Why do we go to school? This isn’t just a question that children (or teachers) are prone to ask on a cold winter morning. It’s a philosophical question – a question about the point of education. Why do we do it?
Much educational thinking is based on the assumption that the answer is an economic one: learning is a preparation for working life. Education is the engine of economic productivity, and participation in it is a vital step to a better, more prosperous life.
There is another answer, though; one which looks beyond the realm of the economic to the domain of philosophy and, in particular, ethics. According to this view, learning is a preparation not simply for work but for the whole of life.
Socrates put his finger on it when he asked his great question: how, then, should we live?
His answer was that we need to learn to think: to think about our lives, about our place in the wider scheme of things, and about what goodness, justice, truth and knowledge really mean.
For Socrates, education was more than simply a vital cog in the economic machine. It was part of philosophy, a process in which, through questioning and investigating, we discover more about the mysteries of the wonderful universe we inhabit and our own enigmatic selves.
Education needs to rediscover its philosophical roots. The infusion of philosophy into the education process is enormously enriching, offering students a more stimulating, challenging and meaningful opportunity to engage with a world of ideas and questions.
'Giving students time to think'
Philosophy provides a space for reasoned argument about the most fundamental questions of all. The value of such space, at a time when strident self-assertion is drowning out reasonable, tolerant, open discussion in the public square, cannot be overstated.
It is for this reason that the Philosophy in Education Project, an umbrella organisation linking those who support the work of philosophy in schools, has been calling for the creation of a GCSE in philosophy.
Of course, there is already an opportunity to encounter some elements of the subject through its inclusion within religious studies; but recent reforms to that subject have tended to squeeze philosophy’s curricular space, and, in any case, there are vital components of the subject (such as political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of science) which are not included at all.
I hope, therefore, that it won’t be too long before philosophy is given its proper place within the UK qualification framework. In the meantime, though, what can we do to enable our students to profit from the exciting and enriching experience of learning to think philosophically?
At Cranleigh School, we’ve developed a framework of principles called Cranleigh Thinking, the aim of which is to infuse philosophical questioning and argument throughout the curriculum. We’re marking World Philosophy Day by giving every student a chance to engage in a philosophical inquiry during one of their lessons, using questions such as these.
Exciting philosophical discussion and debate has a wonderfully catalytic power: it energises lessons, turning them into opportunities for real inquiry and discovery.
A natural next step is to introduce students to project work. This provides the perfect setting for them to hone and deepen their thinking skills and learn to take charge of the process of inquiry.
If we want our students to be deeper thinkers, we need to give them time to think, and freedom to choose their own questions to explore, and it is project work that provides just such an opportunity.
I recently asked a 10-year-old student what he thought of one of the philosophy lessons. "I like lessons where we just think," he said.
Whatever else we want education to do for young people, we want them to become good thinkers. So I suggest we mark World Philosophy Day by resolving to be our very own in-school Socrates.
Let’s not worry about providing all the right answers, but focus instead on asking the right questions: the ones that will get students thinking.
Let’s aim for less monologue, more dialogue.
The world needs a generation of young people equipped with the confidence to think for themselves, and the courage to pursue their own answers to their own questions. That’s why education needs philosophy.
Dr John L. Taylor is director of learning, teaching and innovation at Cranleigh School in Surrey