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The Philosophy Hub is go!

Photo of London Philosophy Club by Greg Funnell

Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.

It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.

Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.

The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year.  Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.

The anti-tuition student protest in London this week

No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.

As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.

There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.

There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.

To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!

My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus.  And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject.  I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.

There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.


Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.

First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!

Ben Irvine of the Cambridge Well-Being Institute

On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).

This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.

The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”

Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character.  I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.

Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.

See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.


The Secret can save your life!

I love the main review of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret on Amazon. I can’t tell if it’s for real – it’s satire, right? Judge for yourself.

Please allow me to share with you how “The Secret” changed my life and in a very real and substantive way allowed me to overcome a severe crisis in my personal life. It is well known that the premise of “The Secret” is the science of attracting the things in life that you desire and need and in removing from your life those things that you don’t want. Before finding this book, I knew nothing of these principles, the process of positive visualization, and had actually engaged in reckless behaviors to the point of endangering my own life and wellbeing.
At age 36, I found myself in a medium security prison serving 3-5 years for destruction of government property and public intoxication. This was stiff punishment for drunkenly defecating in a mailbox but as the judge pointed out, this was my third conviction for the exact same crime. I obviously had an alcohol problem and a deep and intense disrespect for the postal system, but even more importantly I was ignoring the very fabric of our metaphysical reality and inviting destructive influences into my life.
My fourth day in prison was the first day that I was allowed in general population and while in the recreation yard I was approached by a prisoner named Marcus who calmly informed me that as a new prisoner I had been purchased by him for three packs of Winston cigarettes and 8 ounces of Pruno (prison wine). Marcus elaborated further that I could expect to be raped by him on a daily basis and that I had pretty eyes.
Needless to say, I was deeply shocked that my life had sunk to this level. Although I’ve never been homophobic I was discovering that I was very rape phobic and dismayed by my overall personal street value of roughly $15. I returned to my cell and sat very quietly, searching myself for answers on how I could improve my life and distance myself from harmful outside influences. At that point, in what I consider to be a miraculous moment, my cell mate Jim Norton informed me that he knew about the Marcus situation and that he had something that could solve my problems. He handed me a copy of “The Secret”. Normally I wouldn’t have turned to a self help book to resolve such a severe and immediate threat but I literally didn’t have any other available alternatives. I immediately opened the book and began to read.

The first few chapters deal with the essence of something called the “Law of Attraction” in which a primal universal force is available to us and can be harnessed for the betterment of our lives. The theoretical nature of the first few chapters wasn’t exactly putting me at peace. In fact, I had never meditated and had great difficulty with closing out the chaotic noises of the prison and visualizing the positive changes that I so dearly needed.

It was when I reached Chapter 6 “The Secret to Relationships” that I realized how this book could help me distance myself from Marcus and his negative intentions. Starting with chapter six there was a cavity carved into the book and in that cavity was a prison shiv. This particular shiv was a toothbrush with a handle that had been repeatedly melted and ground into a razor sharp point.

The next day in the exercise yard I carried “The Secret” with me and when Marcus approached me I opened the book and stabbed him in the neck. The next eight weeks in solitary confinement provided ample time to practice positive visualization and the 16 hours per day of absolute darkness made visualization about the only thing that I actually could do. I’m not sure that everybody’s life will be changed in such a dramatic way by this book but I’m very thankful to have found it and will continue to recommend it heartily.

PoW: The rise and rise of Alcoholics Anonymous

My name’s Jules, and I’m not an alcoholic. But I did meet a friend of mine last night who is a recovering alcoholic, and talking to him about Alcoholics Anonymous made me think about this fascinating movement, and the key role its played in the history of self-help and mental health over the last 75 years.

AA came out of a Protestant movement in the 1920s called the Oxford Group, which was very popular and influential for a couple of decades. The Oxford Group (actually nothing to do with Oxford) was a form of Protestant self-help, which encouraged self-examination, sharing or confessing your faults to your local group, and then spreading the word to others. In true Protestant fashion, the Oxford Group stripped Christianity down to its bare essentials and adapted it for the 20th century. The ‘group confessional’ was a particular innovation, and led, apparently, to weekend orgies of self-revelation among the affluent and pious, competing to reveal the most salacious sins. The Group also seemed designed for modern mass media, with its simple messages, slogans and mnemonics (one of its slogans was ‘a spiritual radiophone in every home’, which sounds quite Huxlerian). And it tapped in to the modern urge – perhaps the narcissistic urge – to tell your story to a group, to share the inmost core of your being, and receive the group’s acceptance for your most shameful secrets.

