, achieved over time.

What is to be done when the childish tree-cutters reach the pinnacle of institutions? Firstly, it’s important to understand the scale and the extent of the felling. The thinktank Policy Exchange is doing exactly this with its new History Matters Project, which aims to catalogue changes to cultural and educational institutions and to public space.

But members of institutions can vote with their feet, and with their wallets. In the letter to Dragon alumni, Webb expressed gratitude for donations to hardship and bursary funds. Alumni who are dismayed by the Gunga Din nonsense ought to pledge to withhold any future donations (and withdraw any outstanding), and not attend any alumni events. Current parents, who apparently were not consulted over the name change, could collectively withhold fees. See how quick the reverse ferret is then.

It is somewhat painful to be disloyal to an institution of which I am fond — essentially a glorified holiday camp with a brilliant education attached — and I shall remain eternally grateful to Roger Trafford for judging that I might benefit from it and assisting my single mother with a generous bursary. But all virtues have their limits. The school has a great motto, Arduus ad solem, liberally translated as ‘strive to the sun’. It is a shame that it now strives towards stupidity.

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