Author: Craig Adams
Publisher: Icon Books
Details: 320pp, £14.99
Craig Adams (a publisher-turned-teacher-turned-author) suggests that, as a culture, we do not directly or adequately introduce young people to the concepts and techniques that teach them to think and argue. As a result, we all end up afraid to have difficult conversations, because we are insufficiently skilled in understanding and exchanging ideas.
The author contends that Western schools have lost their way, by conceiving of education as “a silver bullet – a productivity-inducing saviour of the economy, a mind-expanding bringer of creativity [and] a solution for the problems that drag societies down”. Education ought, according to Adams, to focus on thinking.
An alternative title for this book could be Why Ancient Philosophy Matters. The remedy promoted to ameliorate contemporary curricular ills is Aristotelian philosophy, with a healthy sprinkling of Plato and logic. He suggests that we should teach in schools the “fundamental and unavoidable principles of reasoning and truth”, just as Aristotle did to Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago.
Secrets of intelligence
The final three secrets are: reality, evidence and meaning. The author explains that philosophy teaches us to ask three questions: what’s real? (ontology), what do you mean? (semantics), and what counts as evidence? (epistemology).
He goes on to demonstrate that philosophy gives us the perspective that subjects differ by showing us how they differ. This section includes a clear and concise description of the role of metacognition in learning. I enjoyed the various examples that highlight the danger of accepting anything (words or numbers) at face value. Examples of this type will be familiar to anyone who has studied elementary statistics, or who has read books such as Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
I bristled at the book’s subtitle, “What your education failed to teach you”. This could be read as antagonistic, or even patronising. I imagine it was chosen to sell books. As it so happens, my own education did not fail to teach me the “six secrets”: my teachers just taught them all as part of Classical studies (and, thanks to the Advocating Classics Education project, thousands more students around the country are now accessing the study of the Greeks and Romans in schools).
In reality, I expect some of the content of each “secret” will be familiar to readers. But the examples provide interesting (sometimes entertaining) illustrations of the abstract concepts being described. Given the political nature of several examples, I do worry about their long-term relevance and currency.
The myth of talent
In addition to the “secrets”, there are three points made in this book that I found compelling.
First, Adams reflects on his experience of school teaching, and concludes that: “Today we’ve both returned to and reinforced the myth of talent.” He encourages educators and parents to remember the countless hours of practice, repetition of technical exercises, slow and effortful mastery of the vocabulary of ideas that reveals the structures and patterns of many creative arts.
“The road to both confidence and ability is paved not with talent and praise but with technique, patterns and practice,” he writes. This Aristotelian pursuit of personal excellence is a noble ambition for any education.
Second, he says that we should be wary of the use of technology in classrooms. Obviously it has the potential to enhance teaching and learning, but it “also has the power to make us fetishise style over substance”.
Adams identifies Aristotle as an extremely high-quality teacher, yet his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, did not learn with an iPad. Nowhere does Adams demonise technology, he just sounds a warning signal about its dominance: sage advice in my view.
The precision of philosophers
Third, he is concerned that today’s education is too narrowly focused on artistic, literary and rhetorical ways of thinking and arguing, which put sounding good ahead of thinking deeply. We offer children the style of poets, novelists and orators, but not the necessary counterweight: the precision of philosophers.
With the recent strides being made in oracy education, sounding good has never been higher on the agenda. Of course, some schools teach philosophy for children, philosophy A level and philosophical options within religious studies, Classical civilisation, politics and other curriculum subjects.
But Adams is suggesting something altogether more ambitious in this book: a complete back-to-basics in curricular terms, where the meaning of the words on which every argument and theory turns are at the core: truth, proof, evidence, scientific, real, logical and fact.
The blurb promises a combination of Aristotle’s philosophy and cutting-edge cognitive science to help readers sharpen and open their minds. I found it light on cognitive science, but it does provide a toolkit for analysing political debates and philosophical discussions.
You may even find that you have the last word in arguments at home and in school, thanks to this introduction to logic and reasoning.
Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is research fellow in Classics education at King’s College London. She tweets as @drarlenehh
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