Later new religious movements like the Landmark Forum, the Work, or Erhard Seminar Training would take these basic dynamics of introspection and group confessional, and strip them even further of their religious trappings, by taking away any mention of God or Jesus. But they kept the idea of the sudden conversion, the instant liberation from bad habits, which also appeals to the modern hurried sensibility: a new you, in just 24 hours!

Like Scientology today, the Oxford Group made a big thing of its connections to the wealthy and successful – the implication being that membership of the Group could give you an intro to attractive social and business connections (rather like some middle managers are attracted to Freemasonry or the Rotary Club for the networking opportunities they seem to promise).

But despite its rapid success, the Oxford Group had obvious flaws. It was corrupted by power and money. It had a charismatic and very visible leader, the Lutheran pastor Frank Buchman (pictured right), who often seemed to be on an ego trip, and who made serious errors of judgement like flirting with the Nazi Party and imagining what it would be like if Hitler or Mussolini converted to the Oxford Group and established a ‘dictatorship of God’ with the Group’s slogans blaring from every home’s radio. And the Group had an odious ethos of social climbing and donation-seeking – Buchman encouraged Group members to travel first class, in order to network, and public talks would sometimes end with solicitation for funds – although none of this money was ever spent on the poor or the needy.

The birth of AA

One Oxford group in the US helped an alcoholic called Ebby Thacher, in the early 1930s, who in turn tried to bring religion to a drinking buddy, Bill Wilson. Bill also converted, but still occasionally relapsed into alcoholism. He managed to finally kick the habit at a rehab centre when he had a religious experience after being given the hallucinogenic Atropa Belladonna, or deadly nightshade (research into using hallucinogenics to cure addictions is only now coming back into the mainstream of respectable science – see this article.)

Bill then travelled to Akron, Ohio in 1935, where he stayed with an Oxford Group member and alcoholic called Bob Smith. Bill worked with Bob for a month, and he too managed to kick the habit. Over the next few years, the two developed the format of Alcoholics Anonymous: first the 12 Steps, then the 12 Traditions. AA members say the 12 steps stop them from killing themselves, and the 12 traditions stop them from killing each other. They’re really interesting principles, which have stood the test of time without any major revisions.

The first and second steps involve the Lutheran admission that ‘we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable’ and therefore need help from ‘a Power greater than ourselves’. This is very different from the Stoic idea, for example, that the power and responsibility to help yourself is always yours alone. In AA, the alcoholic’s first step is admitting they have a disease which they on their own can’t solve – they need the help of a Higher Power. It’s not self-help, so much as other-help.

Who or what is this Higher Power? The 12 Steps define it as ‘a God of your own understanding’. Bob Wilson noticed more alcoholics were attracted to and helped by AA if it didn’t make a big thing of religious dogma, but allowed people to bring their own definitions of God – which could simply be the Higher Power of the group or movement (some AA members define God as Group Of Drunks, implying that ‘God’ is really human consciousness organizing itself to heal itself).

What was most important was the idea of people helping each other up, and sharing their stories – AA took the group confessional format of the Oxford Group, and added the idea of having a sponsor who could guide the new recruit through the 12 steps. They also added the idea of ‘making amends’ – going round apologizing to those you’ve done wrong in the past (this is the conceit behind the sitcom My Name Is Earl). And, importantly, they focused on one key sin or disease – alcoholism. They gave their members a sense of collective identity through their battle with their illness. They took something that was private and shameful, and made it into a collective struggle and source of group pride: ‘It’s been ten years since I had a drink’ etc.

That laid a template for self-organized mental health support groups for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug addiction, sex addiction, really every kind of personal problem (there’s even a 12-step programme for online gaming addiction, called OLGA). Even if these groups don’t all use the 12-step programme, they still use the idea of a group self-organized to combat a particular problem, who share their stories with each other and encourage each other on.

