This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (you can read previous interviews here). Back in February, Aveek Bhattacharya sat down with Ciaran Thapar, a youth worker, educational consultant and author of the recent book Cut Short, which draws on his experience working with young people in London to analyse violence, inequality and criminal justice among other issues. Through the youth organisation, Roadworks, he delivers PATTERN, a storytelling workshop programme based on the themes of Cut Short. Thapar began mentoring young people as a Master’s student in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, and our interview explored the relevance of academic philosophy and the realities of disadvantaged young people’s lives.
Aveek Bhattacharya (AB): Could you tell me a bit about your backstory, and how political theory comes into it?
Ciaran Thapar (CT): After graduating university, I went to work in advertising to save money to go travelling I found it so mind numbing intellectually that I started craving ideas again. And then I started attending lectures, LSE free ones, loads of them, two a week after work. And that led to me applying for a master’s in political theory at LSE. The practical reason I picked that degree was because I was committed to going into charity work, or going into some sort of work that had a social impact, and I needed a year just to think and study and have that space. It really paid off.
I think of my professional life as before and after LSE because it just transformed the way I think about the world and the way I behave and treat people. Towards the end of that degree, I ended up getting a job, which is how Cut Short begins, with a charity called The Access Project that placed me as a mentor to students from low-income households and secondary schools across London. And I simultaneously moved out of my home in the suburbs, where I grew up, into Brixton, South London, and started volunteering as a mentor to boys at a local community centre. And the combination of that job and the volunteering opportunity is really what then led to me becoming so interested in youth work and education work. I was good at it, I enjoyed it because I learned so much every day. It was, and still is, really fulfilling. It was challenging, but also fun, and I quickly saw how much impact could be achieved in the lives of young people. So over the course of the last seven years, doing youth work and education work and working specifically with young people that suffer from disadvantage in different ways – boys and young men who really struggle to engage in society and institutions like school – and then writing about that journey has become my specialism.
AB: I’m really interested in this comment you made that you knew that you wanted to improve society and that you felt the best way to do that was through studying political theory. Where did that idea come from?
CT: I remember one of the lines on the description of the LSE political theory course is that it’s the study of the good society. And I had – still have – a potentially naïve idea that I want to apply myself to try and contribute myself to whatever that means. Because I have been born into a life of relative privilege and I feel like I should act on that, not just bank it. My dad’s a doctor, my mum’s a nurse, it’s in my family that we help out. It’s just part of the fabric that you’re part of a community and give thought to other people locally. And so I think that that played into the idea that I need to apply all this education I’ve had to something much more meaningful than simply chasing financial gain. I’ve tried to play a longer game of achieving sustained social impact, through education and writing, that I expect will now continue, in some shape or form, for the rest of my working life.
AB: So it sounds like there was an impulse to do good and improve society, but you wanted to give that more direction and more clarity?
AB: To what extent did it fulfil those expectations?
CT: It really fulfilled them. But it’s 50% commendable for LSE and 50% a reflection of the problems of LSE and by extension higher education. The half of it that I’m appreciative of is that I spent all day in lectures, seminars or in the library, reading and writing. I was really in studious mode, and it gave me that space to figure out my opinions about the world and decide how I’d like to work progressively within it. It also gave me a handful of friends I met on my course who I would talk to about these sorts of things with the whole time. My youth work and my writing, those two lanes are equally rooted in my thinking from that year: sat around a table like this, taking part in a conversation which would make me question certain things about society, and my place within it.
But then there’s this weird aspect to LSE. Which is that in my course of 35 people, I was one of four people of colour. Almost everyone else was internationally schooled, White European. Fair play to them, it’s to be expected on some level. But obviously that then raises the question: who is accessing this type of learning? I remember being really stimulated in some seminars, but really angry when I came out of other seminars, because we spent two hours talking about inequality and the only people confident enough to shout their way into the conversation are the ones I know are coming from elite institutions like Sciences Po. They’re wearing a bow tie, they’re dominating dialogue around the table. What experience did they have to speak with so much confidence? Why was their voice dominating? A lot of the tutors would actually indulge that. And it was like, ‘what is this system I’m a part of?’ So that actually gave me the fire in my belly to want to learn and change ideas within political theory and philosophy. But I also want to unlearn aspects of it as well.
AB: So let’s start with the positive side. To what extent are things you took from political theory more generic technical things like constructing an argument and thinking logically, and to what extent is it substantive theories and arguments?
CT: There’s a mix of both. Being given the confidence and the language to take quite seemingly mundane things and have conversations about them really empowered me. Because the way I naturally think anyway lends itself to that critical, ethical way of weighing up right and wrong, whether to do things one way or another, philosophically. Studying political theory kind of affirmed that all those latent thoughts you constantly have have value. I’ve come to learn that actually the best philosophy is the easiest to understand and explain. Just to give an example: virtue ethics, thinking about different virtues and vices that we have. The idea that those were identified as a formal area of study 2,000 years ago. There’s something so fundamental about that.
I always think back to the first time I realised the practical application of philosophy, writing my Master’s dissertation. It was in 2015, the peak of what was then being labelled the European migration crisis. And so I wrote a moral argument for why European states should cooperate to save people escaping war-torn countries who are drowning in the Mediterranean. It was all about how if you’re in a position of power you’re morally obligated to distribute certain responsibilities to those who are not yet as well off. I spent three months immersed in this type of thought in the library. And I suspect writing that dissertation is probably what birthed my writing career. The detail with which I write now, which I take pride in, comes from that particular period, because I thought so hard about it. This is why studying philosophy is in my mind so powerful: it can give you space to refine thoughts that, when then acted upon, can make you a better person.
