12 August 2019

Don’t worry, the kids are all right


Earlier this year, I was inveigled into doing something I was sure I’d regret.

The inveigler was Martin Cox, Director of the John Locke Institute, and the “something” was consulting in France. In August. Said “consulting” consisted of two weeks teaching (a mixture of lecturing and tutoring on the Oxbridge model) at the Institute’s annual summer school and my “clients” — in addition to the Institute itself — were roughly 100 young people bound for the Russell Group and the Ivy League.

As soon as I agreed my partner wondered if I’d been possessed. The real Helen Dale (who is typically a lazy slug at this time of year) had disappeared and someone far more agreeable was walking around in her shoes. Martin is, however, a singularly charming and persuasive fellow and now (I’m writing this at the end of the second week) I have to admit I don’t regret it a bit.

Cox’s objective — apart from leveraging his own experience at Oxford to assist students with navigating admissions interviews and personal statements — has always been “to teach people to disagree fruitfully”. He thinks it’s possible — by dint of a mixture of explicit instruction and modelling the behaviour himself — to persuade some of the most able young people in the UK, the US, and elsewhere to combine passion with courtesy and to engage in what he calls “generous listening”.

Cox founded the Institute as a hobby while he was teaching economics at Trinity College Oxford. Its first summer school in 2011 had four students. In 2012, there were eight. In 2013, there were 17. For a while, it seemed like it wouldn’t get anywhere. Then, just as political polarisation looked to be out of control globally, his idea took off.

Many of the students here are on scholarships and from disadvantaged backgrounds. Most have just completed GCSE or equivalent; some are studying A-levels. A few have finished high school. They are all very, very bright.

The Institute deliberately admits students with a mix of views, meaning Tories and Republicans and Leavers learn to argue respectfully with Labourites, Lib Dems, Democrats, and Remainers. And vice-versa, of course.

Reflecting the class and political divisions across the three countries, Remainers outnumber Leavers, Tories and LibDems outnumber Labourites, while among the Americans Democrats are popular. Europeans, meanwhile, tend to admire Macron. None of the majorities are overwhelming, however, and the timetable is constantly manipulated to ensure no student gets into the habit of keeping company only with like-minded friends.

Then there’s his carefully selected faculty. For every Daniel Hannan and David Friedman there’s an Alan Ryan and John Filling. He’s had economist Bryan Caplan arguing for open borders, ex-MP Douglas Carswell suggesting many western democracies are currently plagued by a pack of parasitic elites who add little value to anything, and political scientist Rob McMahon claiming there’s no possible economic justification for Brexit.

By providing explicit instruction in such recherché fields as ancient philosophy, Roman law, and the English Civil War, the summer school ensures its students understand chronological snobbery is to time what parochialism is to place. People in the past did and believed things for reasons, much like us. And just as we do with them, people in the future will look back on us and our “period” (yes, our own age is one) and wonder what in the name of screaming blue blazes we were all smoking.

Consistent with the summer school’s ethos, all are expected to model civility, staff and students alike. No-one is allowed to get away with ad-hominem or abuse. Everyone has to learn to stand their ground and defend themselves with argument, not fists or personal attacks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cox disagrees with most of his staff (although he admits to a soft spot for historian Steve Davies).

And you know what? The kids are all right. There’s a lot of panic and catastrophising about children around at the moment, but I’ve now spent 10 days with about 100 of them and I’ve been astonished at what can be done to improve the quality of debate and general conversation by a firm commitment to civility and thoughtfulness.

At one point, the daughter of an ardent Remainer had to plead with her mother to let her stay for the full three weeks because mum was displeased with Hannan being on staff. “This is the best time of my life,” she said simply, “please don’t make me go home early”. Then there’s the twin boys on generous bursaries (the sons of a pair of NHS nurses) who can now do set theory and logic, or the Congolese immigrant living in London who has discovered he has a flair for legal reasoning.

If nothing else, Martin Cox has put his PPE to far better use than those who use it as a springboard into politics.

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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, has been shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction.