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The Public Philosopher: "Committing acts of public philosophy"

Monday 2 April 2012, 10:18

Hugh Levinson Hugh Levinson edits BBC Radio current affairs programmes, including Crossing Continents and From Our Own Correspondent

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Editors note: Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel visits the London School of Economics for a series of public discussions in which he deconstructs contemporary ethical dilemmas. Hugh Levinson talks about working with The Public Philosopher. You can hear the programme on Radio 4 at 9am on Tuesday 3, 10 and 17 April 2012.

Michael Sandel, Harvard political philosopher presents The Public Philosopher on Radio 4.

It's great spending time with a rock star. Everyone's gazing at you, or rather at your new best friend. Teenagers wait yearningly for their chance just to ask nervously for an autograph or even - OMG! - pose for a photo with their hero. It's hormone city. It's exciting. It's wild. And who is the rock star? Mick Jagger? Bruce Springsteen? Or perhaps a newbie like Ed Sheeran?

Well, actually he's er…Michael Sandel. Not a man to strap on a Telecaster or that likely to crowd surf, but a rock star all the same. A rock star of political philosophy.

We were at the London School of Economics to record the first in a series of discussions titled The Public Philosopher. We knew that Michael Sandel, who's a professor at Harvard, had something of a following. After all, he had had a fantastic reception when he delivered a memorable series of Reith Lectures in 2009. But even in those three years, things had changed.

The first sign was when the tickets were released. The twittersphere went insane. "Anyone who doesn't apply on Tuesday is daft," one fan tweeted. "Got a ticket for LSE Michael Sandel Lecture! #wooooo" wrote another.

There were 2,500 ticket requests in just a few hours. The application was window was hurriedly closed before things went too nutty. When we arrived at the venue, there was a long, long queue for return tickets, and the LSE was forced to open up two overflow rooms.

So why the excitement? It has a lot to do with Michael Sandel's remarkable teaching style - or what he sometimes calls "committing acts of public philosophy."

He starts with a current controversy and then throws it out to his audience, via a series of deceptively simple questions. "What do you mean by that? Who disagrees? Tell us why that's bad? Who has an answer to that question?" and his favourite: "What do you think?"

At the LSE, one question he addressed was whether universities should give preference to applicants to poorer backgrounds.

One audience member called Lucy argued that they should. So Michael Sandel posed a scenario where he was an applicant who had done well, but wasn't admitted because of preferences given to poorer students.

"What do you say to me Lucy?" he asked.

Lucy began: "Well I think that if the other person got…"

Sandel interrupted "No, no talk to me..." And by challenging her managed to extract what he described as Lucy's "radical thesis".

Through this exciting, interactive style he gets to the roots of the philosophical notions we hold - often unconsciously - about notions like fairness and the public good. No wonder that the televising of his Harvard series of lectures on justice have been a massive internet hit and won him a global following.

So that's why he gets rock star treatment in London. But as he rather abashedly told me, that's nothing. You should see what happens when he goes to Tokyo….

Hugh Levinson is Editor of The Public Philosopher on BBC Radio 4

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    Comment number 1.

    Very interesting discussion. I would comment that discrimination is always dangerous. What about children with rich parents who never read a book - I would say their background is disadvantaged as compared with poor children whose parents give them encouragement to achieve.

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    Comment number 2.

    Interesting discussion. It cannot be assumed that all children who attend private school are from wealthy backgrounds. Many have scholarships, other parents make huge sacrifices to meet fees. In rural areas where there is no choice of state secondary schools, the decision to go private is often made to provide opportunity in something not available in the state school e.g. ensemble music experience. Private schools in general probably aim for a more rounded curriculum and are less exam driven than the state equivalent, many have an intake which is, in terms of academic ability, as 'comprehensive' as that of the state system. Why should A-Level or equivalent exam results not be a suitable selection process for all?

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    Comment number 3.

    A comment was made about the high fees for postgraduate study. As a two parent family which had never gone beyond the basic income tax bracket, getting them through school and trying to help with university fees meant that when one of them gained a post graduate place a decade ago, the £10.000 fee, let alone London living costs, meant that she could not go. So it is not just the poor, but average incomes, that are affected.

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    Comment number 4.

    Very much enjoyed the discussion

    For one great moment I thought the concept of meritocracy was going to be addressed...

