Battle of Ideas


by Katharine Fry

Battle of Ideas returned for its 9th weekend with two days of panel debates at the Barbican across streams including Keynote Controversies, School Fights, Literature Wars, Battle Over Scientific Information and other headings of that ilk.

I began the morning an eager, if sleepy, beaver with an arts education to defend and headed straight for Arts in Schools, Luxury or Necessity? With a panel that consisted of Susan Coles, President of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, Leslie Cunliffe, honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter, Dr Wendy Earle, convenor of the Arts and Society Forum, and Emma Ridgway, curator of creative learning at the Barbican, none of the speakers made a case against arts education in schools. The debate centred instead around whether their inclusion in the curriculum should be based on measurable transferable skills that might benefit the politicians and business men of the future or whether the arts are vital because they add a je ne sais quoi to human existence. Not that useful really.

An extended stint with Keynote Controversies yielded meatier stuff with East Asia: The New Global Hotspot? followed by State vs. Market: Is There A Way Forward? In the former, the panel tried to steer us through Chinese nationalism, China being owned by the Communist Party while James Woodhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, remorselessly and wittily ripped apart Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University, and Ben Chu, author of Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong, attacking the latter with page by page reference to inconsistencies in his work.

In State vs. Market the barbs were much better hidden with most the panel agreeing on the need for both state and market activities but with better regulation while Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, encouraged us all to agree to be shorter trees with more time and energy for sex, and any mention of Socialism from the floor was greeted with universal frostiness.

Armed with the tools to safeguard the global economy I cruised by a 3d printing demonstration before a literary showdown on The Art of Biography. Kate Bassett, John Bridcut. Gerry Feehily and Frances Spalding, hang your heads in shame. This way no debate, just a self- indulgent platform for each to advertise their own biographical works. I walk out in bored disgust to join a friend for much more stimulating coffee and boy talk.

With around 80 public debates over two days, Battle of Ideas shines a spotlight on a broad cross-section of both public and private issues but can such debate actually lead to fruitful law and policy changes or is any display of free-speech just part of the mechanics of the dominant system?

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