“We are helping people to think for themselves, rather than giving them prescriptive answers” – Q&A with Claire Fox

For a weekend at the end of October, the Barbican centre in London will open its doors to thousands of people to participate in the Battle of Ideas, an annual event organised by the Institute of Ideas. Each year since 2005, the Battle of Ideas gathers hundreds of speakers with controversial views to face each other and face an engaged audience of people of all ages.

Claire Fox, Founder and Director of the Institute of Ideas, took a few minutes off her busy schedule preparing the event to discuss the education strand of sessions at the Battle of Ideas with our Communications Coordinator, Cleo.

Excerpts of the interview below.

Cleo: Why is the Battle of Ideas a crucial event in the calendar of debates in London?

Claire: Before it was fashionable we tried to make a point of organising an event that was not an echo chamber. We always try to ensure there are people from different points of view, and rather than giving people a sense of complacency, participants get a real sense of meeting and hearing people that they haven’t heard before.

Secondly, we make sure that in all of the panel debates, half of the time is given to the audience. That way, it’s very much a series of public conversations; it doesn’t matter how important or famous the speakers are, we make sure that everybody can speak and join in.

Our strapline is “Free speech allowed” and that’s really it: especially in today’s climate, the Battle allows people to not be walking on egg shelves.

Cleo: Most of the sessions at the Battle of Ideas bring together people with widely opposite view. Do you think it is possible to find a middle ground on these debates?

Claire: At the Battle of Ideas, we’re trying to make the point that issues are not black and white, that debates are not for and against. We live in very challenging times, our post-war relationships and institutions are collapsing and unravelling, and you have the sense internationally that we’re living history, and there’s no answer to that. What we can do is trying to understand the issues and opening oneself to hearing lots of points of view. One unhelpful trend, at the moment, is for people to stay in their own silos and treat people who disagree with them with contempt, or to demonise them. They say “they’re stupid”, “they’re fascist”, everybody is throwing around labels, and this is a way of not engaging.

But we don’t want to end up with everybody holding hands: we want to go beyond the headlines, the soundbites and the insults, and try to dig a bit deeper into these trends. For example, there’s lots of ethical and moral questions in relation to technology. It’s obviously not all good or all bad, but it’s interesting to discuss so we have the pros and cons of social media at the Battle. Things like Fitbit also raise questions of privacy and surveillance, but at the same time they can be life savers, so we want to open these conversations.

Cleo: What do you think are the main debates agitating the education world at the moment?

Claire: There’s lots of debates that relate to education at the Battle of Ideas. It opens with a debate on students’ voice, whether it’s a good or a bad thing, and I think that’s likely to be quite an argument because we have people with very different perspectives. And that’s important because sometimes it can be so obvious to want to involve students, but the downside is that it can be undermining adults’ authority, so there are interesting ideas to debate.

There’s also the thought of people being too young or too dumb to vote. It’s very important that we discuss it because in the wake of Brexit – but also with the Trump election – the kind of ridicule on voters who weren’t educated in the formal sense was an interesting insight into a new strain of democratic thinking. It’s fantastic to be formally educated and to receive a quality education, but whether it makes us better citizens is contentious.

An important discussion at the Battle is about the new Maths GCSE, which is quite rare for us because it’s very specific, but there was such an immediate backlash against it that we found it interesting. We’ll also be looking at whether schools should be making children work-ready, and that whole tangent about what are schools for, should they be much more of a mechanism to prepare children for work, and the impact that has on the curriculum, on schooling and so on.

One of the nice things about the Battle is that the people from the education sector, for example, that we attract will look at the programme and they will be interested in sessions about issues from another sector. You can try out different things, a bit like at music festivals. We attract a particularly young audience as well, lots of students and young professionals, and increasingly large numbers of sixth formers too, so we have that kind of intergenerational vibrancy.

Cleo: At BESA’s Insight Day in early July, you argued that students have become “snowflakes” because we adults tend to over-protect them; what solution would you recommend to ensure children receive care and protection (which is a right enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989) without turning into “snowflakes” who are afraid of everything?

Claire: Nobody has the right to be safe, that’s not a political right. Safety can be used as a value – and we have a keynote on that at the Battle of Ideas. But often, when you demand safety, you have to compromise something else, like freedom. For example, government can use terrorism to rid you of your freedom. It doesn’t mean that we should aim for things to be unsafe, but if we organise everything around safety as a value, at least we need to understand what it means. When you take safety as an end, you also undermine the idea that people can keep themselves safe, and their own resilience – you infantilise yourself.

That’s what the festival is about: it’s asking “what do we think about that”, rather than putting things as facts that you are not allowed to question. We are helping people to think for themselves, rather than giving them prescriptive answers.

Visit the Battle of Ideas’ website to learn more and register your seat.