Personally, I found that group dynamic very helpful when I was struggling to overcome social anxiety, which I did after joining a CBT-based social anxiety support group, that met once a week in the Royal Festival Hall. When you share your stories and listen to others’ stories, you realize your problems are not unique, that you’re not a uniquely dysfunctional freak (as you secretly feared), that many others have similar problems. It de-personalizes the problem, makes you less attached to it, makes you able to see it as a collective battle with an external enemy (alcoholism, depression, social anxiety etc) to be fought with intelligence and organization. In some ways, this is like Christians sharing stories of the Devil and self-help tips on how to resist his evil snares – except that, while AA kept the idea of the Higher Power, it turned the Enemy of alcoholism into a disease, rather than a supernatural evil force. They also abandoned any mention of Hell or damnation – if you fall, you just get up, and try again.

Behind the Christian roots of AA, there are older, Socratic ideas: the idea of examining yourself to find any defects or vices, and also the Serenity Prayer, which was introduced into AA in the 1940s, and is now read at the end of every meeting: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.” Bill Wilson wrote that this prayer summed up the ethos of AA, though to me it seems a bit different from the Lutheran idea of being powerless to help yourself without the intercession of a Higher Power. It’s interesting, though, the way someone came across the Serenity Prayer and it was then introduced into the ‘ritual’ of the AA meeting. That’s how religions are created – objects and ideas are found, then bolted on, and you can see different ideas and traditions stuck together.

Like every vibrant young spiritual movement, within a few years AA found itself immersed in internal arguments over how the movement should develop. At that point, in 1946, Bill Wilson wrote and published the 12 Traditions (somewhat reminiscent of the 12 foundations of the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelations). These 12 traditions fixed AA into a system that Wilson called ‘benign anarchy’. As my AA friend put it, “it’s like a terrorist organization: each cell is separate and they don’t know much about each other”. There’s little central authority, no requirement for membership other than the desire to stop drinking, and a group could be just two people, like the original group.

Wilson obviously learnt from the mistakes of the Oxford Group – first of all, he protected AA from the corrupting influence of money. Every AA group is self-supporting, with no outside financial contributions, so it hasn’t become a machine for making money, as the Oxford Group did and other groups like Landmark and Scientology have done. No AA member is allowed to lend its name to other causes, and it avoids the temptation to seek political influence through its success, as the Oxford Group did. And because it’s anonymous, no member can use the movement as a platform for self-promotion, as Frank Buchman arguably used the Oxford Group. As the 12th tradition puts it: ‘Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.’

The 12 traditions are a masterpiece of organizational design, and have kept AA preserved from the corrupting influences that have brought down so many other spiritual movements: all of which follow a sadly predictable arc of hype, wealth and power followed by disintegration (think of, say, EST, or the Secret, or Landmark and so on). Today, the movement has over two million members, with over 100,000 groups meeting worldwide. I’m told you can find a meeting happening at any hour of the day in New York. And on some flights, you might even hear an announcement on the intercom inquiring if there is a ‘friend of Bill’ on-board. From an outsider’s perspective, AA seems to me to be one of the more successful new spiritual movement of the 20th century. But, as I said at the beginning, I haven’t tried it myself, so would be interested to hear if some of you have more first-hand impressions of it.

A few interesting things I came across in the last week:

Waterstones is launching its own e-reader. Good idea:

David Cameron got a bit Neo-Aristotelian in his latest speech on education, declaring: ‘education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives them the character to live a good life, to be good citizens’.

Here’s the first episode of Radio 4’s new pub philosophy show, The Philosophy Arms. It’s about the ‘happiness machine’, and features another Neo-Aristotelian, universities minister David Willets, defending an Aristotelian conception of happiness.

Here’s yet another Neo-Aristotelian, Martha Nussbaum, talking about her new book, and how she was inspired to become a philosopher when she was sent on an exchange to live with some Welsh factory workers near Swansea and became depressed and outraged by the poverty of their lives, and “the lack of protest”.

Here’s Geoff Dyer giving a recent lecture at Queen Mary University about the essay (skip to five hours in!)

Here’s a Stephen Pinker review of Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower – he’s doing a talk at the Manhattan Institute on September 22nd, for any New Yorkers out there.

And finally, here’s a story about a drunken elk getting stuck in a tree in Sweden. Clearly misinterpreted the whole ‘higher Power’ thing.

See you next week,

PoW: The People versus Everybody Else

This week, the stock market collapsed, the US government almost defaulted, the euro teetered, and – worst of all – the Beefeaters got accused of growing dope at the Tower of London. I mean…seriously folks….I knew things were bad, but growing dope at the Tower? It’s high treason! Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the scampi.

