By Ely Lassman
Ely is the founder and chair of 'Prometheus on Campus'. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in economics. During his time there he was an active voice on campus, championing reason and freedom through the Liberty Society, a student society he founded. Today he gives talks and teaches philosophy to students all around the world.
The UK is home to some of the most respected and established higher education institutions in the world, but they are in relative decline in some respects. Universities are supposed to be bastions of reason, of purposeful intellectual pursuit. And yet today, too many universities serve an opposite function, hindering and even retarding one’s intellectual development. The choice to engage one’s mind is a first step toward intellectual development, but the content and method of thinking is of crucial importance. Are you engaging your mind with observable facts and following logical connections based on such facts, or are you devising theories based on illogical hypotheses and “gut intuitions”? Are you constructing systems of thought based on desired conclusions, or are you reaching conclusions based on observable facts? Are you engaging your mind with the natural or the supernatural world?
The answers to these questions will determine whether one’s intellectual pursuits are conducive to intellectual development, or to its detriment. It is for this reason that students should be selective, not only about the content of their studies, but also the purpose of their educational efforts. And if that purpose is intellectual development, some university courses may not be fit for purpose.
Such was my experience at a top Russell Group university in Bristol. (The Russell Group is a self-selected association of the leading twenty-four public research universities in the UK.) Over the course of a three-year-long economics degree, independent thinking, active mindedness, and scrupulous examination of ideas and traditions was viewed disfavourably by some professors, by the Student Union, and even by much of the student body. There was little scope or platform to critically examine ideas freely, without being condemned for doubting the accepted status quo. There is an economic principle known as Gresham’s Law. It states that “bad money drives out good”. There is no merit to it, but there is a parallel to be drawn: good ideas drive out bad ones, and I was in desperate need – and it later turned out many others shared this need – of a platform where I would be able to have meaningful discussions, examine multiple perspectives on fundamental issues, and push myself to my intellectual limits. And as the university would not provide such a platform for me, I decided to create one myself.
As I came back from the summer holiday into my second year at university, I was determined to found a student society that would provide an environment on campus for the free exchange of ideas. I drafted a manifesto and a constitution, and was finally required to get thirty signatures from students who were interested in seeing the society founded and participating in its activities. I sent the form out to friends, acquaintances, and anyone I thought might be interested. Unfortunately, two hours before the deadline I only had nineteen signatures, and no more leads. I remember sitting in the library thinking that this was indicative of a lack of interest, and maybe other students simply didn’t care to have such a platform. But, as I mentioned above, I was determined to create this environment. So with two hours left before the deadline, I took to the streets, pitched the society to total strangers (if they were students), and by the time of the deadline I had thirty-three signatures. The society was founded.
But why is this story relevant? What is the takeaway, you may ask. Well, we ended the year with over 50 paid members, and were from the start one of the most active student societies on campus. Here I’d like to introduce another economic principle, known as Say’s Law. It states that “supply creates its own demand”. The platform we provided – an open and safe environment for the free exchange of ideas – and the demand that we saw, is evidence of it. We continued to have an even more successful second year.
During my time as president, I witnessed first-hand the impact such a platform can have both on individual students and the campus as a whole. It was truly inspiring to get favourable feedback about how the society changed many students' university experience for the better, and aided in their personal development. So nearing graduation I decided to found a charity with the purpose of expanding the platform to a national scale. Prometheus on Campus was established. We are an educational charity working to promote philosophy for liberty and independence across campuses in the UK. We do this by supporting existing viable student societies, and encouraging ambitious, active-minded students to establish their own organisations. We recently held a fellowship programme where we brought together a dozen students from universities across the country for a weekend of talks and discussions on philosophy and leadership in the beautiful Pendley Manor. New titans were made.
Central to our organization is the recognition that with the free exchange of ideas comes the responsibility of arguing for the right ideas, and rejecting the false and the bad. As stated on our website: "By focusing on philosophy and fundamental ideas, we encourage individuals not only to identify societal and institutional flaws, but introspect and understand what motivates them. Everybody has a philosophy—a system of ideas they hold to be true and are guided by—whether implicitly or explicitly. Prometheus on Campus encourages young people to identify and decide for themselves what ideas and premises to accept." This is done through the recognition that this world is intelligible, and there are no reasons to think otherwise or accept the supernatural. The scientific method and the art of logic are our means of understanding the world, but we must be left free to use our minds. Freedom is a precondition to thinking; thinking is a precondition to life. If one wants to live, one must be left free to think. If one wants to live a good and happy life, one must think. And what other desire can one have?
In the Greek mythological tales we learn about Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and brought it down to mankind. He gave man reason, technology and foresight. For this he was sentenced to eternal punishment. The flames at our university campuses today have long been put out, and students are in desperate need of such a fire. We at Prometheus on Campus will rekindle it by finding and creating titans on each and every campus who will carry the torch of reason.