Harry Styles asked to teach his Twitter followers about Greek Philosophy - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 13 February

Alain de Botton, a philosopher and writer, wants serious ideas to be discussed more widely.

Harry Styles asked to teach his Twitter followers about Greek Philosophy

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 13 February

By Helen Ward

Alain de Botton, a philosopher and writer, wants serious ideas to be discussed more widely.

In an interview published today in the UK newspaper Metro, he says he is “frustrated by the monstrous snobbery of certain academics that surrounds conveying serious ideas to the wider public”.

De Botton goes on to suggest that if academics will not come down from their ivory towers, then perhaps people who are already in the public eye – such as One Direction singer Harry Styles – should take advantage of their position to spread ambitious intellectual ideas.

He says: “In an ideal world, Harry Styles would be teaching his 10 million Twitter followers a little more about Greek philosophy.”

Styles proved he has a sense of humour by tweeting in response: “Socrates, born in Athens in the 5th century BCE, marks a watershed in Ancient Greek philosophy.”

Professor Steve Fuller of Warwick University, who has 1,530 followers on Twitter, thinks that de Botton may have hit on something.

“Academics are used to speaking to a captive audience of students whom they can lecture to uninterrupted,” he said, “but if they have something meaningful to get across, [de Botton] has a point about getting it across in mediums people normally communicate through and through people who are normally listened to.”

But why would celebrities want to spout philosophy rather than telling us they have just got Deep Heat in their eye or are wearing long johns?

Professor Fuller points out that there is a big audience for debate on the big ideas of how best to live, which may tempt celebrities who want their careers to last longer than five minutes or, to take a less cynical and more philosophical viewpoint, are themselves looking for the best way to use their fame.

He said: “Look at those rock musicians who raise money for Africa. Bono wrote the foreword to The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs [economics professor at Columbia University in the US]. These guys aren’t stupid. The issue is, how do you make the pitch to someone like David Beckham or Harry Styles? It’s about matching the philosopher and their ideas to the celebrity.”

Currently, academics’ jobs depend on how often their research is published in peer-reviewed journals. Professor Fuller suggests that changing this would encourage academics to produce a different type of work and to be more communicative.

He points out that de Botton’s first non-fiction book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, was a best-seller. “Alain de Botton has exponentially more readers and followers in the areas which he is writing about than academics,” Professor Fuller said. “That is a challenge for us. What he is doing is significant. He is showing, in a way that academics don’t normally show, that great works can have a significant impact on people.”

Questions for your class

  • Who are your role models? How do they inspire you?
  • What is ‘philosophy’? Is this a subject you think we should learn more about in school?
  • Do you think that celebrities have a responsibility to use their fame for good causes?
  • What motivates you to learn?

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In the news this week

Scientists in the secretive single-party state of North Korea have carried out their third nuclear test, prompting alarm among other nations around the world.

The world has been shocked by the surprise announcement this morning that Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month.

Nearly a quarter of sub-Saharan African children still do not have access to the most basic schooling, despite efforts over the past decade by world leaders to make sure that all children receive at least some education.

Members of the British Parliament have been debating whether to allow same-sex marriages in England and Wales.

In the news archive index