Festival of Ideas

For the last two weeks, I’ve been enjoying the 10th annual Cambridge Festival of Ideas. It’s a packed fortnight of mainly free events organised by Cambridge University celebrating the arts, humanities and social sciences. The official theme this year was ‘truth’, but there were literally hundreds of events covering a diverse array of topics.

I’m still new to Cambridge and this sort of thing, so I got stuck in and ended up going to these eight events:

  1. Exploring Myth and Reality: Experiences of India and the UK
  2. Rewriting History
  3. Refugees: Truth and Innocent Lies (link)
  4. Before the Flood (link)
  5. The Brightest and Best: What does a meritocracy look like?
  6. Can we believe the experts?
  7. Does education improve social mobility (link)
  8. Privilege: The truth we don’t tell ourselves

Most of them had a panel of up to four expert speakers who shared the first half before they took audience questions for the remaining time. Nearly all the speakers had something interesting to offer and they generally spanned a range of perspectives, but the best discussion often came during the Q&A.

What I liked most about the festival overall was that it made me think – about some topics in new ways and others for the first time. At one point, I was so engaged that I even geared myself up to ask a question (very unlike me). Unfortunately, my raised hand was ignored for 40 minutes and I didn’t get the chance.

One theme from the talks I attended was the idea of different narratives, especially when looking at history. For example, when Dr Lang spoke about the partition of India in 1947 (1), he outlined four distinct narratives for the same events by focusing on different protagonists, highlighting that Gandhi was portrayed as a saintly figure by some, but was hated by others.

Another subject that kept coming up was that our education system is flawed, in that it’s both iniquitous and inadequate. Iniquitous because we don’t live in a genuinely meritocratic society (5) and it doesn’t do enough to address social mobility (7 and 8); inadequate because it doesn’t prepare us to understand the world we live in or our place in it (2 and 3), it doesn’t allow us to understand the economic system that plays an increasingly large role in our lives (6) and it should do more for children under the age of five instead of expecting too much from our under-resourced and under-valued teachers (7).

There weren’t many conflicting opinions between the panellists, but there was one instance that stood out. Two panellists (2) had differing opinions about whether history could be objective and whether historians should try to be. There was clearly no love lost between them, which culminated in an Irish historian telling Kehinde Andrews to “get over it” (with “it” being slavery – this twitter thread summed up the exchange).

For my final event, I had a few to choose from, but I opted to finish with something different by going to a workshop that identified itself as “high challenge”, meaning that “the ideas presented might make you feel uncomfortable”.

In a way, it was a shame that the workshop only lasted for two hours because it couldn’t really do justice to the topics it was attempting to cover – culture, social identity, societal norms, power, privilege and oppression to name a few! I found it really interesting nonetheless. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point, but I struggled to share the sort of articulate observations, opinions and self-reflection that many others did.

One of the exercises required us to choose one of nine social identities in answer to four different questions and then to discuss our answers. Try it for yourself:

Ability / Disability Nationality Sexual Orientation
Age Race / Ethnicity Size / Appearance
Gender Religion Socioeconomic Class
  • Which one do you think most about in your daily life?
  • Which one do you think least about in your daily life?
  • Which one was stressed the most in your family when you were growing up?
  • Which one most affects the way others treat you?

The facilitator, Dr Niki Sol, sent us the slides from her presentation, so I’ll definitely be giving this some more thought – a great way to end the festival.


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