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Niall Ferguson: Reith Lecture pt.4 - Civil and Uncivil Societies

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Richard Fenton-Smith 08:36, Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Editor's note: In the Reith Lecture this week, Niall Ferguson talked about Civil and Uncivil Societies . The programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

Niall Ferguson


""Over the past 50 years governments have encroached too far on the realm of civil society," says Niall Ferguson in his fourth and final Reith Lecture, titled Civil and Uncivil Societies .

Society, he says, would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. Basically, we can do better by doing it for ourselves.

Education, in particular, is one field Prof Ferguson believes could benefit from a more hands-off approach from the state.

"If there is one educational policy I should like to see adopted in the UK, it would be a policy that aimed to increase significantly the number of private schools," he declares.

It doesn't escape Prof Ferguson that this is the kind of statement which the Left reflexively denounce as elitist - especially, he says, privately educated liberals. There are conservatives, too, who see private schools as the cause of inequality, not a solution.

Well, says Niall Ferguson, they are utterly wrong.

For about a hundred years, he says, there's no doubt the expansion of state education was a good thing, because there was insufficient provision - but we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies like this.

The current state education system, says Ferguson, is a typical monopoly. Its quality has declined over the years because of a lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests - in this case, the government and teaching unions.

And that's where the state education system could benefit by emulating the private school sector - namely with increased independence and competition.

The growth of the Academy system in England and Wales - introduced by the previous Labour government and expanded with zeal by the current coalition - as well as the advent of Free Schools, says Ferguson, are a step in the right direction. These are schools autonomous from the state, in the hands of teachers and parents who understand the needs of their students better than a Whitehall bureaucrat.

Critics argue this is fine if you're in a middle-class neighbourhood, where the local parents have the time and social capital to make a Free School work, but what about those in poorer neighbourhoods?

What these critics seem to forget, says Prof Ferguson, is that children from deprived areas have already been failed. State education standards have suffered greatly as a result of rampant grade inflation to exaggerate performance and conceal decline.

"Are we really helping the poor by trapping them in rubbish schools?" Ferguson asks.

He points to the success of schools such as Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, one of London's most deprived boroughs. Previously condemned as a failing school, this year, ten Mossbourne students were offered places at Cambridge University.

Prof Ferguson makes it clear that he is not arguing for private schools over state schools, but a greater mix which will force all schools to raise their game.

"The biggest threat," he says "is complacency... thinking we're fine... that our schools are great."

If the education revolution of the 20th Century was that basic education became available for most people in democracies - the education revolution of the 21st Century, says Ferguson, should be that good education will become available for an increasing proportion of children.

Listen to all Niall Ferguson's Reith Lectures

Download Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures

Download The Reith Lectures Archive 1976 - 2011

Download The Reith Lectures Archive 1948 - 1975



  • Comment number 1.

    Oh how the BBC indulges right wing views. Niall Ferguson could not answer questions which challenge his elitist views. And Sue Lawley tiptoes around him. The contributers from the audience should be given more time to challenge these reactionary views, otherwise what is the point of an audience. BBC balanced? Don't make me laugh.

  • Comment number 2.

    I have worked as a teacher and with teachers as a psychologist for 40 years.Teachers in the state schools have never once said to me that they find it difficult to teach the able,motivated pupils.If we have to have private schools then at least they could justify their charitable status by offering bursaries to those pupils who find it difficult to learn in large state schools with large classes and poor resources,those with learning difficulties and/or difficult behaviour.

  • Comment number 3.

    Interesting that both the audience and Sue Lawley went rather quiet when Niall Ferguson pointed out that both Civil Rights and Stonewall were successful because of popular associations and that neither of these hugely influential movements were State initiatives.

  • Comment number 4.

    I really did feel this was one where the audience knew more about the subject, than the speaker. John Curtice's intervention seemed to call into question Ferguson's use of data (not for the first time). As with much of Niall Ferguson's work, there are some interesting ideas, condescendingly explained and overwhelmed by his ego.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well said Mr Ferguson. Those of a different view to yours in the audience failed to challenge you on the principle issue of educational achievement as the facts all show that state intervention on a large scale results in inefficiency or failure. Knowing this, the dissenters to your view then changed the debate to the social achievements of a school. These may happily occur but also occur in the private school. In a private school however, they do not displace the principle objective of a fine education but add to it.

    Please don't be deflected from your purpose.

  • Comment number 6.

    Well said,Niall Ferguson. The outrage of the response proves the sensitivity of the subject. It is the lessons of the successful schools that should be learned and developed, recognising the results of those schools without political correctness getting in the way of truth.

  • Comment number 7.

    Niall Ferguson cherry picks to support his views. He mentioned Scandinavia several times yet did not mention Finland, a consistently high performer on Pisa scores. The private sector in upper secondary education in Finland is tiny, mostly used by the children of migrant executives. Public education for those up to 18 is regarded as the bedrock on which all future education is based. Education is secular in that it is not organised on faith grounds though there is some support, albeit tiny) from some religious groups to go down this path. If you want to know more, a good place to start is Pasi Stahlberg’s blog which outlines the reasons for Finnish success. A good alternative to the Reith lectures. It's not that these lectures have been upsetting a consensus as he maintains. Ferguson is current Conservative Party orthodoxy.

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree that there is a corrosive complacency in European economies, blind to the increasing competitiveness of the East. I think here the answer lies in reducing the benefit dependency culture and liberalising labour markets, rather than creating a more elitist education system.
    Having lived in Belgium for six years and sending my children to local Flemish primary and secondary schools I was impressed by the rigour and standards achieved. I realised that state educational systems need not mean no choice: Steiner; Freinet; Catholic; free schools and so on, are all part of the state education system at no cost to parents and with their complete freedom to chose. Remarkably there are rarely waiting lists. There are very academic high schools, which have incredibly intensive programs. They are non-selective, but a pupil must pass each year to graduate to the following year. I am convinced the success of the system was because all characters of society were represented in the schools, there being no private sector to speak of, other than the international schools, thereby providing a very meritocratic education. In the UK we have an increasingly elitist two-tier system, the independent sector being unaffordable for vast swathes of society that no amount of scholarships or bursaries can fix. Furthermore, the system encourages an old-boy independent sector by giving them charitable status; awarding Income, CGT, IHT tax relief on all donations. In my view, all independent schools should be free schools and non-fee paying. Yes, it would increase the education bill, but our children are our future and I would argue for cuts in almost all other welfare to pay for a more egalitarian, meritocratic education system.

  • Comment number 9.

    Beware statistic yielding ideologues (of the left or right), hammering home their truths with narcissistic certainty. I suspect the egoism of state dictators (of all hues) is not so different to that of corporate leaders who believed they were "masters of the universe". Perhaps it is each individuals capacity for egoistic self-delusion (and certainty) that underlies our lurching from one extreme to the other. "The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on".

  • Comment number 10.

    Why is the subject of so-called 'DEPENDENCY CULTURE' now a MUST for inclusion in just about EVERY debate nowadays, regardless of the central subject matter? Has anyone else noticed how this right-wing political creation has subtly entered every sphere of argument? If the subject is education, it's there..the bank-led crisis?..same..Would the BBC PLEASE stop allowing this manipulative hijacking of deabte?! You are consistently allowing its inclusion when in reality it is simply an IDEA, a SUGGESTION and it is RIGHT-wing propaganda. As our youngsters say, 'have a word with yourself'!