So it all kind of spilled into my writing, but months later, one practical way was that as part of the education programme I ran, I had to pick applicants from the school to be on the programme. And then they would receive my mentoring and they would also receive other areas of support from this charity to apply to university. Now, everyone at the schools I was working in, relatively speaking, was disadvantaged. Every single person was eligible to get on the programme. But when you break it down, there are layers of criteria that you can prioritise: some students are on free school meals, or from a single parent home, or living in care, and so on. If you tick all these boxes, that young person ending up at a top university is statistically very unlikely. And therefore I am most obligated to give them the place. I remember being sat there, in the school office, trying to choose who to accept, and being like, ‘this is actually super relevant to what I was thinking about during my Master’s at LSE’. But it wasn’t in the library, it was out in the real world.
AB: Distributive justice in action.
CT: Exactly. And then what you realise is that to build good charity programmes, you have to constantly do this type of critical, philosophical thinking. But over the years I’ve witnessed that a lot of the time those who are designing and delivering these programmes don’t do that necessary thinking, and opportunities are just flung everywhere – they often don’t reach the people who need them most.
AB: What about the negative sides? You said that in the seminar room there’s a bit of detachment from reality, or the danger of drawing on too limited a set of experiences. What do you think could be done about that in political theory?
CT: Everyone should be able to access the study and discussion of philosophical ideas – not just the wealthy. It sounds obvious, but in practice, it’s clearly not. Otherwise you have a pipeline of philosophers without substantive experience of injustice, whose work is based in abstract thinking. And abstract thinking can be very useful, as I’ve said, but not if it’s isolated from the lived experience of people suffering from disadvantage.
For example, I’m running a discussion group tomorrow – as part of a writing course I’ve designed called PATTERN – about Plato’s cave. We have a group of 16-year-old boys at a college in Walthamstow, which serves almost exclusively low income students, many of whom suffer from a range of social problems – cramped housing, over-policing, racist stereotyping, repeated instances of serious youth violence in their community. Creating a safe space for young men like this is the sort of thing I’ve done over the last six, seven years, teaching philosophical ideas, or leading philosophical conversations with groups of boys who are struggling with school or the law. What you quickly realise doing this type of work is that they’re all philosophers by default. More than anyone, they’re constantly hyper-vigilant about all the different things going on in their lives, much more than a socioeconomically privileged student is likely to be. They’re constantly like, ‘I need to avoid that police officer’, ‘I need to not get in trouble with this teacher’, ‘It’s really unfair, because although I’ve wronged now, I’m only 14’. There’s a point in my book where the character of Carl wonders why his teachers aren’t helping him, even though he’s in school and really suffering at home, too. Because of that type of thinking, which comes from a lived experience of injustice, when you bring something like Plato’s cave into a classroom, for a lot of those boys it doesn’t seem alien. They’ve been thinking about these philosophical ideas for years in their everyday lives – they just didn’t have a language for it, or a way of realising how it can be academically and practically useful. One of the things I’ve tried to do is plant philosophical thought in youth culture, via both my education work and my writing. The idea is to apply it to practical situations in young peoples’ lives.
AB: I’d love to hear some examples of what this looks like in practice, of ways that you relate to kind of the big ideas or the canonical thinkers to people’s experiences and culture.
CT: In last week’s session, the theme was storytelling. And each week has a different set of resources that we design using music lyrics, or photography, or music videos. So then you leverage conversation using artefacts from culture that is familiar to everyone in the room; they know that you’re speaking to them on their level. I explained the concept of catharsis, how people in ancient Greece would gather in the amphitheatre and watch plays, and then they would feel emotions as a group of people. And Aristotle argued that this was a social good; that the audience can purge their emotions, and the experience will bring them together. And that actually allowed them to live a better life and for society to be more bound together. As a premise, you can really apply it to rap music in so many different ways. You swap the amphitheatre out and introduce YouTube instead. All these kids are at home, watching the same music videos depicting social realities in their communities, and feeling emotions as a result. Now that may be distasteful to the wider population. But actually, for many young people, rap and drill music performs a cathartic function. If a lot of boys are getting stabbed in a local area, then songs being made in that local area are going to tell stories about that. There are inevitably problems that come with that, but there are also great learnings for youth work, because it provides a really authentic launchpad for discussion.
Two hours later, you’ve had this really rich conversation. Philosophy, in this context, can provide a safe space, and it taps into youth work practice. Often in schools, people are not given a chance to have these conversations. And they need to have them. It can be life and death, if someone’s experienced something crazy that they’ve not told anyone.
But then it’s also a way of teaching them concepts that they can use in conversation, that they can think about to respond to situations in a more safe and critical way. The word catharsis, for example, they’re going to go out into society and remember that for the rest of their lives.
AB: What is the relationship between formal academic political philosophy and the work you’re doing? How can you strengthen those links?
CT: I’ve been doing so much of this work in isolation, I don’t have the time to research loads. Academics could give someone like me the support to make sure that the philosophy I’m designing these resources with is airtight. If I got that support, I could present the workshop using Plato’s cave, and then have a bunch of philosophers be like ‘hang on, you’ve misunderstood this, there are other ways you can apply this’.
And also, more fundamentally, I need help with infrastructure, resources and people. I’ve got a partnership with this charity called Nurture UK, they’ve got us into schools to deliver my writing course, PATTERN. I’m sure that wealthy university departments across the country can easily provide financial and infrastructural support for the work I am doing for relatively little cost. And it will make philosophy and political theory better for it.