Battles in Print & Culture Wars
Battles in Print are specially-commissioned essays that explore topics being discussed at the Battle of Ideas, serving as introductions to the debate and encouraging further reflection. Battles in Print take a variety of forms, from short provocation essays to longer think pieces and interviews, and are available both online and in print at the festival itself. They are complemented by themed book reviews on Culture Wars, the Academy of Ideas' online review.
Editors: Dolan Cummings and Sarah Boyes
Select a theme on the left to see related Battles in Print from the archive. You can also narrow your selection by selecting a year below and clicking Go! Or return to the overall index
In truth schools already see themselves as “engines of social mobility”, where children’s failure to achieve is understood as stemming from a home life deficient in parenting skills, knowledge or opportunity. The result is that a teacher’s traditional role of passing on knowledge to the next generation has become a side-act to the demand of creating a fair society, but this is a project in which schools can never succeed
In face of policy rhetoric about the Big Society and ‘people power’, what happens to autonomy and agency when unseen experts and policy wonks seek to subvert competent adults’ decisions about what they eat, how many units they drink or whether they give up time to help the community. Or, if they decide to do these things, should government determine how?
The reasons why people use drugs, and the consequences of taking them, are as varied as the forms of intoxication available. Far from evading the moral arguments, taking a pragmatic and evidence-driven approach enables us to take a morally informed view of the risks involved in their use, and how to safely regulate their consumption
Celebration of small-scale ‘folk’ skills in manufacturing is an understandable response to the dehumanising tendencies of mass manufacturing and successive failures to deliver grand projects. But we shouldn’t forget the large strides ‘thinking big’ gained us and also that much of the time Big IS Beautiful. Just because the world can seem complex, we shouldn’t retreat in to the individual and familiar
This is why Cameron and Co. have been criticised: they’re not members of the ‘ethically sound’ middle classes whose behaviour doesn’t impact on society in a self-interested way. Today, class is still a source of tension. But this is only in terms of the middle class criticising what they see the as the irresponsible self-interest of other classes.
The tyranny of relevance manifested itself quite clearly in the (muted) reaction to the banning of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Education for Leisure from an education board’s syllabus after three people complained about its subject matter during a short-lived media panic about knife crime. None of the few commentators who wrote articles to protest against the ban defended the poem on its literary merit.
The debate about ‘faith’ schools is often about the mistaken idea that ‘faith’ in this context is essentially irrational and a matter of indoctrination of children and young people into a set of unreasoned, if not irrational, beliefs. The popularity of faith schools even amongst people of no belief must mean there’s more to faith schools than this. An Islamic education would be superior to what is now generally on offer in British schools.
While a few of the street artists reach enormous sums at auction and private galleries, they share remarkably close ideas with those who run society and are gatekeepers to our institutions. For all the swaggering there is not so much that separates them.
We need a bit more of Leonard Bernstein’s outlook, that we should be playing music ‘more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before’.
The ‘public feel mistrusted by the government and in turn find government to be unworthy of their trust’, Seldon argues. But this is to get things back to front. It is the breakdown of our trust in the elite and their grappling with the implications of this, which has leaked out into society - not the other way around. Their belated interest in ‘engaging’ our trust – in what are truly ‘superficial encounters’ – is symptomatic of their failure to come up with something in which we might invest our trust in the first place.
From Primark to Prada, designers and retailers are keen to shout about their green, ethical and sustainable credentials almost as much as the clothes themselves. Is the industry’s decision to shift its focus a noble one, or would they do better to get back to making clothes and stop moralising to the masses?
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is also worried the reality of the Holocaust might be too shocking. Whilst ‘there is a wealth of photographic and video evidence of atrocities committed, it is important to remember that you must never dehumanise the victims. Images of corpses and open graves in particular should be avoided.’