  • Comment number 11.

    oh how the BBC indulges the most vacuous academics with tv and radio time. Ferguson at best is a superficial historian of economics, meaning he quotes selectively from ancient historians and his own motivated biases and pretends that this makes him an economist. Why was he given a forum to mangle politics, law, and education? His affected voice, passive-aggression, prejudices ("Wales is Scotland light"), and highly selective use of data should exclude him from Radio 4's mandate for "intelligent talk", but the BBC gave him four lectures. The only thing that kept me listening was his entertaining inability to engage a skeptical audience, except by saying he expected such resistance.

  • Comment number 12.

    His argument hinges on the idea that private education creates intelligence.

    Is it not pure prejudice that confers priviledge on privately educated individuals. Yes there are state schools fighting a losing battle but there are many more privately educated people who's position in life far outstrips their natural ability.

    Glasgow academy may have given him the self confidence to deliver such a bombastic argument but not the brains to see the reality of the priviledges he has experienced.

  • Comment number 13.

    The evidence of dramatically declining social participation is compelling. Why is this happening and what does it mean ? Unfortunately, all we get are a number of unsupported assertions:

    1. That the decline in public participation of all kinds is due to a pervasive rise in dependency on the state, and that this may be reversed through more independent activity.

    No evidence at all is presented for this. Other candidates (eg the drastic decline in free time, social commoditisation, declining trust in institutions and the elderly, windfall economics, corporatisation etc) are not considered.

    2. That greatly increasing the size of the independent education sector would help to address the issue.

    Q. will having more private schools give rise to more or less social engagement & cohesion ? I think "less", but show me the evidence.

    3. Competition with independents, academies etc. would raise the "dire educational standards" in the state sector.

    There was a rather inconclusive discussion of the international evidence, and certainly nothing to indicate that overall educational standards are raised through this approach.

    In my view, State schools are hampered by having over-large classes and cohorts, more language and social difficulties, less committed parents and fewer extra-curricular resources per pupil - for trips, sports, clubs - ie less motivations, inspiration & focus. The quality of teaching and leadership appears to me to be the same as and often better than independent provision.

    That standards need to be raised is undeniable, but how any of this is solved by diverting money into elites is beyond me.

    Overall, Prof Ferguson needs to drop his political affiliations and make some better argued, practical recommendations - such as taking out the most difficult pupils and families and giving them special attention - perhaps in independent schools ?

    NB the likelihood that Academies and Free Schools are merely intended to funnel public funds into independent educational providers to secure them against the sort of insolvency risks they faced during the 2007 crisis, was not discussed.

  • Comment number 14.

    has history not taught us that facts and evidence are far superior to ideology in planning our lives? Ferguson's belief structure is seemingly based upon his own innate feelings of superiority rather than an accurate knowledge of contemporary life. He referred to people as 'he' and 'men'; focused on areas where he clearly has no knowledge - conflating free schools with academies; discussed Facebook without ref to Twitter; ignoring much that is good in the state sector - which has been after all rapidly catching up with, or indeed exceeding many private school outcomes ( which are losing pupil numbers ); denouncing British society without reference to all the community infrastructures which most of us know about etc etc. He also ignores the fact that there is now a huge gap between rich and poor and the 1% rich are singularly failing the 99%. How the BBC came to choose someone so ill informed to deliver the Reith Lectures needs to be addressed. Ferguson said himself that they are not meant to be political. Indeed, they are meant to demonstrate intellectual rigour. On both counts Ferguson failed. The decision to select him when there is so much talent on which to draw, sadly flawed.

  • Comment number 15.

    I would like to initially second the astute comments by 'sumitup'. However, having a British empire and slavery apologist, such as the swashbuckling Ferguson, speaking at the illustrious Reith lectures must be making Johnny Reith turn in his grave. I will not take any lectures on privatising heehaw from a man who is the investment consultant to GLG hedge fund management. Suanter on Fergie, no one cares what you think.

  • Comment number 16.

    As a product of the private school system he argues quite cogently from the point of view of those who have the resources to support that kind of education. Mr Ferguson had no meaningful response (other than debating school banter) to the question of how best to encourage the working class to be more involved in civil society and this highlights the narrowness of his world-view. It is a world-view that pursues a narrow self-interest in the name of the wider society in which he is based. As such, in the longer run, Ferguson has little to offer those who want to live in an improved society, crucially an improved society in which none of us have to hide behind a gated community wall or in the rarified but civilised atmosphere of an academic institution. The challenge over hundreds of years for morally responsible people has been how to build a society in which we can enjoy the life we want to pursue alongside those who for many varied reasons see the purpose of their lives in a very different light. Ferguson is eschewing moral responsibility for this wider issue by appealing to the metaphor of market-style competition, hoping that the marketplace will make the right decisions. As experienced academic economists will tell him, if he wants to listen to them, a market operation is never as simple as it seems and depends on so many contingent factors. The Reith Lecture slot is wasted on Mr Ferguson - it's an opportunity lost and other academics would have made more of it. He is simply expressing the 'correctness' of his attitudes and his lifestyle. That's just too narrow, sociologically interesting, but narrow.

  • Comment number 17.

    I was appalled at Sue Lawley's partisan and discourteous involvement in the argument instead of maintaining the proper detachment of a chairperson. Can't imagine where BigBawsMcGraw got his "empire and slavery apologist" from!! And Jos21, Ferguson's use of "he" and "men" was in referring to quotations. And Sumitup (whose literacy leaves something to be desired), Ferguson didn't say that private education created intelligence; what nonsense. Nothing was said about diverting money to elites, either. It's astonishing how people's prejudices and preformed attitudes mean that they hear what they want to hear...

  • Comment number 18.

    Dear Hermit2006,

    My assertion that flowery fergie is an 'empire and slavery apologist' is derived from being well informed, well read and of course well dressed. Mibbies calling yourself a hermit is indicative of your ignorance of Fergusons political and historical biases.

    Moreover, if one can assume you have a sembalance of intelligence or some, or if at all any grey matter, you could read between the elitist lines of fergie's diatribe. He does suggest that private education would create what he would define as intelligence. Coming from such a staunch politically and economically neo liberal perspective it is plain to see. Do you require me to point it out? Perhaps provide you with a basic outline? Make sure you keep within the lines though.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Niall Ferguson seems to imply that trade unions, unlike bowling clubs, are not part of civil society. Sorry, but civil society doesn't have to be non-political, and Ferguson wants voluntary organisations to regain some of the political role which the state has taken over. Trade unions form the heart of the historical working class movement, and Ferguson professes to want to include the working classes in the running of society. Do organisations have to have Ferguson's approval before they are classed as civil society?

  • Comment number 21.

    My wife told me to listen to this and assumed I'd rant about it. I also found I could feedback here, so I took notes while listening.

    Associations were indeed historically good, but couldn't handle the scale of what was needed, that's why the state took over, hence the welfare state. They clearly decayed when the state took over, as people start to feel that the state would pay someone to do what they'd otherwise do for free, so why should they take that person's job away.