So what’s at the bottom of our moral malaise? Two of the UK’s leading left-wing intellectuals – Neal Lawson of the think-tank Compass, and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation – suggest the problem is that our elites have lost any sense of serving the public interest. They write: “We are witnessing a crisis of elites”. The global debt crisis, the MPs’ expenses crisis, the Murdoch hacking crisis – these were all examples, they say, of elites gone wild. The British ruling elite are “like kids left free in a sweetshop, going feral as they lost all self-control and all touch with society”.

The “only means” by which such crises can be averted in the future, say Simms and Lawson, is by the re-assertion of the Public Interest via a People’s Jury of “a thousand angry citizens”, randomly selected by lottery, who will channel their “horror” at scandals into actual anti-elitist policies. How would the Jury work exactly? “A paid secretariat will commission research and call witnesses to make our nation’s elites answerable to the public. Reporting within a year of its launch the jury will report on how the public interest relates to media ownership; the role of the financial sector in the crash; MP selections and accountability; policing; and more generally on British political and corporate life.”

An interesting idea. I can see Rupert Murdoch being hauled before a panel of baying sans-culottes, the drums being banged as the guillotine is slowly raised…But are elites really to blame for these crisis? Is the public itself wholly innocent?

Take the consumer debt crisis. Surely, this is at least partly the fault of the consumers who borrowed all that money. They – or rather, we – proved incapable of managing our finances. We’re the ones who “lost all self-control”, like children in a sweetshop. Yet when the consumer debt bubble burst, needless to say, it was everyone’s fault except the people. It was the banks, the Fed, the rating agencies, the regulators – and the people could indulge in another very satisfying bout of righteous indignation.

Or take the Murdoch hacking crisis. Can we really blame it entirely on an elite? News International was so powerful because so many people bought The Sun and News of the World. They were part of a very small group of national publications, which includes the Daily Mail, that actually made money, because they gave the people what they want. Turns out what the Public wants is jingoism, sport and large dollops of celebrity gossip. We, the people, never asked too many questions about how our daily diet of gossip and intrigue was cooked up. And when the truth came out, needless to say, it was everyone’s fault except the people. It was the Dirty Digger’s fault, Rebekah Brooks’ fault, David Cameron’s fault – and we, the people, could indulge in more rage, horror and indignation.

Or take climate change, another great crisis we’re facing. The reason we’re failing to cope with it is, at least partly, because the public don’t want to curtail our consumption, and we react with fury at any attempt to put up taxes on fuel or limit our consumption of meat. Yet you can bet that, if we do eventually go through some awful climate crunch, it will be everyone’s fault except the people’s. We were lied to, we were betrayed, we must find someone to string up. In a democracy, it’s never the people’s fault.

As it happens, the same week the idea of a People’s Jury was floated, the British government launched e-petitions on the DirectGov website. Any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures will get its issue potentially debated in the Houses of Parliament. And what did the People demand? Blood. The return of capital punishment to be precise. And Jeremy Clarkson as prime minister. I’m not convinced the public is that interested in the public interest.

The British government seems to be unsure what attitude to take to The People. David Cameron – or rather, his deep thinker, Steve Hilton – has two Big Ideas, as outlined by Cameron in his pre-election TED talk. The first Big Idea is ’empowering citizens in the post-bureaucratic age’ (or the Big Society). The second Big Idea is ‘working with the grain of human nature using behavioural economics’. The government set up a behavioural science unit, nick-named the ‘Nudge Unit’, to utilize the behavioural techniques of psychologists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to ‘nudge‘ the people towards pro-social outcomes like organ donations. (You can see a video of last month’s Policy Exchange event with Thaler and the head of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern, here.)

Isn’t there a contradiction between these two big ideas? The first idea means giving as much power to the people as possible, letting them run their own services and influence policy through websites like DirectGov. But the second idea – behavioural economics – basically says that the people are irrational creatures who are incapable of controlling their appetites and emotions, and who therefore need to be nudged by experts in pro-social directions. So which is it Steve? Trust the people or nudge the people? Are you ‘post-bureaucratic’, or just creating another class of nudging Mandarins?