    For example: when we have created the perfect one what then? Will those who have reached the top entirely on merit be so exemplary that the process will begin all over again, or will the `top` people run true to human behaviour through the pull up the ladder behind them ensuring the succession of their own and those in their own image!

    And if this happens what becomes of those with less merit; who will speak for them?

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    Comment number 5.

    Thank you for an exciting program. Can I suggest that the terms discussed be definied before discussion starts. What are universities for ? To create leaders for a nation. As grand as it sounds, it is non the less true. Who do you want as a leader? The best and fairest: and that is why the so called ''meritocracy'' has been put in place, which at the end of the day is nothing less than another term for academic selection. It is not matter either you deserve it or not. It is a matter wether you gonna be the best for the job.
    Yet, as a nation, it would be a huge mistake to have an elite who turns the country into a nepotic system, the sons of the so called elite, being, as we all know, much more likely then their counterparts to attend the best universities.
    That's when positive discrimination kicks in. A country need leaders representing all communities and the country makes room for them. A kid from a poor background whose parents first language is not English (my first language is not English, so I do apologise in advance for any barbarisms) and who benefits from unconditional love and support might not be more deserving than a kid who witness violence at home in a good suburb. University choice is not about being fair or making up for life difficulties. It's all about what is good for the country. And what is good for any country is a leadership which reflects its social making and in doing so gives hope to all the parents of all the children of all the communitis and walk of life that one day their kids can lead.

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    Comment number 6.

    What an amazing gift Michael Sandel has for leading a debate. The calmness of his voice, perfect summation of each point of view, referring back to previous points of view by name. It made what could have been an otherwise dry topic one of the most interesting programmes I have heard. Can't wait for the next one.

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    Comment number 7.

    Its Interesting that in this debate so many forms of class discrimination are displayed . The simplest is the voice, and although subjective, we can all hear a fair amount of middle or upper-class accents. The next is argument form. Sandal is trying to employ a strict logical format to the argument. He is skilful in distilling the arguments so that they can be conditioned as , ' legitimate ' or sound arguments . But the bluff and bluster from some of the students is such that it suggests a fair amount of interview practice. The third is the level of self confidence displayed. Non of these skills are readily available to the working class . I am from this class, and I know. So I am pointing out that this debate is being held amongst a class of people that have already benefited from the discrimination they are trying to solve. This is all very nice and altruistic but why not try asking someone who hasnt already benefited. maybe he or she would give a simpler answer. My answer to this then is this, Universities should NOT give preference to working class people. They should be asked to judge their applicants purely on academic achievement. But they should be scientific in there approach . The results should be viewed blind. No interview , no reference to extra curricular activity and the university should not know which school the applicant came from. This would immediately remove some of the discrimination present in the application process. The next stage is more complicated. Why should we have privileged education? Why should a richer child have a better education than a poorer one? We should scrap private education. We dont send black children to one school and white to another, why do we do it for rich and poor? And the results are clear , most professionals have a private education. Are we supposed to believe richer people are genetically predisposed to the professions? This simple inequality needs to be addressed . Then the other inequalities in children's lives. Surestarts are being attacked by this government , and this is a terrible thing. Children from worse off backgrounds need this help at an early age.

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    Comment number 8.

    One participant commented that the inability to define class scientifically was a showstopper for positive discrimination. How about using total family expenditure on the candidate's education, total amount of welfare benefits recieved by candidate's family over candidate's lifetime? Then downgrade the entrance requirements proportionately according to how much positive discrimination is deemed appropriate.

    Just a starting point for a mechanism to which many other factors could be added. Not addressing the question of whether positive discrimination would be a good thing, although I think it would be for several of the reasons discussed in this program. We need more of this sort of debate, and even more we need some politicians prepared to take on the "markets are gods" mentality seriously.

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    Comment number 9.

    If you are determined that places at your institution should be awarded by a new criteria based on perceived deprivation then ask yourself whether you would sacrifice your own place to help further the injustice that you want to remove.

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    Comment number 10.

