A report on our 16 May Knowledge Cafe, by Amy Buller PhD Scholar, Amber Pierce, from Royal Holloway, University of London

Published Date: 
Monday, 3 June 2019


On Thursday 16 May, Cumberland Lodge hosted a Knowledge Café in Cambridge, drawing on chapters from the study guide, Moral and Spiritual Dilemmas in Challenging Times, which was published by Cumberland Lodge and the Council of Christians and Jews in 2018.

The format

Students, researchers and teachers convened at the Woolf Institute to discuss some of the pressing moral and spiritual issues that contemporary society faces, drawing on the experiences of people who lived in 1930s Germany, as recounted by Amy Buller in her 1947 book, Darkness over Germany.

The event followed a rotating, roundtable format, with small groups moving between three tables, each set up for 20-minute discussions on different chapters from the study guide. Each of the groups had the chance to discuss the following chapters:

  • My chapter on ‘The Tragedy of the Unemployed Student’,
  • Salley Vickers' chapter, ‘In the Early Days – A Study in Contrasts’
  • Edmund Newell’s chapter on 'Professor Braun'

Coming together at the end of the separate chapter discussions, the whole group reflected on the common themes that were highlighted.

Photo of the front cover of 'Moral and Spiritual Dilemmas in Challenging Times', a study guide by Cumberland Lodge and the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), 2018

Key themes

Clear parallels were drawn between 1930s Germany and the contemporary rise of popularism and far-right movements in Europe and elsewhere in the world. One of the most prominent themes that came out of these discussions was the lack of direction in global society, today. As one of the participants put it, there is currently widespread acknowledgement that something is 'not right' in society, but there is little cohesion around what can be done about it. 

This observation spurred questions about whether this is down to a lack of ‘destination clarity’ from political parties, or whether it is more to do with an unwillingness on the part of individuals to act unless they feel directly affected. 

One participant described a basic psychological contradiction that exists within all individuals, holding people back from learning more about what is happening around them and from taking action in the face of political turmoil. 

The willingness for people to act only when something directly affects them was related to current responses to the climate change crisis. Whilst most political parties have avoided taking a clear stance on climate change, prominent protests, social media campaigns, and other projects such as Netflix’s show Our Planet, have raised sufficient awareness and knowledge of the issues to spur people into starting to take or demand action. 

Participants agreed that the most fundamental approach to preventing further political extremism will involve education to improve awareness and understanding. Whilst this might be easier said than done - the intricate details of Brexit (for example) are certainly less attention-grabbing than the simplistic 'Leave' and 'Remain' slogans - campaigns that clearly address the facts and details of pressing issues can go a long way towards allowing people to make more informed decisions.

This Knowledge Café encouraged all attendees to share their understanding of history and views on some of the most pressing issues that contemporary society faces. Whilst there might be disillusionment with the traditional political system today, when pressed, people really do want to try and make a change for the better, and these kinds of discussions are an essential way to start that process.

Participants in a Knowledge Cafe hosted by Cumberland Lodge and the Woolf Institute, Cambridge