    Now, people having to work longer hours to afford things like a roof over their heads have less time to take part in society. People often need two incomes per family rather than the one they needed in the 50's. I think this affects lack of involvement more than facebook! Correlation =/= Causation though.

    He is certainly correct that educational institutions that get more funding generally do better (although he conflates that with private/public). There is also the capability for less regulated institutions to do better, as more regulated ones tend to stifle good teachers, and bring equality at a lower than average level. As one of his questioners noted, however, this is far from guaranteed. I think the government has increased regulation of teaching more than the unions, personally, as they largely fought against it. He is on the same side as the unions in wanting less presciptive education.

    I suggest that there wasn't shown a causal link between privately funded education and attainment between West and Far East. I suggest that social mobility is much more based on education there than here (where it has been dropping in recent years), and that as a result people put more time, effort and money into education, resulting in higher attainment and more money spent on private education. I certainly saw greater than average efforts from far eastern students at my University than other overseas students.

    Really don't understand why he thinks that anecdote trumps proper data, which he stated during in the Q&A (was asked about studies refuting his claims - said "sometimes you just have to go and see for yourself", or stuff to that effect). Perhaps not surprising as he didn't source any of his data. Whilst I disagreed with his thesis, I enjoyed the lecture, but the Q&A was unfortunate. Hopefully it's just that he wasn't used to having to answer questions from a highly educated audience. Normally academics are given time to consider questions in written form.

    I am perhaps spoilt by listening to stuff like the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, where the content is more based on real studies, and less on personal opinions without data to back it up. This seemed more like Horizon, where the expected content is edge case theory presented as truth, though better in that it had a chance of people who actually had the real data to ask questions.

  • Comment number 22.

    A wider point in response to Niall Ferguson's lecture, based on first-hand experience. My family has experienced state school education and private school education. Interestingly, when my daughter got a 60% scholarship from her prep school to one very highly regarded private school, she told us she didn't like the atmosphere and didn't want to go. Yes, it was dynamic, the teachers were always enthusiastic and the atmosphere was competitive, but intuitively she felt it was a hothouse and it wouldn't therefore suit her. I trust her intuition about such things and now she is this year off to a Russell Group university in October, so I feel vindicated. One test she failed at another rival private school entry exam when she was eleven was quite telling - a group problem solving exercise judged her not to be team player and she was marked down. We have now realised after seven years of life in a state comprehensive that she is indeed a very good team player, but back then she wasn't sufficiently selfish and single-mindedly pushy. At the private school group exercise they marked the pushy girls higher than the constructively inquisitive, those with an ability to listen and not just hear what others had to say. My point is that his model of education, the English public school, is in fact an educational version of a very defensive gated community (a metaphor I would use to characterise his political philosophy too) - a gated community within which a minority of the population are able to build a fragile, progressive and rarified atmosphere for academic work. There are currently 3,500 state secondary schools in England alone (last I looked at the data), how rarified can they all become when they are all generating a similarly rarified climate, assuming that is at all possible in so many schools? The trick of the public school is that it excludes others and builds a very special atmosphere, a high level of curricula and extra-curricular activities, but that cannot be easily replicated for all of our citizens, not least because the motivation of parents and the support they offer their children is so varied. Ferguson's lifestyle, if he hasn't noticed is nice but narrow, and it is insufficient to offer any longer term approach for a very large population such as England's, the UK's or indeed other complex countries.

  • Comment number 23.

    His assertion about American education being the best in the world is not backed up by the statistics; any review of cost against employment or productivity/development alone shows that American universities are less cost effective than current state sponsored (this is not free, we pay for it indirectly)UK education. He is only showing his biases, as a Harvard lecturer himself. The best education model in the world currently is the Swedish, it has higher graduate employment figures, more Nobel prize winners, and greater development; however this is fully state sponsored and supported system that flies in the face of this lecture. Anecdotes are not facts and I find this ill researched, widely biased (politically motivated?) talk divisive at best.
    Any issues with education are less to do with the current structure, than the curriculum and teaching standards. Firstly politicians should not be interfering with curriculum, they should be supporting a development that continues on from Primary to Sixth form in as fluid and continuous way as possible. The methodology employed at primary should be carried on through. There should be less testing; the adoption of models such as Japanese education which is testing intense in order to create targets only creates paperwork and unnecessary stress for teachers and students, while giving politicians a justification at the expense of everyone else. Lastly there should be more student involvement in the running of schools and teacher development and teacher research. A culture of students contributing to the school, classes and curriculum established from primary schools on up through to higher education over several years will have a radical effect on not only the schools but the social views and responsibilities of said students.
    However this is only possible if a teaching license is not the marker of a teacher, but the beginning of career that develops through research in an flexible environment that allows experimentation and professional feedback.

  • Comment number 24.

    NF seems to have read very little, or if he has read it, ignored academic books about working class and trade union history. His use of throwaway remarks like "dead hand of local authority", a cliche. Study, as I have done, the past 130 years of Council minutes of your LA, not much evidence of "dead handism" there. I recently stopped tweeting now just retweet, because of being trolled by right wing politicos labelling me with meaningless, patronising cliches.

  • Comment number 25.

    DECLINE IN PARTICIPATION;very hard working professional colleague, excellent singing voice, youth theatre experience, leading man potential, asked to audition for local musical society: Sorry I have two teenage daughters, who participate in sports; I, too, still enjoy a game of sunday league soccer; what with running them around, and doing some fitness training, cannot spare 4 nights and Sunday pm for rehearsals.

  • Comment number 26.

    Professor Ferguson wishes to see "a vibrant civil society", such as to enable "a truly free nation to flourish", perhaps figuratively 'to march on Moscow', or reach for the stars as once we reached for Spanish doubloons or Eastern spices.

    As observed from earlier lectures, the professor has yet to examine the meaning of democracy, beyond 'whatever we choose it to be'. His 'empirical' view is of eternal threat from 'the tyranny of the majority', democracy then taken to be the cause seen by de Tocqueville, for the horrors of the failed French Revolution.

    Failing to appreciate the need for economic as well as political equality, to be able to claim democracy, Professor Ferguson is content to side with frontier vigilantism, against appeal to a hopelessly remote, elected but unrepresentative government. So, we are tempted again towards a Wild West romanticism, to be contrasted with a satirical Heaven on Earth, under "an immense and tutelary power", strumming on our harps for the "petty and paltry pleasures" of family and private friends, to "glut" our lives in perpetual childhood… all for want of neighbours in need, and "bowling clubs".

    Against the fate of social inactivity, of stagnation, of subjection to hidden tyranny, the professor advises pluralism in educational provision, a liberalised market for teachers to offer and parents to buy whatever seems to them best, state models to compete with privater models, the strong to help the weak, any inefficiencies of the market to be mitigated by vouchers, bursaries and scholarships.

    In good schools, Professor Ferguson clearly hopes, we will "learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct", to be citizens in more than just "voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law", further to "participate in the troop".

    Such a vibrant vision - 'the troop' being understood liberally - would be entirely compatible with, in fact dependent upon, market stability, this as always to be expected only with secure equality for the individual actors.

    Uncertainty attaching only to forms of schooling, as of goods in any market - to be tried and tested, supported or allowed to fade - the actors would remain free life-long to act or move for the better.

