Encourage natural born philosophy

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Carol Gow teaches at Dundee College

We were practising the appropriate use of the apostrophe, but the HNC class swerved off course and we debated whether the word "evil"

could take a qualifier - could Liam say something was "a wee bit evil"? Before I knew it, I had a class full of budding Nietzsches, pictured, who seemed keener on practising philosophy than punctuation.

"It's a fascinating topic but we don't have time to pursue it," I said.

"Perhaps next time," and turned to the possessive again.

I had forgotten about my vague promise by the next meeting, but they hadn't. "You said we were going to have a discussion," Don said in an accusing voice, looking like a six-year-old who'd been told there was no tooth fairy. "You said we could discuss whether evil exists." And so we did.

A waste of time? A diversion? Not according to research done with secondary pupils in Clackmannanshire, which suggests that learning philosophy seems significantly to increase emotional intelligence and increase IQ levels by as much as 6.5 per cent.

Children as young as four may well be pondering big questions such as "What is the difference between imagination and dreams?" or "Is it ever right to tell a lie?" Four seems a pretty good age to start. Young children are natural philosophers. Who has not been in the position of trying to negotiate a motorway merge nightmare while a small child in the back seat of the car badgers: "Mum, where do you go when you die?"

Advocates of the teaching of philosophy to young schoolchildren promise everything from enhanced social skills to increased self-esteem and well-being - and suggest it may make individuals less prone to depression.

Doubting Thomases suggest these initiatives are watered down philosophy, no different from normal listening and talking that goes on in good parenting and good schooling.

Education has flirted nervously with the idea that it should address the well-being of learners. In college, we offer core skill units which attempt to enhance social skills and self-awareness. Where students are new to this kind of learning, they are often resistant, especially when asked to explore issues. Learners used to offering hard-edged answers will panic if there is no "right" answer they can learn.

Perhaps the saddest question you get time and again from a young learner is: "Are you allowed to put... ?" If learning philosophy from a young age can fix that, I'm all for it.

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