    It was an interesting programme about the clash of two fundamental principles. On the one hand we have meritocracy. We want the best brain surgeons or aircraft designers - irrespective of class, gender or colour. On the other hand we object to unfairness. Today almost everyone decries any discrimination against women and blacks for education. Many also feel that the obstacles to working class children getting to higher education are too high.
    The central question is where do you draw the line between the two principles capability and fairness?
    Each of us draws a line depending on our class, gender, ethnicity, attitudes of those around us, the media and politicians. There is no objective 'right solution'.
    My personal view is that the debate is dominated by products of public school and Oxbridge and, dare I say it, philosophers. That is why the tripling of tuition fees was hardly mentioned.

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    Comment number 11.

    I was disappointed that no one asked why we differentiate between pre 18 education and post? Ultimately why shouldn't everyone who wants to go to university go? We don't advocate that only particularly able or particularly rich children go to school, we assume that learning benefits them and society so why don't we see university education in the same light? Not that everyone must go (like school) but why not those that want to learn go, it can only enrich, and if they can't hack it they will change paths having learnt something.
    Would have been interesting to explore further ed from a different perspective.

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    Comment number 12.

    Enjoyed the programme. But there is a difference between class (which is becoming less relevant these days) and wealth. Attacking wealthy individuals and groups seems to be on the up since the financial crisis. I come from a working class background. I left school with no o levels and 1 cse grade 3. Over the years I have accumalated wealth. I have become a parent. I want the best for my children and send them to private school. It seems ilogical to me to now discriminate against my children because I want for them the education I didn't have.

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    Comment number 13.

    A wonderful show, well done Radio 4. Once again you have provided the listeners with a thoughtful and lively programme with a fanstasic speaker. He was so amazing, listening, guiding and calling people by their name. I wish I had him as a lecturer - wonderful. Shall listen to all the rest!

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    Comment number 14.

    Good programme! I was wondering what the implications would be for private schools. If pupils were at greater risk of being rejected simply because they attended a certain school, parents might be less inclined to pay the school fees.

    I have heard that in Texas the top 10 per cent of pupils from all schools are helped in some way to pursue a course at university. I have no details of the scheme. I have also read that one country in Asia outlawed private tuition in a bid to make the education system fairer.

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    Comment number 15.

    I enjoyed Lucy's point about how we should feel privileged to have a university place.

    At our University, undergraduate students often seem like they are just going through the motions after college. A lack of motivation manifests itself as low attendance and time spent on youtube in labs. It makes you wonder who lost out. Poorer students? I think not. Just look at the figures for UCAS applicants after fee rises http://www.ucas.ac.uk/about_us/media_enquiries/media_releases/2012/20120327

    For 17/18 year olds there is a low 3% drop, with an 11% drop in older students. I believe that older students may make a more informed choice about coming to university, and maybe could warrant a place over 17/18 year olds. Figures for academic excellence of older, compared to younger students are patchy at best, but this is a debate I’d like to see more of.

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    Comment number 16.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the debate about University entrants. I have just retired from University of Sussex and the only criteria that I considered important was that the student could cope with the much more intensive subject matter, and especially in Engineering, that their maths was first class. Letting someone in who is disadvantaged with lower A level grades just makes them even more disadvantaged if they can't keep up. Do you really want your suspension bridge built by someone who scraped through their degree with 41%?

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    Comment number 17.

    I thought this was a well-led debate by Michael Sandel - it was extremely riveting and thought-provoking to listen to. I myself am in my last year of secondary school hoping to get the grades for my single conditional offer (out of four) to study at university in the Autumn. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to attend a very good independent school through a bursary which pays for most of my school fees. I am definitely not middle-class (I have one parent who provides for three of us under 18) but can understand the distinction being made about the differences between state and independent sector schools (I went to a state primary school and have friends at top grammar schools).

    However, I do not think that working class (however you define this) students should have priority or an entitlement to a university place based on their family income or financial background. I believe that the problem of university allocation should be addressed by equalling the balance between the broad spectrum of education, across the grammar schools, comprehensives, etc. For example though I am naturally quiet and shy, through many opportunities to give presentations since the age of twelve, I now feel relatively confident in presenting myself to others. Though I am nowhere near as vocal and skilled in comparison to others in my class at my independent school, I find there is generally a difference in public-speaking between state and independent schools. Gearing state schools to incorporate other skills such as public-speaking, broadening student's knowledge beyond the curriculum and other intellectually stimulating activities will enable them to become more interesting and vibrant people, who can not only achieve the grades, but have a passion and energy that has been nurtured.