    Despite himself or not, Professor Ferguson points us to confrontation of higher realities, beyond the everyday, the trajectory of our local and global civilisation. We need to think about the meaning of 'past successes', about winners and losers and 'better ways', and about the meaning and conditions of shareable freedom and democracy.

    What better individual launch-pad, and collective performance platform, than that of shared self-government? All other options are as one, however graduated, species of slavery to Fear and Greed, call it Mammon, inevitable corruption in conflict of interest, far from love of God and of Neighbour as Self.

    There is urgent need to update Lincoln's prescription: as Rule of, for, by, the Equal People.

  • Comment number 27.

    As I understand it, Professor Ferguson is a History professor who was invited to give these lectures on basis of giving an analysis of history so that we can draw lessons about the present and the future. The reality is that we heard precious little about history, apart from mentions of Bagehot and de Tocqueville and a host of academics whom no one has heard of.

    In fact, there was precious little of that, as what we got was nothing to do with history, but pure politics. Prof Ferguson simply used the lectures to argue his already known neo conservative political views. He is of course entitled to whatever views he wants, but is the Reith Lecture the place for them as opposed to Newsnight or Question Time?

    The bottom line is that no one ever draws lessons from history. It is in reality the most political of subjects. All politicians are obsessed with history, and all modern historians are actually politicians as well, without exception - David Starkie, Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson, Simon Schama - the moment they open their mouths, they start plugging their political views.

    My proposal which I'm quite prepared to develop in the next Reith Lecture would be to ban teaching history from 1800 onwards - which would stop the nonsense of "drawing lessons" from history.

  • Comment number 28.

    how reassuring to see so many well put criticisms of the content of these lectures. I just know that the old days were not so good - in my life time I have seen the school leaving age rise from 15 yrs to 18 yrs for many. My cohort frequently left school with no qualifications - failure to access a grammar school being the explanation and, as we know, progress to those schools was determined by supply of places not lack of ability. To test the argument about qualification inflation I use a comparison with the driving test - does the growth in the number of people possessing a driving license mean that there has been a dumbing down of standards? The Professors logic would lead him to say this is so where as we all know it's not the case. My amateur reading of history is that if we leave health, welfare, education, housing and fair treatment at work to emerge from associational culture and philanthropy, fairness and equality cannot be assured for all.

  • Comment number 29.

    I also agree with the point made in the comments above that Mr Fergusson cherry picks the PISA scores. It's noticable that Singapore comes high on the rankings but is not mentioned even though Hong Kong and Macao are. Singapore provides some private education but I think the majority of Singapore schools are state run by far. My own child attends a local state school and it's very well run, in my opinion, despite being in a poor working class area.
    I think Mr Fergusson should apply more scientific principles and not only use evidence to support his claims but also be honest and seek to disprove his claims by citing counter-examples like Singapore.

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 31.

    These lectures have conveniently ignored the function of mass media and how the press, radio and TV held the West in the throes of a hypnotic trance. The digital revolution has broken the hold of media magnates, who are struggling to grasp back their declining supremacy. McLuhan studied the social transformations that occur when a new medium for transmitting ideas appears. It seems that this field of research has been abandoned. One wonders why.

  • Comment number 32.

    When people are faced with facts - actual visits to successful schools - they seem to show their agenda more clearly. And didn't this audience? I'd always wanted to teach because I thought it was important to teach - the audience didn't seem to want to talk too much about those being taught or teaching as a vocation or real measurements of quality. But there were of course a fair number of what Niall had previously called, in an earlier lecture, - 'Rent Collectors' - so their views were more about 'management' agendas.

  • Comment number 33.

    So depressing to hear overt neo conservative political ideology given a platform in the Reith Lectures. This was a purely political performance echoing most of Michael Gove's dogma even down to outrageous misrepresentation of data, substitution of facts for assertion and sneering at anyone who holds different views. Presumably Ferguson is a speech writer at the DfE. This was inappropriate on the Reith Lectures and undermines proper professional debate.

  • Comment number 34.

    Reith Lectures Nobbled & Demeaned

    This year’s Reith lecture was arrogant, self opinionated
    And self-righteous. No doubt he’ll pat his own back for that
    Provide his own award, clap himself... and applaud.
    Tidying up a beach is no polluted ocean fix
    Yet do it with utter confidence and even detritus
    Will transform into plausible statistics.

    Outspoken is fine, radical views might become dynamic
    But arrogance is flaw-secreted by its own conceit.
    Riding bareback upon over-confidence’s saddle-seat,
    A kind of blindness that feels only that which crawls
    Touches its opinionated ‘bleather’ deferentially;
    Measured bespoke, yet edited evidence for one size fits all.

    Based on research that seeks affirmations
    Research that frames the bigger picture into neat self gratification
    From which to chose your confirmations.
    Ring fenced by conjecturing
    An overload of arrogant lecturing, too smug, too off-pat
    The arrogance of dismissing any counter argument: “I knew you’d say that!”

    Contemptuousness from stars of self congratulation.
    Reminds ‘one’ of parliament: that debating house
    Of blatant distortion, wheedling and unfounded accusation.
    An overload of arrogance, but more... a dearth of humility
    Humility before the loaded unfairness’s of society and its have-nots.
    It’s left outs... its small hope, down trodden, underbelly.

    Worthy as debate, discussion beach-combings
    But so much dismissed
    So many un-kissed by this utopian bliss.
    ‘What! What!’
    But we can’t dismiss you... can we?
    Because there are those who would lift your views from nought
    And make a panoramic effusion. Lemonade made crusade.
    And because you have abused wisdom’s academic platform
    With political intrusion
    With a dangerous runaway train of thought.

  • Comment number 35.

    I tuned into this Reith Lecture expecting it to be a Reith Lecture and instead found myself tuned into a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party. Ferguson dressed it all up with a bit of academic chat but really it was an extremely one sided and partial right wing view, delivered with a degree of arrogance that was unpleasant. There are so many things wrong with his arguments it is difficult to know where to start. The obvious one that his private schools are generally funded at a much higher rate than state schools. If the school I work in was funded at £10000 per pupil as it is in many private schools, at least, than we would probably manage to deliver a similar standard of provision. It isn't difficult. Do the math, Niall. As it is it isn't really a fair comparison is it?

    BBC what were you thinking though, letting this incredibly biased and uninformed comment go out in such a prestigious slot as the Reith Lectures? A real shame.

  • Comment number 36.

    David Lockyer's contribution is very fine. Very well said.

  • Comment number 37.

    Can the libertarian in us be reconciled, saving us from paranoia?

    Our 'natural rights', to defend life, liberty and property, are always at risk. There may be challenge from individuals, groups and even 'the state'.

    We might give up 'our rights' in some circumstances, accepting challenge of self by self, conceding debt, of life, liberty or property. Otherwise, against the 'unjust or criminal', we look for defence to the strength of ourselves, our allies and 'the rule of law', even if in appeal to one arm of the state against another.

    Though the state can be our ultimate protector, the agent if not the source of our 'human rights', the fact of 'birth into belonging' brings 'expectation from others', from the state, of duty-with-risk, of 'liability' to military service and of 'subjection' to civil and criminal law.

