Skip to main content

Editorial: The educational benefits of sticking your nose in

"Philosophy," A C Grayling once said, "gives you a licence to stick your nose into everything."

It's a belief that the renowned philosopher and humanist adheres to religiously. When he was unhappy that the humanities were under threat in our state-funded universities, he opened his own private institution to teach them. Now, along with many religious education teachers, he is unhappy with the government's reform of the RE GCSE and A-level. And once again he is taking action - it would seem that for Grayling the word "can't" is just a dead German philosopher.

The revised religious studies syllabus focuses more on religion (at least 50 per cent of the weighting is on the study of world faiths), squeezes the philosophy and ethics elements, and does not include humanism, despite a concerted effort by humanists to have it represented. For Grayling, this absence of philosophy teaching at GCSE indicates a "screaming silence in the curriculum".

Ironically, it has been philosophy and ethics that have driven the popularity of RE at key stages 4 and 5 in recent years. But it would seem that these elements are now being sacrificed on the altar of "British values".

The revised content, the Department for Education explained on announcing the consultation on the reforms, would "help to prepare students for life in modern Britain through developing an awareness of fundamental British values such as respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and none; values which are a vital part of a secure future for Britain".

This diminution of philosophy has spurred the redoubtable Grayling to lobby for another cause: he is to launch a campaign to introduce a GCSE for philosophy in its own right, and he has even offered to help design the course.

Grayling thinks that, given the choice, young people would opt for philosophy over RE, choosing to challenge the credo rather than learning it. "In RE," he says, "you're told what the doctrines are, but in philosophy everything discussed is a matter for intellectual search and discussion."

The desire to teach young people how to think, question and challenge is nothing new. French writer Michel de Montaigne beat Grayling to it by more than 400 years when he asked: "Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?"

Grayling describes his proposed philosophy GCSE course as a "valuable backbone to the educational process". He's not wrong: a focus on critical thinking and logic helps in every subject on the curriculum.

Children and young people are by their very nature inquisitive; it's a trait that we should nurture and encourage. We want them to have the confidence and skills to give them that licence to challenge and to stick their noses into everything.

Intellectual enquiry is fundamental to everything we do. All young people should have the opportunity to study the works of such philosophy greats as Descartes, Plato and Hume, as well as metaphysics. After all, it's their curiosity that may one day kill Schrdinger's cat.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you