A school of thought: why British pupils should study philosophy

Does culture make us more human? Is desire a mark of imperfection? To prove an injustice, do you need to know what is just? These were some of questions French high-school students faced this week in the philosophy exams that children all over the country are required to sit.

When the questions were tweeted by an AFP reporter, a further question was raised: should British children be doing more philosophy, too? There is already a reasonably large movement of philosophy and P4C (Philosophy for Children) in the UK that has garnered more and more interest over the past 20 years or so. The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) even published some research findings in 2015 showing that philosophical discussion among pupils led to small improvements in reading and maths performance in primary schools.

So, isn’t that a reason enough to do philosophy? Well, maybe not. The improvements were small, so one might ask a couple of questions. Firstly, surely there must be other ways to make greater improvements in reading and maths. Then, if there are, shouldn’t we just do them if the aim is to improve reading and maths?

Which brings me to my second question: is that really the reason we might want to do philosophy in schools? Stephen Gorard, one of the academics behind this research, said that perhaps the best we can say from these findings is that philosophy doesn’t harm Sats outcomes. The EEF research shows, then, that there are no good reasons not to do philosophy. But are there any reasons why we should?

In this age of fake news, children need to be able to navigate an increasingly confusing and information-rich world.

The Journal of Philosophy in Schools has recently published a special edition (in which I make a contribution) making some robust cases for why philosophy should be taught in compulsory education. Among other things, essays explored the idea that an education in philosophy better equips people for ethical life, and how philosophy improves the quality of children’s thinking.

Further to this, our education system has a few core failings. One of them is that it is consumer-led, where the students are made to think of education only instrumentally. By the time students get to university, they demand: “Tell me what I need to know to pass what I’ve paid for.” Philosophy provides a space to think for the sake of thinking.

Democracy gives people a voice. What is not always remembered is that the right to a voice comes with a corresponding duty to use it responsibly and accountably. We need to be accountable to each other, to reason and to the facts. Doing philosophy – when it is done well – in a community of inquiry helps students realise what is involved in having a voice and in having power. In short, it teaches people not only to think for themselves, but also intellectual responsibility.

Philosophy also employs and encourages critical thinking. In this age of post-truth, “alternative facts” and fake news, children need tools to be able to navigate an increasingly confusing and information-rich world. The thinking skills afforded by doing philosophy gives students what I like to call a “room-for-doubt detector”, so that we know when to ask: “Is that justified?” or when we should check the facts for ourselves.

If we are to have philosophy in our schools, then we need to think about how we do it. To meet the needs I’ve outlined, it’s no good sitting exams on what Plato said (I think of this as the history of ideas rather than philosophy). But, equally, it’s no good calling something philosophy that amounts to no more than the sharing of opinions (this is one of the consequences when teachers say misleading things like: “In philosophy there’s no right and wrong answers”). If philosophy is to be done in our schools, which I think it should be, those leading it should be properly trained, and the material should be genuinely philosophical.

I recall David Leal, of Oxford University, giving a talk about why Oxford no longer recognised (in 2008) A-level philosophy as a good indicator of philosophical acumen. Asking students, as the A-level then did, to name three weaknesses of reliabilism is not doing philosophy. Oxford, instead asked its own questions such as: “Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?” (very similar in quality to the kinds of question the French children are having to answer). These are the sorts of question where you have to really think to be able to answer them, and where you have to really think for yourself.

Published in the Guardian

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