‘Challenge the Best’ isn’t just a pithy maxim. I saw it put into practice before mine own eyes in the sedate Swiss town of St Gallen, where the students of St Gallen University pulled off a remarkable inter-generational event, called Challenge the Best. The Best in this case being six eminent thought leaders – including two Nobel Laureates. And the Challenge coming from some five hundred students gathered before them. Usually it’s my role to be the challenging one, but in the main lecture hall of St Gallen university I witnessed a few new tricks…
The panel of elders – aka The Best - comprised Sir James Mirrlees, economist and Nobel Laureate, who also gave the keynote address on the value of diversity; Prof Heinrich Rohrer, physicist, Nobel Laureate and stirrer of controversies – “diversity makes no difference to scientific innovation”; Lale Akgun, Turkish – German politician who called for the breaking of taboos and gave as good as she got – “there are no new ideas here”; from Boston, Lewis Feldstein, former civil rights activist and social activist, who surprised the students with academic research on diversity’s downside – lower social inclusion – though it saddened him to do so; Daniel Thuerer, from the governing body of the International Red Cross, who discoursed on what can go wrong when diversity sets communities against each other; and business titan Eberhard von Koerber, former CEO of ABB, whose passionate plea, ‘Europe needs diversity for the sake of its own prosperity’ ended up being challenged by a young Czech participant, who posed: “Why should your growth happen at my country’s expense?”
Highlights for me: When an increasingly impatient young student, Sebastien, challenged Prof Rohrer’s unshakeable view that science did not need/nor benefit from diversity. If I were adjudicator I’d say Sebastien won that round. Another highlight: feisty international relations student Priya’s summaries of the weekend’s key ideas - a masterclass in getting to the nub of the argument. Also, an unexpected challenge from the floor to Prof Thuerer’s appeal that we should all view the world through African eyes – surely an unobjectionable ‘motherhoood and apple pie’ type statement? But no, it wasn’t allowed to just rest there as a soggy, emotional appeal, but was challenged – what about Rwanda, what about the persecution of gays? No soggy thinking allowed.
Were you at Challenge the Best 2011 – what were your top takeaways? And what about next year - any changes you’d like to see at Challenge the Best 2012?