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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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