Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

Last week a BBC Radio 3 scheme looking for “a new generation of public intellectuals” closed. Initiated in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the scheme aimed to unearth a new wave of public thinkers with an expressed “interest in broader cultural debate”. The competition was open to all – as long as you worked inside a university and in a discipline that the AHRC supports (so economists, political scientists, sociologists, etc, were all excluded as well as Joe public).

Social innovator (and co-creator of the excellent Dark Mountain project) Dougald Hine has blogged about the Radio 3/AHRC scheme and the need to recognise and encourage public thinkers beyond the academy.

Now, call me self-interested, but by this criterion, the likes of John Berger or a young Karl Polanyi would fall through their net. I’m not comparing myself to those remarkable men. But as someone whose work gets cited by academics in a range of disciplines and is, I hope, beginning to make some impression in the public sphere, I’m disappointed to be excluded from consideration.

This isn’t just about me, though – there’s a whole network of people I’m aware of in the UK and beyond who are doing substantial new thinking from outside of academia – often in close and constructive dialogue with those operating from inside university departments. The way Radio 3 and the AHRC are approaching this project is going to miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of our generation – many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.

It certainly seems odd that, as one commentator noted, the very terms of Radio 3’s scheme would rule out Antonio Gramsci, inventor of the term “public intellectual”. Lots of excellent thinking goes on in our universities but, as almost any academic will concur, academic departments – and research councils – do not always encourage broad, cross-disciplinary thought that challenges the way we live. And with the pressures that seem certain to heap upon social sciences and humanities in light of last week’s events in Westminster it would be naive to expect positive changes in this situation anytime soon.

As well as writing to Radio 3 controller, Roger Wright, asking him to broader the terms of the “new thinkers” scheme, Hine has also called for nominations for innovative public thinkers outside the academy. I’ll put forward a couple of names, Pat Kane, whose sui generis writing on social life, and particularly play, has long been a source of inspiration, and Jenny Diski, who has spent a career unswervingly seeing the world differently without slipped into tired contrariness.

Who would you choose? What kind of public thinkers should we (and institutions such as the BBC and the AHRC) be recognising and encouraging?

A Scottish Political Innovation?

When Mick Fealty calls asking for a favour it’s hard to say no. Not because he leans on you (which he doesn’t) but because you know that if he’s involved it’s going to be something vibrant, challenging and original.

And that’s exactly what the Edinburgh Political Innovation camp on Saturday was.

Billed as an ‘unconference’ it was a free-form opportunity for politically engaged folk to creatively address old – and new – political problems. I gave a short spiel on the role of bloggers in the Irish financial crisis (have a look at Robert Stewart‘s excellent video below), and enjoyed some really fecund discussions with a host of interesting folk including Scotsman columnist Joan McAlpine, writer, musician and activist Pat Kane, and Green blogger Peter McColl.

Political Innovation plenary session from Robert Stewart on Vimeo.

Event orgainsers Slugger O’Toole also have put up a summary of the day – and the resulting blog posts – on their site (which I promised Paul Evans I’d contribute more to).

As well as talking about the Irish economy and media, I was busy enlisting supporters, and ideas, for my campaign for spending increases. Commentators don’t come much more witty, intelligent and insightful than Pat Kane who had some excellent suggestions for viral videos as well as delivering a timely reminder of the need to encorporate environmental and social sustainability into any campaign for effective political change. Hopefully I’ll be posting more on this shortly.

Since the Political Innovation camp I’ve read with interest a call by James Masters, who works for Green MSPs Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie at Holyrood and spoke at the day’s plenary, for a cross-party politics event based on the annual Swedish summer conference at Almedalen. The Swedes’ model is a basically a political conference freed from all the partisan trappings where new ideas can be brought to the table and (hopefully) a much wider swath of the public involved.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be a physical conference, as some have suggested, but could be hosted online instead to broaden participation. As someone who is easily put off by party political machines and their mega-conferences the Almedalen model certainly sounds great: new ideas, no political grandstanding, some decent debate, and maybe (just maybe) some Scottish sunshine.