Students of the great thinkers

Next week pupils will sit the first Higher philosophy exam. Eleanor Caldwell reports on the challenges of the course

Of all the people who can toss Descartes' famous tenet "I think therefore I am" into their late-night arguments, how many know who said it, never mind have read his work?

Now Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics are being pored over by about 360 pupils from more than 30 schools and colleges throughout Scotland, the first candidates to sit the first Higher philosophy exam on May 30.

In addition to these classic texts, a 40-hour unit on problems in philosophy gives pupils the chance to debate topics such as the existence of God and liberty versus equality. In optional units, moral philosophy delves into Kant and theories of utilitarianism, while logic encourages pupils to understand and hone various forms of argument.

At Intermediate 2 level, more than 100 candidates are focusing on classic texts, problems and moral philosophy, without the logic unit.

With seven to eight hours of internal assessment based on essays, the Higher level course is no easy option for teachers or pupils.

At the end of last term, over 180 pupils from as far apart as Invergordon and Dumfries gathered in a church behind Hutcheson's Grammar School in Glasgow to consider their progress in "learning to think about thinking itself". Sharp wits were required during the first talk on the Meditations, when Higher Still development officer Eileen Reid challenged students from different schools to offer up their own theories.

As well as giving practical advice for the exam, she encouraged them towards independent thinking. "Listen to your teachers, look at the commentaries, but if you find a counter-argument and you think it's good, then use it," she said.

She has been amazed at the take-up of the course, which "has just snowballed" since its first inception in 195, and impressed by the readiness of pupils to tackle difficult philosophical issues with confidence.

Two S6 girls from Hutcheson's Grammar admitted they had not anticipated the extent to which they would study detailed doctrines. "We thought it would be more personal, studying issues like euthanasia," they said. Of the philosophers, Plato had caused them most difficulty. However, a prospective politics, philosophy and economics student from the High School of Glasgow disagreed and thought Plato was "super". He was hoping to continue to Advanced Higher.

Two boys from Invergordon Academy in Easter Ross also found it hard to understand Plato. The Republic was the first classic text they studied, which made it more difficult. "We flew through Descartes, then Hume was even more straightforward," they said.

Jeremy Hall, head of philosophy at Hutcheson's, is delighted to be entering 60 candidates for Higher philosophy. He said the pupils appeared to like the course and the type of teaching involved.

"The skills learned in philosophy are transferrable to so many areas of work, such as medicine and law," he added. Hutcheson's headteacher, John Knowles, also pointed out that university interviewers were looking favourably on Higher philosophy pupils.

If pupil numbers for philosophy continue to increase, there is concern that there will be too few qualified teachers. Philosophy teachers are usually religious education teachers who studied philosophy as part of their degree. There are plans for graduate diploma courses in philosophy at Glasgow and Aberdeen universities and already in-service training is being offered at Aberdeen.

Mark McLean is one of the tutors at Aberdeen University. He has been going twice weekly to Robert Gordon's College to assist with classes and has found the work "very rewarding".

A former RE teacher said: "Philosophy is always with you and is something which shapes your life."

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