The Reith Lectures: Brain Food Vol. 4

The 2012 Reith Lectures are presented by the economic historian Prof Niall Ferguson. Reith Lectures Brain Food Vol.4 provides links to articles and audio relating to some of the topics raised in Prof Ferguson's fourth and final lecture, Civil and Uncivil Societies.


  1. Prof Niall Ferguson returns to his homeland for his fourth and final Reith Lecture - Scotland. The lecture was recorded at The Royal Scoiety of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1783 at the height of The Enlightenment in Scotland.
  2. Scotland was transformed by the ideas sweeping Europe in the period we call The Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment emerged on a broad front. From philosophy to farming it championed empiricism, questioned religion and debated reason. It was crowned by the philosophical brilliance of David Hume and by Adam Smith – the father of modern economics.

    Radio 4's In Our Time has covered The Enlightenment in Scotland and beyond - listen to the archive:
  3. In his examination of the demise of civil society Niall Ferguson quotes the 19th Century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who is best known for his two volume work Democracy in America - a landmark exploration of the early days of American society.

    Radio 4's Thinking Allowed explored de Tocqueville's legacy back in 2006.
  4. NPR News revisited de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and asked how does it apply to modern America?
  5. Niall Ferguson also references Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone. Published in 1995, this garnered huge attention in the United States as it charted the apparent demise of American civil life.

    Putnam used bowling as an example because the number of Americans who go ten pin bowling had increased over 20 years, but the number of people who bowled in leagues had decreased. Putnam argued that if people bowled alone, then they do not participate in potential civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.

    Prof Putnam continues with his research into civic engagement in America.
  6. Radio 4's Americana spoke to Robert Putnam in 2010 about his book American Grace, which explores the impact religion has on identity in America.
  7. Niall Ferguson also examines the state of civil life in the UK - and cites the findings of the Citizenship Survey, which reported a drop in volunteering and charitable giving in the UK. The Citizenship Survey was published by the Home Office between 2001 and 2010, but has since been cancelled.
  8. Niall Ferguson says he doesn't believe the "fashionable" claim that online social media can replace the effectiveness of real-life social gatherings. A lot of people would disagree - among them, Google founder Eric Schmidt and US State Department's Jared Cohen. Here they are speaking on technology's role in foreign policy.
  9. "The real enemy of civil society is the state... with its seductive promise of security from cradle to the grave" says Niall Ferguson. Could it be that the welfare state has gone too far? Should the government be more discerning about who receives benefits? Radio 4's Analysis explored the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor.
  10. Niall Ferguson uses education as an example of an area which he thinks would benefit from a more hands-off approach from the state. He says we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies in areas such as education, because all monopolies eventually suffer decline in quality because of a lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests - in this case, the government and teaching unions.

    But do schools really make a difference? Or is school performance really down to the raw intelligence of its students?