Historically, civil engineering strived to make an impressive and positive impact on society. Today however, at least in the UK, its aim has become narrowed to replacing or patching up antiquated infrastructure such as sewage works or railways. Following a spurt of motorway building in the 1960s and 90s, today’s road infrastructure comprises maintenance, widening at pinch points and tinkering around at junctions.
Two members of Gove’s committee illustrate this point. The first is historian Simon Schama. Regardless of his specific historical opinions, Schama has a well-established track record of engaging both the scholarly world and public more broadly. He has plenty to offer. But what Schama lacks, as far as I can see, is any demonstrable record of thinking in a sustained theoretical fashion about the curriculum, or education. He may be a scholar of history, but he’s no theorist of education.
Online engagement is presented by government as ‘empowering’ parents. It’s hailed as a breakthrough in educational ‘transparency’. But using lots of positive words to describe something doesn’t make it positive. In fact, many other measures giving more power to parents could be seriously bad for education.
The real danger is the fallacy of ‘local educational needs’ will give license to a narrow parochialism, when schools are in fact charged with broadening the child’s mind and taking them beyond the limits of the particular locality in which they happened to be raised. If an idea is worth knowing, then surely it’s every pupil’s entitlement, regardless of postcode.
Educators should be wary of the political tendency to seek authority for intervention through multiplying the sources of evidence. Instead, they should start a genuine conversation with the public and teachers. Until then, teachers and parents who New Labour attempted to manage by citing ‘the evidence’ for Assessment For Learning, personalised learning and parenting classes, may again be hemmed in by to international evidence showing everything is better elsewhere.
We know that knowledge and understanding produced the ‘information age’. And it’s knowledge and understanding pupils need if they’re to do anything with ‘information’, or take scientific and technological developments further. We also know the much celebrated ‘special access’ of young people to new technology is a myth.
The Conservatives’ case for subject-based education sounds a little hollow. Concerns over ‘access’ and ‘social inclusion’ still predominate the ideas put forward by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. Even the reform of the National Curriculum includes a predictable call to reduce its content and give teachers space to decide how to deliver it. The omens are not good unless we can make a positive case in favour of liberal education for everybody.
The more we think we know about how best to bring up children the less parents know. Just as thirty years ago child abuse was a clearly defined phenomenon, so it was supposed that all but the most incompetent or malevolent could parent. Today, parenting is fraught with uncertainty. The exceptional case is not the severely abused child, but the perfect model of child development that evidence promises to unveil.
The New Labour government which initiated HMD had a strong belief in multiculturalism. Holocaust memory in the UK was therefore to be a celebration of Britain’s tolerance. Consequently, many monuments established by local communities in 2001 don’t commemorate the Holocaust: they commemorate the first British Holocaust Memorial.
Far from trust in big business being an exception, we can see that trust in society has broken down at almost every level: parliament and politicians, medical and teaching professions, unions, religious bodies and communities. There’s a stark lack of confidence that society can work properly from the local to the national. This general absence of confidence is also manifested in business.
Older people are represented either as vulnerable, marginalised victims and figures of ridicule or heart-warming stories of elite successful ageing. Where is the balance? There’s a reality gap, not only in news values but in society – and consequently reflected in the health and social care professionals recruited from it.
War crimes courts effectively provide a legal licence for intervention. During the Kosovo conflict it was the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that gave NATO a judicial seal of approval. It indicted the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, at the height of the bombing campaign.
Yet for those concerned about the environment, the staycation forms part of a wider, thoroughly positive promotion of localism. Prince Charles owns a 40 year old Aston Martin that runs on bioethanol made entirely from wine. He also recently announced his ‘Start’ environment campaign to urge on certain lifestyle changes, including holidaying closer to home.
The government have long recognised that the middle classes are the heaviest drinkers yet placing a minimum cost on the price of alcohol only penalises the less well off. This smacks more than a little of snobbery, particularly when the government have made a point of depicting the problem drinkers as the ‘yoof’ and those on lower incomes.
