Mr Elkin-Jones, coordinator of the Enlightenment Lectures, explores its raison d’être, and what the future holds for this intellectually invigorating programme.
What is the series and how did it come about?
The series has a long history, in many ways ingrained in and reflective of the School’s ethos and culture. It grew out of our past existence as a boarding school, looking for ways to appropriately educate, entertain and inform the students of an evening. When we became a day school, the timetable was rationalised, but there was still a desire to keep that enrichment, and to provide academic stimulus without an explicit quantitative outcome but rather something enriching and qualitative. Beginning as something closer to general studies, over the years it has become more streamlined and precise, growing into the programme we know today.
And what is that modern structure and intent?
That more honed existence sees six or seven sessions take place across the Michaelmas and Lent Terms for all members of the Sixth Form, and we seek to go well beyond those early desires for informative, educational experiences and inspire the students to show or to feel real empathy with a position or to be ambitious in how they encounter and interpret a subject, but fundamentally it is to champion curiosity and to expect and accept challenge of thought and pre-conception. This is not a programme that is designed to supplement the curriculum, nor is it esotericism, it is super-curricular, in fact I would say it is über curricular in that it provokes concepts, opinions and reactions that might not otherwise be drawn out.
There are more explicitly tangible benefits too, you find students realising, for instance that there is a whole area of semiotics and archaeology that they did not know existed, and it becomes an area they take on at university and into their careers. There is a motto for the Enlightenment Lectures, ‘He who is not alight cannot fire others’ which captures our intent rather well: we want interesting people who have done interesting things, telling us about them in such a way to make us sit up and take note.
And how are those speakers selected?
It generally splits into thirds. The first essentially can be defined as one of those totally arbitrary moments of personal choice and thought, whilst the mind is idly wondering to Radio 3, in reading a dust cover in Blackwell’s, I will stumble across something that sparks an idea. Occasionally a contact or a parent puts themselves forward, or on other occasions an avenue of consideration might come off the back of a conversation with a colleague. There is no wider criterium than that, and it is very much in keeping, therefore, with our intents. A similar process can be applied to the selection of the themes for the year’s Lectures.
Is it a particularly structured or traditional lecture?
Perhaps historically, but it has become more flexible. It is Radio 4 with its top button undone; the Civil Service without the tie. For example, we are getting more seminar based in our approach, an informal Q&A. When we were running the series online in the last two years, that gave a great opportunity for questioning in that sense. Inevitably, with the emphasis on being subjects with a healthy degree of the unknown for the audience, there is always something moderately transmissive. We had a talk on the etymology of slang, being vernacular based, a more formal delivery worked. It ultimately comes down to what works best for the material and for the speaker. We want to ensure that we can get the most out of it, which is aided by a speaker being in their best environment.
And how do the students respond to it?
It is an opportunity for real leadership actually and is often most telling in those lessons immediately afterward. I remember a lecture led by the linguist, Professor David Crystal who is world renowned in his field and an excellent communicator, so it was a real gift to have him. He spoke on texting and whether it is a blessing or a curse for language – the answer was a blessing incidentally – and we followed this with a series of seminar group discussions which were hugely profitable and measurable for the impact on the various English Language and English Literature and Language A Levels that we run.
Not every Lecture will grab every student, and they are very honest about responding to this; I welcome the feedback – the good, the bad, and the ugly. In itself, it is a demonstration of that leadership, taking responsibility for their own learning and comprehension (or lack of it) on a given topic. I do not book a speaker wanting every student to know and fully understand the content – it would undermine that über curricular pretext – it is about their reaching for something and finding a way to make that knowledge accessible and attainable to themselves.
Looking to the educational value what are we looking to impart from the Lectures?
Curiosity is at the heart of it. I would love students to go away, even if just from one Lecture in one year’s series and have had their sense of curiosity inspired, to consider the road not taken. Even if it were a negative response and wishing to dispel something. And that is a form of intellectual leadership. In terms of an academically educational response, the immediate factor is in the articulation of their own responses to the Lecture with tutors and others informally. It may come out in some more informal response in time, or in an essay, but it is the immediate response that I think matters, because it is the most authentic and the most provoking.
It is all very values based, it is about imparting that value of curiosity and not being afraid of the unknown; when writing that next essay, it is in reading not the five recommended readings but the five readings that those texts recommended beyond. We have six or seven sessions over four terms of a student’s life with us, a small toe dipped into a very large pond of experiences our students have each and every week here, so we have to be pragmatic and brave as educators, acknowledging that, to be asking for more than that for every student is not realistic, but those smaller, incidentally transcendental moments are enough.
In terms of individual speakers, it has been an emotive year.
Absolutely. Well, I suppose the theme was ‘Hot Truths’, so that was probably inevitable. This year, we had a gentleman called Mike Haines who was perhaps one of our best speakers ever. His brother was one of those murdered by ‘Jihadi John’ of the so called ‘Beatles’ group when he was working as a contractor in the Middle East. Mr Haines, rather than becoming bitter or resentful, has sought to use this opportunity to promote the business of reconciliation over revenge. He gave possibly one of the most powerful and emotionally challenging, and yet well-received talks of the entire time I have run this series; a spontaneous standing ovation at the end, the likes of which is practically unheard.
We have had some intellectually and existentially quite challenging talks this year as well. We began the series with Sunday Times journalist, Robert Verkaik, who wrote a book in the last couple of years called Do English Public Schools Ruin Britain? Now, it would seem to be totally counter intuitive to invite, let alone accept, such a person but, at Cokethorpe, we are open to debate. We do not invoke a cancel culture here. There were some excellent questions, it was intellectually stimulating, and we really promoted the valuing of the integrity of this chap through an open and honest debate. And he speaks as someone who has experienced it himself, so it really is about the substance, the principle, the debate. These are democratic British values, and we are nothing if we do not have those values at the forefront of our premise.
Undoubtedly, some heavy hitters there. Are there any others that have really stood out for you?
I will mention three. We were delighted to have Professor David Nutt, who is a professor of pharma-neuro psychology at University College London, and was controversial because he was on the government’s drug advisory board and came to speak to us at the time he was in the news. He came to talk about his views, which are deeply provocative, but he was intellectually rigorous and, also, surprisingly amusing, but was particularly interesting, being part of the zeitgeist. In terms of also being part of the zeitgeist, Professor Michael Dougan, who is a constitutional lawyer with expertise in European Law, came to talk to us at the height of that recent national debate. His articulation of that debate and about issues that are still echoing through history now was, to say ‘fascinating’, is to do him a disservice. Fernanda Drumond of the GapMinder Institute, which is a Swedish organisation promoting international development, came to speak with us about relative scales of poverty. They were all emotionally powerful and passionate people, but very clear in their thesis and prompted lots of good questions.
And do those questions often stay close cropped to the discussion?
It is often like a tree. It starts with being rooted in the grounding of the discussion but, whether in the Lecture itself or in those great forums of discussion and debate, the onsite Ue coffee shop and the Dining Hall, the dialogue tends to branch out. I think that is the way it should be.
If money and time, both temporal and lineal, were no object, who would you like to invite?
This is a question that is nigh on impossible to answer. I will narrow it down to two. The first would be the first female president of Afghanistan; who, when they arrive, will be someone worth hearing from and will have something worthy to say. The second would be the team or person who finally cracks fusion power, because that is a game-changer. Both those individuals or groups will be (to borrow Mr Waldron’s metaphor) the hinges of history who will open a door to a very significant future.
Mr Elkin-Jones was speaking with Head of Marketing, Mr Griffiths.