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The quiet revolution

'Battle of Ideas' at the RCA

Jennifer Rohn 3 December 2006

Sedate: the venue worked against it

When the Internet was formed in the Cold War, nobody predicted that fourteen-year-olds would be typing in ‘hot Russian babes’

When I think of intellectualism, I conjure up a late 19th century smoky café in some seedy quarter of Paris, where passionate thinkers quaff absinthe and thick coffee, share passionate ideas about science, art, poetry and philosophy and come to blows over their deepest beliefs.

As an American expatriate, one of the first things that most struck me about the intellectual scene in London was the overt supremacy of the Panel Discussion. Surely the antithesis of Paris cafés, this humble British institution of brainy discourse usually takes place in a brightly lit university classroom. Three experts, sitting at the front, politely agree with one another or gently spar over minor differences. The discussions, though interesting, tend to elicit only a few questions from the audience – and perhaps a shy show of hands if polled by a desperate panelist. Hardly revolutionary material.

In my view, a truly natural discussion can’t thrive in such an artificial environment, which needs dark intimacy to foster the necessary ambience. A drink doesn’t hurt either. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the main space of London’s Dana Centre (a venue dedicating to bringing science to the masses) was actually designed as a bar, and one of its event programmers told me that that they had recently abolished panel discussions altogether. In this regard, the Dana is way ahead of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution (although the RS compensates for the conventional lecture set-up by being drenched in prestige and history, and the RI has a pretty swanky library that serves drinks).

With all this in mind, I was curious to see what the Battle of Ideas was all about. For those of you not familiar with this event, it’s an entire weekend of intellectualism brought to you by the Institute of Ideas. The IOI, a quasi-libertarian organization founded in 2000 by the remnants of the Living Marxism movement, is dedicated to fostering “the legacy of the Enlightenment”, including science, education, curiosity, free speech, knowledge for knowledge’s sake and unconditional civil liberties. Their website is pretty fiery, and the Royal College of Art foyer was buzzing with interesting-looking and animated people. But when I went into my first debate, I was disappointed to find a bright, stuffy classroom – fronted by a panel.

The discussion began: ‘What Is Innovation For?’ A good chunk of time was spent on semantics, attempting to define what the word ‘innovation’ actually means to various stakeholders – dull but arguably necessary. Next, panelists wondered whether global warming was today’s catalytic Sputnik, how to mine all the lost knowledge stuck in forgotten academic journals, how patents might be used to foster, not stifle, invention, and how to encourage Britain to innovate for its own sake because you never know what your invention might be used for in the future. As one of the panelists, Professor Jeremy Myerson, put it: “When the Internet was formed in the Cold War, nobody predicted that fourteen-year-olds would be typing in ‘hot Russian babes’.”

Unlike most panel discussions I’ve attended, the audience participation was brisk, with more people wanting to ask questions than time allowed. Still, there was that familiar congenial, preaching-to-the-converted feel I’ve come to associate with the genre. This vibe carried on into the next session, about space travel, where we heard about the ‘Google Earth Syndrome’ (nobody wants to go into space because we feel as if we are up there already, apparently), Manifest Destiny as applied to the universe, the psychology of moon landing conspiracy theorists, and how we need more astronaut heroes. There was much talk of the ethics of terraforming Mars, with one audience member wondering: “If we can terraform other planets, why can’t we just terraform the earth after it’s knackered?”

The final session I attended, about science education, finally manifested some true disagreement among both the panel and the audience, no doubt inflamed by the recent announcement of a controversial new plan to revamp Britain’s science curriculum. Finally, some raised voiced, red faces and the occasional burst of applause. Physics teacher David Perks did a great job defending the importance of equipping kids with scientific facts, criticizing the new curriculum’s desire to make kids into “science consumers”, not scientists, and objecting violently to “the prostitution of science to another purpose”. Meanwhile panelist Michael Reiss, a slickly political professor of science education, argued that fourteen-year-olds have been bored stiff by science and have been leaving in droves, so making the courses ‘issues-based’ is the only option. (As he spoke, a row of teachers behind me was practically seething in anger.)

The extremes of opinion were best demonstrated by two audience members, an A-level student and an adult artist. The student stood up and explained that kids were tired of being underestimated and subjected to dumbed-down science: “It’s so patronizing that adults think that kids can’t be interested in anything and can’t handle rigor.” She also noted that whenever adults try to ‘relate’ to kids by making topics seem ‘cool’, it all backfires as being completely obvious and cringe-worthy. The artist, on the other hand, said that no student of any age should be exposed to science if he didn’t want to be – why should science be mandatory and not the arts? What makes science so much more important?

The verdict? An afternoon well spent, and some new things to think about. Nevertheless, the event didn’t provide much more intellectual grist than, say, a spontaneous chat in the pub with friends. In fact, some of my best discussions have taken place after midnight in the bar of the Institute for Contemporary Arts – completely ad hoc and only £2 to get in.