A critical appraisal of the Lib-Cons’ new White Paper published in June of this year, Equity and excellence: liberating the NHS. This continues the same trends seen under New Labour. Rather than than liberating the NHS, the Lib-Cons want to stifle it in futher bureacracy in the name of offering greater ‘choice’. The wider public should challenge the patronising and undemocratic nature of these proposals.
Preventing teenage pregnancy has become the lynchpin of the argument for moving sex, relationships and parenting education to a more central position in the national curriculum and organising youth-oriented community projects around sexual health. These developments are usually justified by the idea Britain has a particularly dysfunctional attitude to sex that needs correcting for us all to develop ‘healthy’ sexualities.
The UK’s relative distancing from traditional production means that offering a final product, in the form of the traditional completed journalistic story that takes a definitive stance on the world, ceases to be socially meaningful in the way it has been historically. So, who needs journalism today?
What’s distasteful about the discussion of fatherhood today is it assumes fathers can’t relate to their children without being told what to do. Instead, they’re offered leaflets as part of the antenatal information on how to be a father. It’s problematic that looking after your family by going out to work, and seeing your role in the family as the stoic, less emotive one is disparaged.
But the current enthusiasm for common ownership does not come from those sectors of society who have traditionally seen common ownership as some kind of limited defence against capitalism, but rather it comes from within society’s elite. Indeed, even David Cameron is said to be keen on promoting common ownership as part of his ‘Big Society’.
Anyone flipping through the pages of a major broadsheet could be forgiven for thinking that there would be no crises if it weren’t for ‘greedy bankers’, no mental illness if it weren’t for ‘envy’, that everything would be fine if only people could be taught the skills of happiness, show more gratitude, empathy, lower their expectations and be content with less.
‘Happiness’ however is not an accidental choice; it is carefully selected because it suggests acceptable and undemanding offerings. In that respect, happy architecture is not more challenging that its culinary equivalent, the Happy Meal. It suggests convenience and availability but doesn’t promise much by way of quality.
What immediately springs to mind when somebody mentions archaeology? - a heavily bearded amateur standing in a muddy field carrying a metal detector? Tony Robinson getting worryingly over-excited by a piece of Roman pottery? Indiana Jones venturing through a long forgotten tomb in search of invaluable treasure?
‘Have you noticed that these day liberalism itself often conveys a negative association? It has even been turned into an object of hate – ‘neo-liberalism’...Liberty is rarely promoted as a living value; instead, it is associated with ancient and quaint attitudes held by old fashioned people.’
The rise and growing pervasiveness of ‘Elf-and-Safety cannot be understood properly by either right-wing or left-wing thinking. Rather than representing the excesses of the Nanny state on the one hand, or a neoliberal assault on the welfare state on the other, we should ask instead why people so willingly defer to such frequently daft rules in the first place. People of all political traditions and none should see there is something amiss with deferring to the supreme value of safety in our everyday lives.
Many commentators assume that China will become the next world superpower. This may be a premature assessment. As Judo players know, size can be a weakness rather than a strength. It is the spirit of freedom that made America great historically, and it is this that will determine to whom the twenty-first century belongs.
Is feudal ritual really a convincing model for contemporary revolution?
The case for rethinking poppy day to acknowledge the reality of war
Whilst all work and no play is not a recipe for anyone’s good health, nor is the one-sided encouragement by many to ‘stay at home’, metaphorically and, for some, literally.
A response to Is this the end of the line for the impartial documentary? (Guardian film blog, 9 November 2009), David Cox’s report on the Battle of Ideas Satellite event, Campaigning documentaries: the thin line between passion and propaganda at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday 6 November 2009
Conventional explanations of the problems of education fail to fully account for its crisis of meaning. Market-mimicking measures are a symptom, not a cause, of the crisis. Likewise, politics is not so much the cause as the solution, as it is through political discussion and contestation that the crisis might be resolved.