    Acceptance of belonging is not 'a given': it may come and go with respect to family and friends and shifting 'models of the world', in childhood, through adolescence, in adult commitment, and in final reflections.

    The feeling of 'not belonging', at least of not 'locally' belonging, may be powerful, perhaps of 'total alienation', perhaps an interacting mix of inferiority and superiority, not necessarily to be lost even with radical change in power balance and insight.

    Given uniqueness in the inconsistencies of all, and the inevitability of myriad clashes of petty interest, any stability of relation will depend on mutual even if asymmetric tolerance, for 'peace and quiet' or from a 'higher perspective' such as 'all frail, all children of God, none beyond redemption'.

    We might wonder, how despite sage advice have 'we' resisted 'peace and quiet'?

    Might we enjoy rebellion 'contained' within 'peace and quiet'?

  • Comment number 38.

    Despite the best efforts of Providence, variation can be wide in even adult mental capacity and even 'adult models of the world'.

    Sporadic variations may be harmless, risking incarceration, or deserving of a Nobel Prize. Variation conditioned in groups may lead to serious conflict. Error shared by all may equally prove fatal, predisposing to violent group-differentiation or bringing down all together. Ignoring the foundations of conflict, ignoring the processes of climate change?

    For the individual, even decades of relationship 'stability' may be lost or broken, and 'perspectives' modified, until the time of rigidity and decay. Between most there will be similarity of respect for self and others, but those born with 'more variant' neurological capacity, and those psychologically 'scarred' by their childhoods, may need special effort or help to reach 'tolerable' or happy 'socialisation'.

    As for the 'primitive tribe' and the intruding 'advanced power', any 'management' of the alienated individual by 'the establishment' may deserve ethical questioning on both sides. Might the 'alienated' and the 'primitive' be in some sense 'right', or at least 'entitled to remain as they are'? Should change rather be 'ours'?

    Most of us, in eventually accommodating to family and society, will ignore or 'rise above' general assumptions and widespread practices that though wrong are beyond our power to alter. Our family and friends will appreciate that we are 'not really like that', but only if challenge becomes 'popular' will we speak up.

    Need or desire to be 'safely in the majority' is naturally strong, and 'normal empathy' will tend to favour inclusion of the harmless, exclusion of only the dangerous. Turning to the egotistical for inspiration or leadership is likely only under severe stress, desperation or compulsion.

    For some, however, with empathy lacking or scarred, suppressed or confined, accommodating to a hypocritical culture may result not in 'tolerant perspective', but in ruthless exploitation of the 'weaknesses' of 'benign others' and of the 'permissive society'.

    Who is to say, what 'the view of God' as to 'right and wrong', between the extremes of thought? More accessible, however, is 'the view of society', either in democracy or in benign dictatorship, on extremes of conduct. Impossible of access is 'the view' of a chaotic society, 'represented' by competing elites.

    What of 'ethical sensitivities' if decision were ever reached for 'Heaven on Earth', an overwhelming majority being 'for peace', understanding need and accepting political and economic equality?

    Consolation might reasonably be taken in that any restraint of the 'rebel libertarian' would be only to the same degree as of all others, and outlet for individuality would be equal for all, in both private and 'theatrical' expression.

    Who, given agreement among all others, would reject equality?

  • Comment number 39.

    We can all have dreams: what of the 'neo-con'?

    Dreams of harmony will by neo-cons be thought foolish, belonging if anywhere only to 'another world', awaiting the Second Coming, of 'Christ in Power'.

    The 'conquering dreams' of 'the 1%' are by neo-cons justified as 'pragmatic', an improvement on the teachings of the Buddha and of Christ, the inspiration and instrument of much if not all advance in their reading of human history.

    Unfortunately, dreams of conquest require 'supporting players', the unwilling losers and the brutalised 'chain of command': if language is 'ours', the neo-con dream is in fact 'a nightmare'.

    Even with the best of masters, the neo-con mantra, "Be my willing slave!" eventually will wear thin, probably just after it becomes too late. The chant can be seductive, subtle even, laced with 'justice for the unrecognised superior' and 'heroic revenge for the self-confirmed inferior'.

    In academia, the 'truths' are taught from history, that because 'any fool' might 'get to the top', a hard-working fool stands a negligible but better chance, the rest can still dream of 'getting to the top', and so all can be deservedly happy.

    All of us are 'born ignorant', and it follows that any civilisation - to be viable - must educate at least enough of its young, far enough to reach 'socialisation'. One day, with democracy, we will see all educated who can be: but to-date, the temptations of kingship and plutocracy, always with 'better use' for resources, have kept the conditions of democracy largely unthought or unspoken.

    Political advance may come with the chance of a benign ruler, there have been many; or in the aftermath of convulsion, from natural disaster but also from the external wars and economic busts engendered by the neo-con mindset., and from sheer revulsion and 'the final straw'.

    Today we have both convulsion and 'final straw': the latter that of still waxing hubris.
    Not content with Quisling-wages under the open-secret rule of Mammon, with profit from wars and profit from future destruction, the power of Money thinks 'to go too far', to persuade us that "Greed is Good".

    Thus has been subverted 'the American Dream', to become the world's nightmare.

    Comfort is only long-run, that dreams live on, nightmares just recur.

    PS. We can say 'fool', of the 'willing slave', for two reasons:

    Firstly, because the term is relative to the sense of the majority of language-users, those who by the action of Quislings and mercenary elites are born or sold or corralled into unwelcome slavery.

    Secondly, because Quislings may have families, and even come to value 'friends'; and their families and friends have families and friends: and so eventually they 'join the human race', much blood spilled for… what?

  • Comment number 40.

    Hugely informative and entertaining. Ferguson never fails to ruffle feathers and is a breath of fresh air to those wanting the debate widened and opened. If we stay within old fashioned paradigms for much longer we will be talking to ourselves only. I was of the left but I have become tired of the narrow minded negative cynical approach of much of the left debates and solutions being offered. The western eurocentric unambitious and unimaginative views are looking and feeling archaic and out of touch. The left is in crisis indeed. The education system is failing both working class children and middle class children, I work in one. It is not fit for purpose and its time we raised our ambitions for these young people and for ourselves and stop being apologists for a second rate educational system.

  • Comment number 41.

    It was refreshing hearing Ferguson's views. The world is changing and if we try deceive ourselves as to our real performance it will not be long before we cannot afford to buy food on world markets. The educational establishment has had years of failure behind it yet is still convinced it is taking the right approach. Meanwhile the misguided private system cruises on in its mistaken way and everyone complains that its ex-pupils are dominating almost every aspect of life. Of course we all know that the private schools succeed because richer parents have brighter children than poorer parents, so let's just give up shall we and accept mediocrity? Alternatively we could look at the values that the private schools try to instil (rather than concentrate on buildings and facilities) and see if they could transfer to the state system. As Ferguson said the cost of private education is very high indeed so if a school would go some way to meet the aspiration of middle class parents, it would be flooded with applications for places. The mystery is why this doesn't happen and why people think that a state school dominated by middle class pupils is less desirable than a private school full of middle class pupils. Let's use schools for educating children rather than use them for some futile exercise in social engineering.

  • Comment number 42.

    chatxx @40

    "We are of one blood…"?

