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The Origins of HECAT – Part Three: The Economy & Society Summer School

    Today is an auspicious day, though many of our readers won’t know it. Today was supposed to be the first day of the Economy & Society Summer school, a weeklong conference held in Blackwater Castle in Cork, Ireland.

    The Grounds of Blackwater Castle
    Photo credit: Wendy O’Leary

    The Economy & Society Summer School (generally abbreviated to ESSS or just ‘the school’) has run every May since 2014. This year it was supposed to start today, May 11th, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic it had to be cancelled.

    This and all further images are credited to Zach Roche, who wishes dearly that he used landscape mode

    The school started out as the Theory and Philosophy Society (TAPS), which had a strong theoretical orientation and set the bedrock for the future ESSS. TAPS was still held at Blackwater Castle, and also lasted a week, but it did not have the same focus as ESSS which would come later. TAPS also set a more punishing pace, with lectures, presentations, talks and salons beginning at 9am and continuing until 9pm, followed by raucous discussion which often lasted until the sun was rising – and then the whole process was done again.

    While TAPS was an excellent experience, in 2014 it was decided that the school would be reorganised, and have a new focus on the prevailing socio-economic conditions which were (and are) changing our world. Much discussion had been had on ‘the economy’ a nebulous concept which often retreats into the language of mysticism, theology and religion. We cannot undertake certain actions, lest the markets be annoyed, surprised, or displeased. Human beings meanwhile are reduced to a series of loosely connected ‘incentives’, each of us desiring to maximise our human capital, not necessarily wishing for the misfortune of anyone else, but ready to exploit such opportunities should they arise. ESSS exists to bring nuance and understanding to the specter of socio-economics haunting our everyday existence.

    The mission of ESSS therefore was to remind ourselves that we are a society as well as an economy, and to take the social elements seriously and not simply as a vestigial part which has been bolted on to the perimeters of the economy. Thus the school is broad and open, accepting perspectives from a wide range of social and economic perspectives, including sociology, anthropology, management studies, theology, finance, geography, economics, politics, history, marketing, and many more.

    ESSS therefore brings together people from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds, including approximately 40 PhD students and 15 or so faculty / speakers. Each day begins with the reading groups, which are organized based on the mutual interests of the students and faculty in each particular year. A faculty member leads each reading group, composed of 5-7 PhD students who will have been sent readings in advance. The readings are related to a theme which guides the group during their discussion, and the discussions are framed around the topics and interests of the PhD students in that particular group. To see a list of the proposed reading groups for 2020 click here.

    Following the reading groups there are a series of lectures by invited speakers. Typically each lecture lasts 90 minutes with 30 minutes for questions after the talk has concluded. Generally each day has three lectures, though some days have special activities which may affect this, such as the walk to the nearby Bridgetown Abbey.

    The walk to the abbey takes about 25-30 minutes and involves passing many fields with friendly inhabitants

    Following the conclusion of the lectures, there is an evening activity, such as a bonfire, a salon reading, or live music (usually traditional Irish music).

    While this provides a more-or-less accurate summary of what happens at ESSS, it is the conviviality and spirit of the event that is unique. Each person who comes to the school is asked to help to run it, as there are no janitors, waiters, or servants to help clean up or cook (we recognise the special exception of Matt from WIT’s culinary school who comes each year to help cook lunch and dinner). Which brings up another interesting aspect of the school – the overarching theme of the gift. None of the invited speakers or faculty are paid for their time, and all are expected to help cook and clean. Each attendee helps once a week to make breakfast, lunch, or dinner for their fellows – and everyone must chip in with no exceptions. We give the gift of our time, hoping (though not expecting) for reciprocity. We clean up after ourselves, and if everyone does the same and works together then (as we have repeatedly seen) everything runs smoothly.

    And, saving the best for last – on this day five years ago, Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins came to open the school and gave an inspiring address on the necessity of hope and alternative ways of thinking about the crises we seem doomed to repeat. On this fifth anniversary while we cannot be at the school in body, we can certainly be there in spirit by attending to the President’s message.

    Thank you for reading part three of HECAT’s origins. Many of those involved in organising the Economy & Society Summer School have gone on to the HECAT project, and it is fair to say that the ethical principles of openness, transparency and care which are foundational to the school have become similarly essential to HECAT.

    If you wish to learn more about the school please click here. Applications generally open at the end of January, close at the end of March, and the school is held in the second or third week of May. The school was cancelled for the first time in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we hope to run it again in 2021.