If philosophers are not to continue to sell philosophy as therapy they have to do three things that will challenge contemporary attitudes. They must negate their own working principles and argue for knowledge, for the assertion and defence of opinion, and make a stand against idle criticism.
The vast majority of the population continues to be overwhelmingly dependent on close personal relationships and sceptical about or resistant to ideas of professional intervention in the face of emotional difficulties. In other words, therapeutic ideas may encounter resistance in the everyday and not just in the realm of academic debate.
Twenty years ago, the revolution of 1989/90, the implosion of Stalinism in Europe and the end of German partition were celebrated as a triumph for democracy and freedom. The iron curtain fell, the East German party dictatorship and shortage economy were vanquished and, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, pluralist party democracy was introduced along with the market. In the GDR, the spectacular uprising of eastern Germans had tipped the scale, put the final nail into the moribund Stalinist order across Eastern Europe, ending the division of the continent and Germany. Enthusiasm about this historical transformation was therefore especially strong in Germany.
Trial by jury is under attack on two fronts. Firstly, from those who argue that it is both too expensive and inefficient or that the public cannot be trusted. Secondly, the democratic principles of trial by jury are being undermined by the increasing regulation and micro-management of evidence by the state.
Whatever it looks like, a new welfare settlement – or social contract, as the Conservatives prefer to call it – can only emerge out of a shared set of values, or at least a public contestation of what those values should be.
Some commentators call for a return to productive investment and a regeneration of manufacturing. But is there something intrinsically wrong with an economy based on services and on consumption? Something better and sounder in an economy based on production? There is little to be gained by a naive and moralistic reaction against services in the name of manufacturing, against consumption in the name of production. We need, instead, to take a closer look at what is really happening in the economy in terms of the creation of new value and the ability of British capitalists to turn a profit.
Whilst there remain academics in every institution who continue to value and defend the legitimacy of criticism, a lack of confidence in aesthetic judgement reaches to the top of the academy. The vacuum left by the evacuation of judgement is often filled with Literary Theory, a shabby gauze of politically interested stock responses and clichés where sensitive, flexible judgement should be.
Has ‘judgement’ within criticism has reached a state of crisis? I want to show you how in my experience, this is certainly not the case. Instead, I believe, this shift represents a movement away from unexamined, unreasoned acceptance of the essentially arbitrary authority of a few ‘great’ critics, to the current situation where critical authority rests purely upon reasoned, rational judgements, coupled with extensive subject knowledge.
Now that Flammarion’s ‘aerial ascent’ is within the reach of most of us in the developed world, we regard it without wonder. But in a way, the very lack of drama involved in modern flight is the fruition of its early promise.
Martin Bell is a UNICEF Ambassador, a former broadcast war reporter and former Independent MP for Tatton where he replaced Neil Hamilton on the back of Labour anti-Tory sleaze campaigns. He has just published his latest book, A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy. The book traces the history of the scandal and calls for a thorough reform of the House of Commons on the basis that Parliament belongs to us and not to politicians who can no longer be trusted with politics. Angus Kennedy interviewed him at the beginning of October and reflects here on that interview, the book and the meaning of the ongoing expenses scandal for politics in Britain today.
Whatever barometer one uses, when it comes to culture, both artistic and more generally, America has led the world over the past 100 years
A variety of tools have been developed to encourage individuals to voluntarily change aspects of their everyday practices to reduce carbon emissions. But rather than inducing fear, we should focus on the benefits of sustainable living as the best model of the ‘good life’.
The limitations of wind and solar power, along with the fact that fossil fuels are both finite and contributing to climate change, mean the nuclear option is ever more compelling.
Ask most people what they want when they flick a light switch in their homes, and they’ll tell you that they want energy that is cheap, clean and always available. But the order in which they rank ‘abundant, cheap and clean’ sets out the battlefield that is energy policy.
Is design’s intervention in healthcare a good thing, or will it ultimately make matters worse—especially for those in greatest need of a cure?