    This is because though I believe that Lucy had a valid point about the student who achieved ABB against all the odds in a low-performing state school vs. the AAB student from an independent school, the fact is that universities have to decide who will cope better and thrive on the course at university. Though the ABB student may have worked very hard to gain those grades, the truth is that they are still not academically as high as the AAB student. Therefore, it would seem that the AAB student would do better at university. However, if you supplemented the ABB student's curriculum with the described activities, it may become clear through their personal statement or interview that they warrant the place more than the AAB student. The ultimate purpose of university is to better yourself academically and they should select students on academic ability and potential. Academic ability can easily be measured through grades and cut-off marks but potential can just as simply be explored through more personal vices such as in an interview etc. By taking the time to discover the applicant's true personality you can more sensibly judge who to give a place too.

    Although I do accept that the practicality in this suggestion is flawed as the majority of courses rely merely on grades and a personal statement, I think that someone needs to invoke a huge reform in the way university places are conducted. Though not entirely related, the whole system of applying BEFORE you have your final exam grades seems ridiculous - I think something needs to be done to either shift exam timetables earlier or universities need to sort out their admin quicker so that they can place students after exam results. With friends applying to American universities, perhaps the idea of a personal essay (much less restricted than the current UCAS personal statement) is an idea to adopt so that again a wider perception of the individual is accounted for?

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    Comment number 18.

    Apparently 50% of the UK gold medallists at the Beijing olympics were educated at private schools (compared to 8% of the population). Given that the 2012 Olympic Games will be largely funded by general taxation (to a much greater extent in fact than our leading universities which also enjoy significant revenues from non-governmental sources) should the selectors discriminate in favour of those from less advantaged backgrounds?

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    Comment number 19.

    I listened to the programme and was underwhelmed. Failed to see what all the fuss was about. Yes, the Professor stimulated and facilitated a thought provoking discussion - but so he should - he is an ivy league academic after all! On the basis of what I heard I wouldn't call him an intellectual or real thinker. I studied Philosophy in the 1980s at two Universities - in the UK (Essex) and US (Memphis) - and the impact of some of the professors and ordinary lecturers I experienced there will stay with me for life. It was a privilege to be taught by them. They may not all have been famous names like Professor Sandel, but their learning and erudition was profound. Sandel must have a good agent I imagine and knows how to 'market' himself in this un-intellectual age.

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    Comment number 20.

    I attended this and enjoyed the debate, I thought Sandel chaired it well. In fact, I'm actually James who spoke towards the end of the show and have a few further thoughts on the issue.

    It's strange to hear yourself back on something like this and cringe a bit, but I should come clean and say I actually attended private school, which may make my comments sound fairly hypocritical. I was also fortunate enough to go to Oxford after much hard work so how would I have felt if I knew I'd been discriminated against? That's a tough question, but this goes beyond the individual and is a societal issue. I guess the problematic attempt is, at the very least, to think impartially about these matters, irrespective of where you come from and whether you've benefited from current arrangements.

    What I disagreed with and what stirred me up in the show were the comments from some in the audience asserting that 'class' was not a quantifiable issue in this debate. I think it is for many, albeit in a different guise: no one's saying for a moment that we're talking about old 19th century divides for instance, but the figures for access to university do tell a story. Research from the Sutton Trust, for example, shows that one third of students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge come from the top 100 schools in the country, 84 of which are independent schools (and independent school pupils form 7% of the population). Granted, however, as one comment above said, that the makeup of private schools is more diverse than often suggested.

    The problem is, what is to be done here? I don't think accepting the status quo is an adequate answer since, by many measures, social mobility is getting worse. A report by the last government, for instance, found that the richest tenth of households in the UK received income four times above those in the poorest decile (well up on the '80s). No surprises, it's much greater when you switch from income to assets.

    I think we should consider all sides of the debate: what are the arguments for alternative action, what are the arguments against. An alternative (and better) approach might be to emphasize the importance of supply side reform at the level of schools by extending opportunities to more children through academies and other policy ideas. Additionally, an integrated approach towards key factors in the early years such as childcare has been called for by recent research. What can't be done, I believe, is to deny that the issue is a live one and to leave the table. All options should be assessed.

    That's why I

 

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