The Upper School Symposium

The Upper School Symposium 2017 took place on Thursday October 5. This year’s theme was ‘Uncertainty’, and our keynote speakers included philosopher Dr Barry Smith and neuroscientist Dr Sarah Garfinkel, who shared their professional insights into the ways in which our bodies, minds and brains help us deal with the uncertainties of being human.

They explored the effects of anxiety and stress, discussing the ways in which our five senses are not as trustworthy as we might think, as well as revealing the role of the lesser-known ‘uncommon senses’ in helping us navigate through emotional and psychological uncertainty.

Uncertainty is currently a keynote in public life, and the range of thirty seminars and workshops offered by our members of staff addressed this theme from a variety of viewpoints. Boys were invited to think about the role of uncertainty in history, literature, politics, film, art, photography, philosophy and science. Titles include ‘Narcos, García Márquez and magic realism’, ‘Victorian agnosticism and its enemies’, ‘Street photography and the element of chance’, and ‘The uncertain future of the planet’.

Held every October, now in its seventh year, the Symposium is the Upper School’s keynote academic event. For one day, all boys in the Upper School are taken off-timetable, in order to explore academic areas beyond the curriculum.

The theme and guest speakers are selected by the Symposium Director and Sixth Form pupils, with the aim of promoting intellectual curiosity and stimulating debate within the Upper School community.

Sound Logo

Sound: 6 October 2016

This year's Upper School Symposium will examine Sound, arguably the 'poor relation' of the senses. Our keynote speakers work at the top of their field, manipulating, crafting and designing soundscapes for spaces public, private and artistic, as well as commenting on the impact sound has on our lives.

  • Gareth Fry is an Oliver-award-winning theatrical sound designer, whose current and recent projects include Harry Potter, Theatre de Complicite's The Encounter and the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
  • Paul Weir is an audio director, composer and sound designer currently working as an Audio Director with Microsoft, and for Hello Games’ procedural sci-fi game, ‘No Man’s Sky’.
  • Mark Armstrong is a professional trumpeter, composer and arranger. He is Artistic and Music Director of NYJO (the National Youth Jazz Orchestra) and Jazz Professor at the Royal College of Music.
  • Miranda Sawyer is a journalist and broadcaster. She is a feature writer for The Observer, and its radio critic. She also writes for a range of publications, from Vogue to The Guardian.

Us & Them Logo

Us and Them: 1 October 2015

Our keynote speakers this year are M.P. Kwasi Kwarteng, who will talk about the ways in which our identities are shaped by global movements from 19th-century Empire to 21st-century migration, German-born comedian Henning Wehn, well-known for his funny and thought-provoking approach to the Germans and the British, and Radio 4 presenter and journalist Justin Webb, whose recent book Them and Us explores the relationship between the Americans and the British.

Upper School boys will also attend two sessions of their choice from a programme of 35 seminars and workshops. These are given by teachers, outside specialists, and even some students, and this year include seminars on the depiction of the ‘other’ in popular film and Gothic literature, a first-person account of life in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and an exploration of the gender politics of ancient and contemporary superhero narratives, from Achilles to Ant-man.

Power Logo

Power: 9 October 2014

Speakers included comedian Jo Brand who demonstrated with frankness and humour her deeply-held beliefs about the importance of challenging prejudice, pride and power in the world around us. Top political cartoonist Martin Rowson discussed a range of his scathingly satirical work, revealing the ways in which his work taunts and teases the British establishment, providing a caustic and irreverent challenge to power in its many guises. Poet Chris McCabe contributed to both sessions, reading a selection of his work, which provided a thought-provoking commentary on the power of the media, the horrifying disempowerment experienced by many on the day of the July London bombings, and finally, on the power of literature.

Seminars ranged from Ms Jarman’s talk on the power of gold and Mr Mair’s practical session on solar power, to Mr Sutton’s seminar on power narratives in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Two Upper School boys, Jakob Hedberg and Ed McNamara, led a workshop on the power of physical theatre.