If we are to understand what significance society now attaches to privacy and thus what this means for the future, we need to examine this question through the prism of trust rather than technological solutions or regulatory impulses.
An essay to accompany Milestone, an exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of publication of the Macpherson Report, at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, Greenwich, and St Andrew Holborn Crypt in London from 17 September to 15 October 2009.
A re-examination of the debate about ‘therapy culture’ and its institutionalisation in education and social policy.
As so much becomes public, or at least publically available, where does privacy belong? For those who cannot remember any but a wired world, the idea of private space makes no sense and probably has no purpose.
How is the teaching profession changing, and what effect do these changes have on education? Is the idea of teaching as an inspiring vocation a thing of the past?
The fortune of cricket in India, perhaps unlike anywhere else in the cricketing world, is closely allied with its identity as a nation
The Truth concerns a lot more than scientific platitudes: all sorts of figures have laid claim to knowing the truth about the human condition and their societies, from novelists and journalists to campaigners and politicians. In fact, one of the most important things about putting forward new ideas and persuading others is that no particular credentials are necessary.
Both the fetishisation of strong leadership and the reaction against it stem from a one-sided focus on leaders as personalities, and neglect of the other side of the relationship. Leadership is a relationship, not merely a personal quality.
When it comes to thinking about culture and artworks, torn between a multiculturalist melange and celebration of cynicism, the problem seems not to be we don’t know who artworks or culture belong to, more that we want nothing to do with the whole lot of them.
In order to develop a more incisive critique of contemporary society, it is necessary to consider not only the particular nuances of the financial economy, but also the broader historical context, and the relationship between capitalism and wider social and political forces.
This essay defends the material basis of progress and the right of developing countries to undergo development, and finally argues that material development offers the only way to avoid the environmental disasters that we are constantly warned are just around the corner.
The idea that we could and should change the world was the stuff of politics in the past, and students’ or workers’ radicalism expressed this in a radical form. Today that politics has lost its meaning, and all that’s left for so-called radicals is to call for a more extreme version of what ‘politics’ is about today. The form is still there, but the content has changed.
There is an assumption that people in general are increasingly vulnerable and in need of ‘support’. In this sense, the adoption reforms are a product of a wider ‘cultural’ problem – not in the ethnic or anthropological sense, but with regards our political culture and the ideas that it tends to generate.
The language of contemporary politics is packed full of jargon. It stands in for real political discourse and debate but is no substitute. In its place we need to rehabilitate rhetoric: language designed to convince others of the rightness of our propositions.
We are now a nation obsessed with our bowels and bumpy bits, indulging in the guilty pleasure of a meat-feast pizza then seeking penance with the cholesterol kit. But why should it follow that a healthier population must be more obsessed with health?
The growth of identity politics means that instead of the universal claim for negative liberty, all minority groups are now encouraged to fight their corner for their piece of the recognition pie. In one fell swoop, such policies not only fix people into categories which are themselves restrictive, but also isolate groups from wider society.
By emphasising the recovery and naming of bodies, what becomes of the unnamed dead? Who takes responsibility for those whose remains will not only never be recovered and identified but will never be missed? Does the emphasis placed upon ‘our’ dead by forensic science dilute or obstruct sympathy for the death of ‘others’?
An adequate approach to the relationship between theory and practice would acknowledge the value of the many kinds of intellectual contributions that get called popular philosophy, without over-egging their importance or dismissing them as philosophy lite.
Two students from Barton Court Grammar School in an email head-to-head on whether man or machine should be exploring space in the twenty first century
Although the interwar years of Weimar Germany and 1960s Britain appeared to be golden moments for anti-establishment mirth, it is easy to miss the insubordinate heart of satire that is still beating as strong today, as thoughtful humour is so often social critique by stealth.
The plausibility of evolutionary psychology rests on the question of whether psychological attributes are analogous to anatomical structures in their origins and in their functioning. If not, it is a mistake to explain them in terms of evolutionary theory which explains physical, anatomical features determined by biological mechanisms.