    You 'work' in an 'educational system' that you judge 'not fit for purpose'.

    Perhaps as a teacher, once 'of the left', now appraised of (in fact long on-going) reduction to a 'narrow-minded negative cynical approach', you naturally see hope in raising ambitions, changing from 'old-fashioned paradigms' (perhaps beyond the educational in mention of eurocentrism), implicitly to become 'of the right' in your (continued) desire for the first-rate.

    I am sorry to have written in vain on the equal perils of 'more inequality' compared to 'less inequality'. More years will only add to your awareness of the 'unfitness' of both sides in this worse than stale debate, between caricatures of 'democratic vision'.

    What exactly is 'the purpose', towards which our 'debate' should be taking us, for which generations have fought in moving us on from 'life by the tribal sword'?

    Would not the children you care for, and the values you would commend, all in fact be enabled to flourish with understanding and agreement on Equal Democracy?

    At least allow your children hope that an adult can see 'that better way', with full employment and equality of income as well as of vote for the shaping of 'our' world.

    We have millions of children educated with little hope, millions of young adults 'looking for work', millions in work that is little valued even by those who command it, millions 'perversely incentivised' in both work and retirement decisions, and many thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands, before long millions) enduring impossible suffering and indignity (at enormous cost to all involved) because inequality imposes fear of motive in assisted-dying as in all other spheres.

    Our schools are in need of much more than 'fresh air' and 'feather-ruffling', however 'entertaining'. The cry of "improve" wins easy support. Along with the rest of us, Professor Ferguson is 'a historian and myth-maker': that his education and career have afforded a wide canvass, should not blind us to possible possession by error.
    We can be 'informed' by his use of 'references', but read and think for ourselves.

  • Comment number 43.

    Previous posters, such as d411, David Lockyer and Paul have said what needs to be said. I can only add that the 4th lecture should not have been broadcast as a Reith lecture. It was crude neoliberal tory propaganda delivered in a patronising tone, mainly anecdote and assertion with no serious international comparison of educational standards.

    Examples have already been given of superb state education reaching out to a greater pool of talent. The UK ,and to an extent the USA, is still far from being a meritocratic or democratic society. Indeed Local government and trade unions are for many people their only direct experience of democracy.
    Voluntary action requires reasonable security and leisure.

  • Comment number 44.

    Ivan @43

    "what needs to be said"?

    A 'fair' dismissal of the 'fairly' dismissible, but what of the challenges, so very real, that all who care 'must' face?

    Who amongst us knows 'the whole picture', the teachers and students with hope, and those demoralised?

    How might we 'take charge' of our selves, for all to flourish?

    Though perhaps not 'worthwhile' to ask for a re-think from 'a committed neo-con', with committed neo-con friends, and committed neo-con paymasters, years in a community of mutually re-enforcing myth-makers.

    Unfortunately, we all live in such communities. History suggests dependence on generational rather than individual change. Perhaps catching sight of 'ourselves' will help, in such 'performances' as now so wonderfully are shared on-line from parliament, select committees, Leveson, etc.

    Wishing to maintain educational momentum, seeing high cost in primary school from 'secondary (bacterial) infections complicating the virtually unpreventable (viral) colds, and finding progress to be far more rapid 'ill at home' than at school, my wife and I offered Home Education at some junctures, discussed and accepted not 'to get ahead' but to be able to offer more.

    Scholarships and Oxbridge, 'the results', but no protection from 'the world' of today, excellence compromised, inventiveness unsupported, disastrously casual use of words with important meanings, 'meritocratic' and 'democratic', such that we can be 'led' by 'personal advantage', to make war, to crash a bank, an economy, a world.

    As you imply, experience of 'democracy' is so far brave but very limited. Voting to leave Sobibor together was 'democratic', in the crudest sense: to live in democracy would be to live amongst millions able all to trust one another, able to give to their heart's content.

    Despite 'fine words', even 'wars for democracy' and oil, the UK and USA are very very far from being democracies. In democracy, competition would be to contribute for opportunity, to make the best of contribution potential, for 'shared advantage' in fulfilment, not for monetary advantage (selfish command over others)

    Imagine the extent of 'voluntary action' given equal security of all, to the benefit of young and old, sick and disabled, for art and science, sport and advent.

    Writing for whoever might be interested!

  • Comment number 45.

    Niall's sterling admission of his opacirty to the abstract but nevertheless remaining 'an empirical thinker', could be said to be like trying to measure something with a rod but without the metre. But of course, this shouldn't mean that historians, and more besides, cannot think clearly about things they have no real concept of. Does a city have to be well known before it can serve as a backdrop?

  • Comment number 46.

    If we all opt for private medical insurance can we all be sure of excellence and being nearly first in the queue for the good treatment, I wonder..?

    It seems to me that people like that, who have done well from their private education and above average eating arrangements, really have no grasp of the desparation that many, many people have to attend to, which leads to poor decision making and attainment.

  • Comment number 47.

    I overheard a bit of this lecture and though it sounded interesting enough to Listen Again to. Unfortunately in reality it was painfully patronising and soon just annoyed me. I'm no academic, but I know enough to understand a contrived and biased opinion when I hear it. His delivery and propensity to rant might be entertaining if it were question time, but in this lecture he just comes across as a bit of a twit. Whatever message he intended to promote was tarnished by his arrogant preaching. He reminded me of Cameron and similarly seems a million miles from understanding the culture of people in general. It is fortuitous that fools like these are so transparently unable to come across as genuine

  • Comment number 48.

    As an ex public school boy I wonder how many of those who support Professor Ferguson actually experienced private education? I went to a very good school, but his lecture fills me with dread.

    Yes, about 1/3 of public school pupils (Cyclist50's "pushy" teenagers) will do very well out of private education. About 1/3 will do no worse then they would do in a state school. But 1/3 will be severely damaged. They will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. While my experience wasn't too bad, my life has been scarred by the memory of repeatedly having to try and prevent others committing suicide. When I suggested that they should get help against the mob who drove them to this state, the answer was always the same. ' If I tell the staff, I will probably have to leave, but the family has sacrificed so much and is so proud of my being here, that I cannot risk this. Death would be better' (Remember Public School pupils are still children - they do not always think as rationally as Professor Ferguson. The closed society they live in often serves to delay development.)

    For many years I believed that this was an unusual experience, but gradually I began to discover that there are very many ex- public school pupils with similar experiences. ("Poor little rich children" dare not admit to having attended one of these marvellous institutions and failed. The tragedy is that often these poor little rich children were not quite rich enough, and that is something to be ashamed of as well!) The first I met was driving a breakdown lorry another was a bus driver and so on.

    Others achieved major success and very high profile jobs having bullied their way through school, and probably their carreers. The private education that had rewarded their antisocial behaviour had probably blighted the lives of their professional colleagues as well.

    I wonder whether crude statistics such as pedalled by the likes of Professor Ferguson can justify the human cost involved.

    Whereas I failed to get into University (until rescued by the Open University where I got an Upper Second), my children, who went to state schools, walked straight in. Their social development was such that they got married 10 years earlier then I did. In spite of a much tougher job market they have also found the jobs they wanted.

  • Comment number 49.