Let us, in Platonic fashion, turn our eyes away from the sordid realm of politics, and consider the pure realm of numbers. I’ve been enjoying a BBC documentary called The Code, which explores the fractal theories of Benoit B. Mandelbrot. (You know what the B stands for? It stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot.) But even more enjoyable is this very trippy documentary on Mandelbrot, written and presented by Arthur C. Clarke, with psychedelic plinky-plonk music by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Watching it made me wonder…why do people on hallucinogenic drugs typically see fractals and mandalas? Are we, as Mandelbrot suggests, “used to fractals in our subconscious minds”? Is the rational law of the cosmos somehow reflected or embedded in our minds, as the Stoics believed?

Talking of the discovery of hidden numbers, I see that the Kabbalah Centre in New York, beloved of Madonna, is being investigated by the FBI for tax evasion after this fascinating Newsweek expose. Apparently, the Centre had defined itself as a religious organization to get tax benefits, claiming its founders followed a “vow of poverty” while they actually lived in LA mansions. There were also several irregularities in how their school outreach programme, Success for Kids, was run both in the US and the UK, and the programme has recently been closed. Religious organizations do tend to go wrong, don’t they?

Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, insists that God doesn’t exist, but the universe is instead governed by science – or rather, by laws which science can discover. Hawking suggests the universe “spontaneously created” and then expanded according to these laws. One day, the universe just went…’fuck it, why not exist’ (it’s very spontaneous like that, the universe), and as soon as that happened, it followed the laws of quantum and gravity. But why did these laws exist in the first place? Why should the universe follow mathematical laws? And why should our minds respond to these laws – the laws of harmony and ratio – as if we were born with intuitions of them, and were designed to discover them? Why should we be built with the capacity to comprehend the universe?

Hawking would argue that humans’ capacity to reflect on the universe and discover the laws that guide it comes from the Darwinian law of evolution. Nature enabled us to contemplate the universe because it improves our ability to survive and reproduce. But that seems to me rather like using a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works to hammer in a nail, or using a Ferrari to drive to the shops once a week to pick up the groceries. Why do we have such a powerful system for such a basic task? And why is our reasoning capacity so much greater than every other species? Why, damn it, why?

If anyone can answer these questions, let me know. I’ll be in the cellar, stacking my tinned food and preparing for the apocalypse.

Protecting children in the Big Society

A key function of the state is to protect its citizens, particularly its weakest members – the sick, the elderly and children. And one of the challenges of the Big Society, which is seeking to replace the state provision of services with non-governmental service providers, is how to ensure these non-governmental service providers are abiding by the law – particularly when it comes to the reporting and punishment of child abuse.

