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Philosophy for Younger People: a Polemic

by Constantine Sandis


'Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing
is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.'
John Dewey

Recent years have seen a high increase in the teaching of Philosophy in schools. Programs such as Pathways Schools in Australia (International Society for Philosophers, since 2003), 'Philosophy in Schools' in the UK (Royal Institute of Philosophy, since 1999), and 'Philosophy for Children' in the USA, Australia, and the UK (International Council for Philosophical Inquiry since 1985 & Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education since 1993) are spreading around the world. Within a decade of its introduction Philosophy (AS/A2) has become one of the most popular standard subjects taught across UK secondary schools.

Why is it so important to teach philosophy to younger people? After all philosophy — one might think — is a complex subject, too difficult for children to get to grips with, and too abstract to have any practical value. One answer is that this prepares children for the possibility of doing philosophy at A-level and/ or University standard. Another is that they would be exposed to the ideas of some of some of the most profound thinkers in human history. Both answers make sense. But there also exists a more pertinent answer, best summed up by the following excerpt from a report of research recently undertaken in the field:

Evaluations show positive side effects along many dimensions other than standard achievement tests, for example, in terms of the quality of children's discussion and argumentative skills, ability to formulate questions, self-esteem, and so on.

(Philosophy for Children [P4C] Department for Employment and Education Research Report 115).

In other words, thinking about philosophical questions helps children to develop their reasoning capabilities in general. Although often branded as some kind of 'ultimate quest for knowledge' more often than not the practice of philosophy has much more to do with understanding, rather than knowledge. Understanding what it means for one thing to follow another logically, for something to be an open question, be evidence for some new belief, or a reason for abandoning an intuition. Philosophy in schools need not aim at getting children to memorise many new facts. Instead, it can, does and should, aim at training children to think more clearly about the facts they learned in other subjects: how we come to know about them, why they are important, and how they relate to each other.

As they grow older, philosophical skills can help children to understand more clearly just what the theories and assumptions found in physics, biology, history, chemistry, law, politics etc. amount to. Epistemology, for example, is important, not because it leads us to doubt whether anything can be known for certain, but rather because it helps us to think about how moral and scientific practices work, and gives us tools with which we can better evaluate the claims of specialists in those areas.

My own experience (teaching for the R.I.P., as well as for the GCE and GCSE OCR and AQA examination) has mainly been with 14-18 year olds interested equally in literature, religious studies, social sciences, and natural sciences. From the very first lesson they are quick to point out differences and similarities between methods of philosophical enquiry and methods used in other disciplines, and draw important conclusions from their methodological observations.

At a time when are overwhelmed with information coming from potentially unreliable sources — be they poor journalism, badly researched books, so-called 'experts' speaking on television programmes, or random internet sites (this list is not intended to be exhaustive) — it is vital that we be able to distinguish reasons from rationalizations, good arguments from a bad ones, and genuine insight from conceptual confusion. No doubt, some people will have a natural talent for this, but, as most life-long learning university departments divisions have come to see, this is no reason to not teach these essential skills to all. Philosophy for younger people helps to foster such abilities from an early age, before the seeds of intellectual gullibility begin to grow within.

Needless to say, the pupils are not the only ones who benefit from Philosophy in Schools programmes. The multifarious ways in which younger people react to philosophical questions and hypotheses can reveal hidden facets and bring to light unimagined practical implications. In philosophy it's all-too-easy to fail to see the wood for the trees, and at times the best cure for this is discussion with people of varying backgrounds and ages. To end with another quote by Dewey:

There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication... Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing.

© Constantine Sandis 2004

E-mail: c.sandis@reading.ac.uk