What both Republicans and Democrats fail to grasp is that international legitimacy of the kind that caused the West to accept American leadership after World War Two must derive, ultimately, from domestic politics. International legitimacy cannot be restored solely through actions in the international sphere.
Counter-intuitively, in a world of often disconnected and atomised individuals, alcohol can play a part in bringing communities back together again.
Disenchantment with the elitism of European politicians and institutions may lay the basis for a more positive reassertion of popular control over political decision-making at the national level. This would mean recognising that the problems of European integration are only magnifications of problems whose origins lie at home.
A recent survey suggests the Western public may be less worried about the rise of China than the ‘China-bashing’ media suggest, and more optimistic about its future development.
The end of Left and Right, if it has occurred, needs to be taken seriously. It amounts to no less than the collapse of a way of looking at, and doing, ‘politics’.
We need to be less concerned about when is the right age for children to start reading, and how, and much more worried about what counts as being great literature, in having real standards that children can aim at.
Don Eales recalls the political power of popular song, and asks where the voices of challenge and dissent are today.
Professor James Woudhuysen argues that an Olympics ‘Win/Win’ won’t work
Despite using no words, instrumental music speaks volumes. A simple jig makes people dance in delight and a melancholy melody reduces people to tears; union songs, hymns, football chants and even the national anthem bring people together with shared values, ideas and aims; and everybody has their own special songs.
In the early 1970s Michael Young edited and contributed to Knowledge and Control: New Directions in the Sociology of Education. This proved to be a hugely influential, perhaps defining, work within the field.
The West has a great legacy that emphasises not centralised power, but decentralisation, subsidiarity, federalism. This is the legacy of cherishing individual liberty, a very precious contribution to the world, and one I would like to emphasise.
Critics of tests and examinations - apparently forces of good in a heartless world - are everywhere. They claim that children are ‘over-tested’ because they face national tests at ages 7, 11 and 14, followed by further national examinations at 16 (GCSEs), 17 (AS-levels) and 18 (A-levels or ‘equivalents’).
There has been much debate over the past two decades about the relationship between the curriculum and values. Primarily this has been driven by a crisis of confidence in the value of subjects themselves.
The holy grail of modern neuroscience is to unravel the mechanics of consciousness and explain the machine that gives rise to the mind. The new science of the mind promises to uncover the biological basis for many aspects of the human character and potentially to know our thoughts better than we know them ourselves.
As a lover of documentaries and films generally, I believe the answer to the question can films change the world is unequivocally ‘no’.
There has been much academic and public discussion over the past few years over the idea that the process of secularisation, witnessed over the past century or two, may have come to an end. How do you understand the secularisation thesis and do you think it still holds true?
The launch of the Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) statement of academic freedom (available at www.afaf.org.uk) led to some interesting debates. The most curious responses came from a small number of individuals who were reluctant to sign.
One of the most startling features of the culture surrounding modern parenting is the tidal wave of advice parents can expect to receive about what is best for their children. Where in the past ‘muddling through’ was perfectly acceptable, today the job of raising children is understood to be too important to leave to parents. Instead, the government, and a bevy of interested parties, are on hand to enable and ‘support’ Good Parenting.
In a recent essay, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, academic and commentator on globalisation Arjun Appadurai comments on how the West is increasingly dominated by a fear of the lone bomber with explosives strapped to their chest.
Developing the broadest possible understanding of religiosity, this paper argues that this dichotomy is actually disorientating us from possibly profounder ones.
MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chain stores. Such a perversion of a pivotal text appears glib, but this is not the intent. I invite readers to comprehend its meaning in the context that its original author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, intended.
Debating Matters showcase debate: “Books should remain the essence of public libraries”
"I was amazed by the high quality of the Battle of Ideas 2007 and the intellectual excitement that it provoked."
Prof Malcolm Grant CBE, president and provost, University College London