Obviously the example of the Catholic Church comes to mind. The Big Society, after all, was, according to its Catholic inventor, Phillip Blond, directly inspired by the Church. But the awful cases of child abuse within the Church – thousands of cases across the world over the last few decades – illustrate what can go wrong when a non-governmental institution becomes a state-within-a-state, with its own internal reporting and disciplinary procedures.
What can happen, and what seems to have happened in the case of the Catholic Church, is that top management decide it is more important to protect the public reputation of the institution than to publicly expose instances of child abuse. So they cover up child abuse internally, and ‘discipline’ the offenders internally (which really means relocating them, or simply asking them to confess their sins and repent).
But it’s not just the Catholic Church. This week, I’ve been looking into the School of Economic Science (SES), the Neo-Platonic and Vedic community set up in London in 1937, which now has branches in 15 countries around the world (you’ve probably seen its adverts for philosophy courses on the Underground). As readers will know, I am myself an enthusiast for ancient philosophy and for the teaching of it in schools, so there are aspects of SES that I applaud – but its experiment at religious education for young people from 1975 to 1985 seems to have gone very wrong.
In 1975, SES set up two schools for children in London, called St James and St Vedast. Boys and girls from the ages of 5 to 18 were educated in meditation, Vedic dance, Greek philosophy, Renaissance art and so on. The schools were an early example, perhaps, of the sort of free schools that Michael Gove is keen to set up (an initiative that on the whole I support) – although they charged a small fee, they were run by SES staff and parents, enthusiastic amateurs, with their own personal vision for children’s education and well-being.
Unfortunately, the experiment went awry. Some of the teachers were untrained, both in their subjects and in how to deal with young children. They had themselves come from quite an authoritarian and hierarchical spiritual community, and some teachers seemed to expect similar levels of obedience, submission and spiritual earnestness from their young wards, and to become furious when children rebelled. The Leader of SES, Leon MacLaren, authorized the use of corporal punishment, and some of the teachers embraced this with a sadistic glee. Boys were punched in the face, in the stomach, publicly beaten with cricket bats, had cricket balls thrown at them when they weren’t looking. The girls were spanked, but also verbally ridiculed and demonised, if they misbehaved. And the poor children had nowhere to go to complain – their parents were also part of SES, trained to accept its methods unquestioningly.
This regime of terror went on for around a decade, and no one in the SES said anything or did anything. It was only in the last five years, when former pupils started to share their horror stories through the internet, that SES and the schools decided to order an independent enquiry – which found that boys had been subjected to “criminal mistreatment”.
The schools are keen to draw a line under these instances and insist that lessons have been learnt and reconciliations made. But even though the report said the mistreatment was “criminal”, no criminal actions were brought. The headmaster at the time of the abuse, Nicholas Debenham, has never apologised to former pupils. He is still chairman of the SES’ Education Renaissance Trust, and is still a respected member of the SES organization – in fact, he’s speaking there next week on The World, The Flesh and the Devil (and presumably how to beat the latter out of the former).
There were other instances of inappropriate staff behaviour at the schools which the Inquiry did not even mention. For example, it was a common practice for older men at SES, and even teachers at the schools, to pair off with female pupils when they turned 18. There were even balls arranged for senior female pupils and older male SES staff. This wasn’t (I don’t think) simple sexual predatoriness, but rather an effort by the organization to preserve its otherworldly values and protect against members marrying outsiders – if they did, they’d be pulled away from the SES and into the mainstream of our corrupt western society.
Still, this pairing off of teenage female pupils with older male staff was clearly inappropriate – imagine the charged atmosphere in a school where it was common practice for older staff to marry senior girls. Imagine what kind of fuel that gave to school-girl crushes, or the crushes of teachers themselves, when that line between staff and pupils had become blurred.
Yet the practice was common within the SES organization. The present SES leader, Donald Lambie, married a former St James pupil. The principal, Ian Mason, has twice married former pupils who he taught. The present headmaster of St James’ School, David Boddy, attended and helped organize the parties for female pupils and older male staff. But neither SES nor the schools have ever come out and said this practice was wrong – the most I could get Ian Mason to tell me, when I interviewed him this week, was that “it wasn’t wrong…but we are extremely sensitive about it now and it would be very unlikely to happen today”.
The wider point, it seems to me, is that the senior management of the schools and of the SES thought that it was more important to protect the institution than to publicly investigate and expose instances of child abuse or inappropriate staff behaviour. And if you read the SES’ official history – In Search of Truth – which came out last year, the lack of contrition is astonishing. The ex-pupils who complained are portrayed almost as irritating trouble-makers, posting ‘vitriolic attacks’ anonymously on the internet. We read: “the whole matter caused considerable trouble, concern and expense to many people” and “obscured much of the excellent educational work of the early years of the schools”. Oh, it cost the SES trouble and expense did it? Gee, that’s too bad.
You could put these two instances – SES, and the Catholic Church – down to the problems that emerge when religious institutions with their eyes fixed on The Absolute end up running child services. But the problem is not purely one of religious beliefs. Rather, the danger seems to me to be mainly one of institutions seeking to protect themselves rather than their vulnerable members. And this can happen in secular institutions as well.
I know of another instance, at a very well-known charity that works with vulnerable young people, where new staff are asked, explicitly, if they will put the organization’s own internal reporting procedures before the law of the land. In other words, if staff encounter instances of child abuse, they are told not to report it to the child protection services, but rather to report the matter internally. It will be handled internally. That way, the public profile of the institution, and the personal relations within it, are protected.
Of course, state agencies can get it just as wrong – look at the way Haringey social services failed Baby P. Nevertheless, we have to face up to this challenge of the Big Society. How do we make sure our child services don’t degenerate into disconnected systems, each with their own laws, each seeking to protect and promote themselves rather than answer to national law?
It seems to me that, the more our education system and child services are de-regulated and (in effect) privatized, the more stringent, vigilant, well-funded and powerful our national child protection agencies need to be.
[Photo by David Shankbone from Wiki Commons]