    When I first heard this episode broadcast, i was fairly moved by Niall Ferguson's persuasion. Then when I heard some of the audience questions, I became aware of how thin was his lecture. What is the purpose of a Reith lecture? To educate, or to stimulate discussion, or both? Presenting a one-sided argument does not seem to be either education or the best stimulation of discussion. Focussing on schooling as the example for his lecture seems very narrow to me now. I can easily think if I want to, of dozens of different topics as examples of how civil society has degraded to its current state, and argue that regardless of state intervention, the outcome today would be the same, simply because of how society has become dislocated from the majority of the global economy on which it feeds.

    History needs to be a little better than this. Ideas such as the decline of institutions are interesting, but only a split second to absorb. After that split second, you can think about the decline of whatever entity you want, and make it just as interesting.

  • Comment number 50.

    huwminehead @48

    Well said. Even 'doing our best', we can so easily 'fail' our children.

    That said, whatever we might think of the 'commodification' of schools, of their packaging and selling in any pseudo-egalitarian vision of access to 'a thousand flowers', the unavoidable nature of any school will be of 'dynamic collaboration', the community shifting and every member 'going through life' in a sense alone.

    Your account of schooling reflects the inevitability of 'differentiation and assortment' within any body of individuals: thrown together they form shifting groups, and may 'compete' in myriad ways. Visible differences of all kinds, within schools and between schools, may be taken to reflect advantage or disadvantage, oppression or victimhood, 'opposition' in fun or anti-social earnest.

    The play demands players, finding natural leaders, befrienders, mischief-makers, followers and rebels, ontogeny recapitulating phyllogeny, re-telling history and suggesting possibilities for the future. In the best of schools, many plays are put on. Many visions are afforded. All are allowed to rise above not just whatever limits so-far have been acquired in childhood, but above vulnerability to the processes and ideologies that otherwise would see 'divide and rule' amongst adults.

    A mythical school? A well-kept secret? In phases, perhaps, with fortune in pupils, teachers, parents, governors, authorities? Like 'a good press', good schooling awaits a good society, nourishing of all. Professor Ferguson's next project?

    In our schools, as in our press and politics and in fact all walks, as free individuals wishing to sustain democracy, our need would be for access to full choice 'within one cover'. The choices afforded should be from vocation, 'regulated' and allowed in conscience, not constrained by corrupting hopes and fears, not in competition for personal advantage. The latter is to be enjoyed only at the top, only in doubt, and only at the cost of humanity.

    We struggle on, meanwhile, sustained by care amongst family and friends, the visions of saints, even the self-deceptions and hypocrisies of our electioneering non-democratic 'leaders', all part of Mammon's puppet-show.

    Aware parents will face a dilemma: to fully inform, or to 'trust' in 'just caring' and in 'self-sorting', in the 'rough and tumble' of life? Children may rejoice in distinction but fear difference. Sent to school, or allowed to school, what is encountered and how it is coped with, will vary widely. Sent away to school, for some might 'be their making', for others not just periodic loss of parental support, but critical loss of shared time towards mutual understanding and hence of possibilities for timely parental intervention.

    We really do need that society of ambition shared, of trust, of Equal Democracy.

  • Comment number 51.

    Of historians and myth-makers: can we tell the difference?

    Few rulers are backward in the elaboration of thoughts on superiority, for internal consumption as much as external; and if weakness be admitted, it is as much to divert from broader problems as to justify specific actions.

    Few academics can be counted so independent as not to 'go along with' either the government or an 'established' opposition in their context of thought. In any rise to prominence, to the promise of perhaps being able to pose real challenge, we are bound to wonder whether success has brought opportunity, or whether capitulation has bought 'success'.

    To talk is to reveal: but the extent and social value of the 'revelation', is as variable as are levels of education and our operational definitions of 'in it together'. Suffice to say that with respect to the democratic definition of society, a community sharing equality of respect, we are not 'a society', rather a proto-society. To be apparently ignorant of this distinction, might be an exhibition of deep subtlety, but amongst 'the squabbling' it is most likely to reflect genuine absorption with the priorities of one or other 'establishment', not necessarily 'all bad' but far from 'to be trusted'.

    In the case of Professor Ferguson, we have more than enough words to go on. He has a campaign to wage against "The Left", that - in the absence of similar address to "The Right" - is bound to suggest truth in his claim to be 'an empirical thinker', restricted in choice to his own 'best of a bad lot'. This is not to say that his position will necessarily have been made more extreme by 'reward from The Right", but retreat would be to far less salubrious 'advantage'.

    Anyone can ask 'a good question': but motive may supply a misleading answer, one calculated to divide, to harden division, eventually to achieve 'dictatorship' not even of the 'manipulated majority' but of the 'hidden minority'. Such are the real dangers of 'playing with words'.

    At the beginning of his lecture series, Professor Ferguson moves from Richard Taverner's emphasis for culture ("bringynge up"; as against "nature"), through consensus on "institutions in the broadest sense of the term" as having determined "modern historical outcomes", then to dwell on the aberrations of "representative democracy", what is "amiss" left to be implicit in those aberrations.

    Excuse for failure to explore meaning in 'democracy', is given in the adoption of 'the conventional assumption' that "it is generally better for government to be in some way representative of the governed, than not". No room here for self-government, 'Of, For, By The People: we cannot tell even whether "better for government" means 'for the party in power, or for the proper process'.

    A happier time is recalled, of rising GDP and repayment of sensible debt. Whether 'government' then or now is oppressive, or solicitous, or actually representative, is a question to be lost in topical address of modern vote-buying, inter-generational theft, and distributional rigidities. "The present system" is admittedly "fraudulent", but so arguably the solution as merely of courageous global accounting, the balance-sheet cart before the moral horse.

  • Comment number 52.

    On the rule of lawyers, it might be asked why so many laws, against what kind of problems, with what roots?

    How, for instance, do we come to need a 'proliferation of laws' against 'freedom of speech'?

    We are said by some to offend a 'basic principle of democracy' in passing laws against 'hate speech', or 'invasion of privacy', or 'defamation of character'. The fact is rather that lack of freedom pre-exists. Without income-share equality, we do not have equal freedom of speech, or of expression in the market, and so can be exploited or made vulnerable by categorisations that - whether in truth or falsehood - are thought to correlate with advantage or disadvantage.

    "In an ideal society", might say an actual opponent of the ideal society, " we would not need laws against offensive language".

    In an ideal society we would of course not need many things: with equal citizen incomes no need for certain 'tax-payer funded' insurance benefits, perhaps hardly for so many politicians or so much of military force.

    In 'an ideal society', who indeed would think to put any suspicion or accusation of laziness or criminality on the basis of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, or harmless belief? Unless delivered with intemperance, or menace, or violence, who would fail to see racial abuse - in an ideal society - as a matter for concern, as to stress or illness, rather than a matter of offence calling for police or court action?

    Undeniably, legal action under law against anti-social hatred, will produce financial costs, and perhaps criminal records, as well as some comfort and compensation for the victim of abuse or discrimination. Proportionality is always to be kept in mind in the drafting, deployment and judicial interpretation of laws. Serious focus for 'tax-payer concern' should rather be directed to our distance from 'the ideal society', to our on-going creation of context for both the giving and taking of offence.

