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Thanks for all the help with tomorrow’s speech on higher education and social justice. Having read the comments and digested the new information, I am going to make some significant changes to my argument. 

It’s a funny business making speeches; you never know what to expect. There have been occasions when I have spent a lot of time preparing only to be ushered into a room with a small and disengaged audience who look like they would be content being read the telephone directory. This morning it was the reverse experience.

I had been asked to speak to students at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. The topic was 21st century enlightenment. This is something I have spoken about a great deal, so, assuming I would be talking to a small group of bored students, I didn’t really do any preparation. But at Conway Hall I was shown into the theatre space which was packed with about 500 young people from all corners of the world.

It went OK, in fact pretty well, but I was reminded of what a challenging audience young people can be. They are much less shy then older people of yawning, looking at their phones or even – in one case – ostentatiously reading a book. More disturbing is the fact that they don’t tend to find my jokes or anecdotes funny. This may be because they are less deferential or more discerning but I think it is simply because I remind them of their dads and – as the Christmas season nears - what is worse than listening to your dad telling what he thinks is a ‘funny story’?

But after I had struggled though the pin-dropping silence that followed my best gags,  the core thesis of 21st century enlightenment seemed to go down OK. Which offers me an excuse to respond to an Fellow who has suggested, first, that the whole 21CE thing is an example of me imposing my own interests on the RSA and, second, that the idea is impenetrable and little to do with the core purposes of the Society.

On the first issue, the RSA has long suffered from a high level of public ignorance of its core mission. Our name doesn’t help in that it is both long and implies (in its shorter form) that we are primarily an arts organisation. So as part of our general mission to make a bigger benign impact on the world, the Trustees engaged consultants to help us with a brand strategy. This process involved consultations with stakeholders, Fellows and staff.  RSA: twenty first century enlightenment was the strapline that emerged. For the record, the first time I heard it I was far from convinced.

Once the strap line had been agreed by the Trustees, I decided to use my annual chief executive’s lecture to offer my own interpretation of the concept. In doing so my purpose was primarily to provide a bridge between the enlightenment values which led to the creation to the Society and the modern challenges we need to address.

My view of 21CE is simply this:

(a) that for society to flourish we need future citizens to be more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social

(b) in understanding how we enhance human capability we should draw on new thinking about human nature and behaviour

(c) this also involves us rethinking our interpretation of classic enlightenment concepts such as freedom, justice and progress

(d) 21CE is thus a modern interpretation of our historic mission – true to our past but focussed on the challenges of the future. 

Now, did I tell you the one about the horse, the vicar, the Irishman and the ham sandwich…..


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