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Questioning, challenging and reimagining education at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas


Best-selling author Tara Westover heads a raft of debates and discussions about what education should be at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

The Festival, which runs from 15th to 28th October, includes discussions on everything from whether universities have outlived their purpose to how language learning can stave off dementia and whether children have been kept too safe in today’s world.

On 20th October, Tara Westover, whose book Educated was chosen by Barack Obama as one of his books of the summer, will talk to Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Educated tells of Tara’s experiences growing up in rural Idaho, raised by a radical, survivalist father who was intensely paranoid about government interference in the lives of his family. In the book she writes of how, through the pursuit of knowledge, she evolved into a 'new self'. She says: 'You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.'


A series of events address the future of education:

In Play at the extremes a panel of experts, chaired by Dr Jenny Gibson from PEDAL: Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning, will address whether children are kept too safe, if parents and schools are too risk averse,  whether adventurous and independent play opportunities provide unique developmental, social and emotional benefits and whether the Children's Commissioner for England is correct when she calls for play on prescription and claims that children lead a "battery hen existence". 18th October

In The End of Universities? Alison Wood from the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge explores some of the big arguments for and against the existence of universities in a fast-changing world. She lays out some speculations about their future, considers the ineffable qualities of University teaching and research in a digital, disrupted age and argues that bricks, mortar and face-to-face still matter in the internet age. 19th October

Reimagine education: your ideas could change the world is a panel discussion which will explore, with audience input, what learning fit for the future should look like. Hosted by Cindy Forde Founder of Planetari, it includes experts in creative, sustainable and multi-media education. 27th October.


And several events touch on the importance of learning languages and understanding different cultures:

In Young Britain: culture and identity English teacher Claire Barrett and pupils from Bedford Girls' School will investigate global citizenship and cultural awareness. The girls are carrying out an action research project on how young British women understand culture and their own cultural identity, in particular their British culture, and how this conflates with other cultural identities that are important to them.

Year 12 student, Rosalie Inman said: “I am very happy to be involved in this work which is aimed at getting the next generation to think more about cultures. I think that the human race has become immensely divided in the sense that we are completely oblivious to what is going on in other parts of the world and in other cultures. I think people are shaped by their cultures which is what causes a lot of division in the world because it is very easy to misunderstand others and take advantage of what you have, especially if you are, like us, from a more privileged culture. I think developing thinking about these issues of culture and identity is the first step in creating a world in which we understand each other more and can talk and communicate with each other more openly.” 19th October

Thomas Bak, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh and president of the World Federation of Neurology Research Group on Aphasia, Dementia and Cognitive Disorders, gives this year's MML Annual Lecture, Multilingualism and language learning - exploring the boundaries, rethinking extremes on 18th October and will highlight the benefits of bilingualism, for instance, in delaying the onset of dementia.

Languages: your passport to the world is a day of activities designed for school students to get them thinking about issues such as which are the hardest languages to learn? Can a language ever be 'pure'? How and why is the language we use in a text message or on social media different from the way we speak? 20th October.


Also on the theme of higher education are:

In War in the Middle East: living through extremes a panel discussion includes a contribution from Dr Mona Jebril which will outline her new research on the impact of conflict on teachers and lecturers in Gaza and how and it contributes to a situation of ‘de-development’. 16th October  

Ethics meets migration: launch of the Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement sees the launch of the new research centre based at the University of Cambridge with two debates, one on rethinking humanitarianism and the other on the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ and policies that criminalise migrants. The events aim to explore the ways in which migration challenges our contemporary ethics and moral universe.  23rd October


The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.