Society And The Individual Logo

Society and the Individual: 10 October 2013

Speakers included Mark Littlewood, Director-General of the Institute for Economic Affairs, Dr Marianne Franklin, Reader in Media and Communications at Goldsmith’s University, Dr Lawrence Ratnasabapathy, Consultant Psychiatrist at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Barnet, Dr Tomas Rawlings, founder of Auroch Digital, and Consultant at the Wellcome Trust, Dr Matthew Chalmers, freelance science journalist and former features editor of Physics World, and Ken Eklund, designer of the cutting-edge game, ‘World Without Oil’. Seminars ranged from Dickens, Ibsen, and James Watt, to race, class and gender in World Wrestling Entertainment.

Time Logo

Time: 11 October 2012

Booker-shortlisted author, Will Self, focused on the relevance of time in literary narratives, Nottingham University philosopher Dr Jonathan Tallant prompted the boys to think about the idea of time itself, asking, ‘what do we mean when we say time passes?’ Dr Barry King, from Liverpool University’s Physics department performed a whistle-stop tour of time-related physics, from Newton to Special Relativity and the impact of Black Holes. Professor Thomas Higham gave boys a rare insight into his fascinating work at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, where he has worked on dating the Turin Shroud and the bones believed to be those of John the Baptist. Seminars ranged from geology and poetry, to film and music.

Brains Minds Machines

Brains, Minds, Machines: 13 October 2011

Dr Derek Dunfield from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr Anders Sandberg from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, and Professor Murray Shanahan from Imperial College, London, spoke on brain science, robotics, life-extension, and behavioural economics. Boys learned that a ten-dollar bottle of wine is as good as, or better than, a 90-dollar one, as long as you believe that you are drinking the more expensive vintage. They also learned how scientists are trying to build the brain of a mouse in computer form, and were treated to an exclusive screening of the fascinating documentary filmTranshuman. In one of the day’s other highlights, three Dulwich College teachers engaged in a vigorous and entertaining debate, which touched on many aspects of the big question of the day – what is it to be human? Seminars ranged from Bauhaus to Books of Hours.

Science And The Imagination

Science and the Imagination: 14 October 2010

The inaugural Symposium featured poet and academic Ruth Padel, who studied the role of imagination and wonder in her great great grandfather, Charles Darwin’s developing approach to science. Neuroscientist Dr Guido Orgs explored what neuroscience can tell us about human notions of beauty, and broadcaster and academic Charlie Lee-Potter spoke on the historical and scientific context behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Seminar subjects ranged from Feynmann’s Penguins to Cyberpunk in French Cinema and Mr Weaver gave a talk on the Fellows’ Library Collection.

Discover More

"The Symposium has entered the Dulwich consciousness. It provokes our Sixth Formers to engage in debate with their peers, their teachers and eminent guest speakers about themes and topics they have not considered in such a way before. Intellectual curiosity is piqued and ideas explored without the inevitable constraints of the examined curriculum. It’s been heartening to hear, every year, of boys whose university or career plans have been changed or challenged by the experience of a symposium. This is what education is all about." Dr Joseph Spence | Master of the College

"What I love about this event is that it gives the Upper School a real sense of what university education is like. It captures the excitement of going beyond the textbook, whilst encapsulating the essence of current thinking and academic research. It’s also great that boys of so many interests are able to engage with the chosen theme and to debate it ‘live’ – and robustly - with our guest speakers." Dr Cameron Pyke | Deputy Master (External Relations) 

"It is a delight for me to work with our most intellectually curious Sixth-formers in organising the event and sharing their enthusiasm on the day. This year, Jo Brand’s talk fired up discussion among the whole year-group around feminism and gender roles in society. It was thought-provoking and challenging, and the boys rose to that challenge!" Jo Akrill | Symposium Director

The Symposium allows us to grapple with the big questions and ethical dilemmas simply not permitted by the everyday grind of an A Level syllabus. I came away from the day feeling enriched by what I had heard. It stands alone in the College calendar as a day that truly exposes you to the kind of high-level thinking and discussion students at other schools would not experience until university." William Cook | Sixth-former 2012 – 2014