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Big ideas with a small following

Colin Swatridge on why philosophy languishes at A-level. Philosophy is thought stuffy by some; sexy by others. The former see philosophers in other-worldly poses, stumble across their writings in unexpected places ("snow is white if, and only if, snow is white") and conclude that they neither live in "the real world" nor have anything to say to it.

Certain philosophers themselves foster an Olympian view. They engage in mental gymnastics behind closed doors, like MENSA-members, defying the unfit to "do" philosophy. In his review of Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy (TES, April 29 1994), Jonathan Ree said: "philosophy without tears is no philosophy at all".

When the Associated Examining Board introduced an A-level syllabus in 1985, 22 philosophy dons from four universities wrote to The TES in some alarm. "We would expect a good candidate to begin an answer with a reformulation of the question." Philosophy was not like mathematics or French, they said, where there were ideal answers "laid up in the examiner's mind". It seemed not to occur to them that English and history are not very much like mathematics or French, either. The Olympian 22 doubted, implicitly, whether pearls of wisdom ought to be scattered before Swineshire sixth-formers at all.

The opposite (philosophy is sexy) point of view was expressed by Francine Stock in The Independent (January 3, 1995), when she referred to philosophy in an article about trust as a "contender for the accolade of rock and roll of the Nineties".

Without altogether understanding what she meant, I imagine she had in mind the phenomenal success of Jostein Gaarder's philosofiction, Sophie's World. This unlikely story about a precocious 14-year-old, and an unattached, mlddle-aged mentor, was intended by its author to serve as a philosophy primer for Norwegian adolescents. Alberto Knox (who we suppose to be Gaarder's mouthpiece) describes the philosopher as one who retains his child's astonishment at the world; and who "does not give up, but tirelessly pursues his quest for truth".

A schoolteacher himself, Gaarder rails against his kind in Sophie's uncompromising words: "The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that schoolteachers think they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils."

I came late to philosophy, having taught religious studies, French, English, general studies, and psychology. I am not formally qualified in the subject: but I do not exaggerate when I say that no paid work has given me as much satisfaction as the teaching of philosophy to A-level students.

All the same, I neither take the view that the philosopher is set apart from the rest of soul-searching humanity, nor do I believe that doing philosophy need end in tears. It demands a talent for abstract thinking that is not given to us all; but then so does mathematics. It is more questions than answers; but then so is politics.

It is the very open-endedness of philosophy to which five cohorts of my students have responded. Sixteen-year-olds are ready to re-examine received ideas. They have assimilated the values of their parents, their siblings, teachers, peers, and media-models; now they seek autonomy - but they will listen to the conditions to be attached to it if these are presented to them in good faith, and with due acknowledgement of their near-adulthood. For those students ready to commit themselves to positions on suicide and the "sanctity of life", on animal rights, on justice and authority, censorship, the possibility of miracle, the meaning of meaning, the concept of mind, and the limits of knowledge, philosophy is a very gift.

How many writers have done more to inseminate European thinking with big ideas than Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Marx, and Mill? All are on the AEB syllabus (with 20th-century philsophers Ayer, Sartre, and Nagel), because they did have somethlng to say to the real world - and still do. Philosophy is - at least potentially - the most humanly engaging of all subjects because, in a real sense, it is all subjects.

Why, then, does A-level philosophy attract so few candidates? The above mentioned dons might have taken comfort from the modest entry in the examination's early years. In 1987, 338 candidates sat the AEB's exam; 54 the Joint Matriculation Board's. In 1995, the AEB entry still stood at only 1,111 candidates; 332 candidates sat the Northern Examinations ane Assessment Board A-level exam, and 257 the AS. Compare these hundreds wlth the thousands upon thousands of students who sat psychology and sociology - subjects that have the same parentage, and that attract a not dissimilar species of questioning student.

Why does a subject that so thrives on the continent, and that so burgeons in the new universities, so languish in schools and colleges in this country? Donnish hauteur is a thing of the past. Students returning from interviews testify to interest that - if sometimes ill-informed - is genuine.

There is no question but that philosophy has UCAS currency. It remains to persuade teachers of 16 to 19-year-olds that the subject is as accessible to students as it is acceptable to admissions tutors.

The students with whom I have tried to "figure things out" have appreciated a course that is not all factual content to be learnt, and that treats their tentative position-taking with respect. They have not all "passed" the exam; but none, to my certain knowledge, has left wishing they'd studied something else.

None would seek to understate the difficulty of the subject, nor to advertise its sex-appeal; but all have agreed that we touched on fundamental issues in philosophy.This could not be said of every A-level subject.

Dr Colin Swatridge teaches philosophy at Reigate College, Surrey

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