    The making of protective laws is, on the other hand, no substitute for sharp address of the systemic faults of 'an oppressive society'. Sadly, successive generations re-envision problems, 'in their own way', not realising their constancy and intractability in continued neglect of deeper context. At best, we will be always 'in approach' to our ideals, all members being equally free to belong and participate, any loss of political and economic equality only in adjudged laziness or criminally. Equality allows that 'close approach' - more of conscience, less of 'regulation'.

  • Comment number 53.

    Professor Ferguson proposes an increase of private education At message 48 I describe the very real damage that is done to many pupils at private schools. All to All at message 50 suggests that this damage may be a consequence of natural sorting in any school.
    However there are special circumstances in private education. If school is just school then sorting will take place, but children who do not like a particular school are allowed to escape.
    Escape from a private school is constrained both by the family's sacrifice to pay the fees, and also the attitude of society that says "you will not want to talk to us, now that you have been to that posh school". A private school pupil can only escape to another private school, and will very likely simply repeat the experience of the first.
    The "posh school" comes from the need of private companies/ charities to advertise their superiority. A private school cannot hope to gain income from prospective parents by saying it is "bog standard". But by claiming superiority, private schools isolate their pupils from the rest of society. This adds to the psychological wall preventing escape and makes pupils more vulnerable to whatever is happening in the school.
    The psychological wall is even more impenetrable when the school is a boarding school, as pupils almost never meet "ordinary" people during term time, and may be too depressed to make the effort during the holidays. Ordinary people become part of the enemy. Instead of suffering 8 hours a day of whatever unpleasantness is going on in a day school, a boarder may be tormented every waking minute for 10 weeks at a time. All for the sake of an ideology, that treats real live children as numbers.
    The people who rise to the top in a private school, would probably also rise to the top in a state school, but the damage they do to others woud be diluted.
    The solution to the problem that Professor Ferguson sets himself would be to make state schools so good that there would be no demand for private schools. In this circumstance most school leavers would be as well educated as those from the best private schools are now, the country would be better placed to win international business, and GDP would rise in relation to the education budget. Problem solved.
    However, state schools should be given the power to teach the real children who are in the classrooms. They should not be micromanaged by politicians who think that numbers are more important then the well being of the children.
    Children need to be able to read proper

  • Comment number 54.

    Sorry comment 53 could not be previewed and lost the following during the "post comment" process. (Apologies for typos etc.) : -

    Children need to be able to read properly, they need to understand maths and probability, or to balance a chemical equation, they need to have an understanding of British and Foreign languages, history and geography. They need to learn these things at their own speed, and above all they need to learn that these things are fun and relevant to them.
    In order to learn these things they need to be disciplined, and need to be tolerant of each other and of the quirks of their teachers. They need to understand that their job as pupils is to get the information that is in their teacher's heads into their own heads!
    But this applies to any school.
    Professor Ferguson's view that education is all about right (private) or left (state) ideology is exactly what has destroyed British Education over the last 30 or 40 years. In the 1970's America was thought of as the country where anyone could buy a degree. Now Professor Ferguson is trying to import ideas from them. Need I say more?

  • Comment number 55.

    Excellent lecture.

    (He certainly knows how to annoy the trendy lefties.)

  • Comment number 56.

    I listened to the lecture with growing astonishment for all the reasons described above - assertions with no evidence, or the flimsiest evidence, or partial evidence or just plain wrong claims. I agree with Niall Ferguson that as a society we are heading towards some serious social problems and that something needs to change but to assume that a private market and increased role for the charity sector might be the solution ignores the very evidence upon which he relies.
    In the 70's British education was regarded as the best in the world (and some of the most prestigious "public" schools were in serious trouble and producing very poor results compared with the state sector). Then, a market existed in state education, diversity was encouraged, organisations like ILEA led the way in innovative curricula and teaching. So the Government intervened and standardised, benchmarked and started telling teachers how to teach and ....
    So I agree that Government regulation can be the problem but I suspect that it is a focus on inputs not outcomes (to employ the management parlance) that is the problem not the provider and the public private balance.

    Yes I work in education - but the assertions (much) higher up the page that education is about what is consciously taught i.e. what the teacher teaches rather than what the learning facilitator enables the student to learn ignores a lot of evidence about what happens in schools and most importantly the "hidden curriculum". Children learn their values by the behaviour of the people around them and you don't learn to understand the mixed values of a mixed society by rearing children in a restricted society - a difficult lesson to learn when an adult no matter how strong your left leaning theoretical impulses.
    In the end some parents are able to make a decision - buy restricted social mix (the right people) and increased variety of opportunities or restrict the subject options and physical resources for social mix and a guarantee that the teacher in front of the class has some training in the job and a rigorous standard of job monitoring from Ofsted. The question is whether public funds should be diverted into giving other parents this choice and how to stop sharp elbowed middle-class parents from simply using the opportunity to spend someone elses money on their childs education so that they can live in a bigger house!

  • Comment number 57.

    huwminehead @53

    Good to share stories, and not to imply @50 that general phenomena deny the significance of experience from particular contexts. Mental health disturbance is however widespread and to be expected. in all sectors, all with mixes of children and parents and teachers 'oppressed' by the context of social division by income inequality and instability. Important to recognise the underlying problem, if we are to have any chance of escape, before too late for People and Planet.

    Some might think your private sector 'psychological scenarios' improbable, sadly not so. The roots of 'violence' are too many and too tangled, from history, family, surroundings, general and particular vulnerabilities, as well as school 'ethos', to be sure of 'what is the best' in so many very different situations. I would echo your remark @48, 'pupils are still children - they do not always think as rationally' or at least as we assume, taking on impossible burdens of rejection or expectation from being 'treated specially'.

    helenoh @56

    Interesting to have your take on the 1970s, after my schooling, before my children's.

    A teacher uncle long ago wearily informed that government policy went in circles.

    Design of systems and curricula is best I suspect from 'communicable enthusiasm', perhaps more likely to flourish in times of fuller employment (whether in boom or shared austerity, happier parents and prospects of belonging after school).

    Baroness Onora O'Neill (before Leveson today) underlined necessary distrust of governments with respect to 'content regulation in the media'; perhaps so also in education… and medicine, and transport, and energy… but we must stop. The fact is, we have lost trust: and now only rational trust will do, based on the ending of 'rule by conflict of interest'. We need to be truly 'in it together' to enjoy freedom of conscience, the 'culture' change necessary for observance of Onora's 'process'.

  • Comment number 58.

    This relates to the latest 'In Our Time' podcast on Hadrian's Wall - In the course of the programme there was a reference to Pamirian people who may have helped in the construction of the wall. The speaker identified the location of Pamirians as an area between present day Iraq & Syria, that is not correct they come from an area between present day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. This facts makes their involvement even more important & worthy of further discussion as Pamirians were not under the rule of Romans at the time or, any time before.

  • Comment number 59.

    For the record, for deeper sense, see under Richard Fenton-Smith's post on the first lecture, Robert McDowell's comment @35


    I would offer a 'small' expansion:

    The sum of economic activity will always show fluctuation, tides subject to so many influences, some 'cyclicity' at least in retrospect, tsunamis always possible.

    No reason not to agree and enjoy full employment and equal security (and insecurity), confidence in democracy being equally 'in it together', through all.


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