The philosopher's moan

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Is it not time we taught children to think properly? In an open letter to the schools minister, Barry Hymer puts the case for more philosophy

Dear David Miliband,

In a recent BBC Radio 4 poll, listeners voted for philosophy as the area of study they'd most like to see in schools. No surprise, you might say (off air, of course), Radio 4 listeners being what they are - a critically-minded, opinionated, quarrelsome lot for whom philosophy seems heaven-sent.

However, your response on air (The Today Programme, August 26) was revealing, resting as it did on two points: (i) it already is available as a subject option, and (ii), you didn't wish to overcrowd the curriculum.

You are right on both counts - sort of - but to my mind, you are missing the point, and both points are worth exploring in a little more detail, a little more philosophically, perhaps.

Yes, David, philosophy is available as a subject option in secondary schools and colleges (though only some), but what exactly do you mean by available?

Is the study of philosophy really the same as doing philosophy? Do children really need to study about logic, rationalism, ethics and all the other big beasts of the philosophical firmament, before they can practise being logical, rational, and ethical in their thinking and in their behaviour? My own experience is that they do not.

Children are natural philosophers, in the sense that years before they get to learn about Plato's form of beauty, they are asking questions such as, "Who is the most beautiful person in the classschoolcountryworld?" and "What is beauty?" and "Is anything perfectly beautiful?"

I'll show you children, aged five, who are gripped by the ancient challenge, "You can't jump into the same river twice," and will argue vigorously over this one - but they've never heard of Heraclitus. Just last term, an eight-year-old revealed a lucid grasp of empiricism by asking:

"Can I know what love is, if I haven't felt it?" John Locke himself would've been proud of that one. Are you?

The thing is, David, as Radio 4 listeners seem to know, there's a difference between being able to do philosophy and having the chance to - and in an educational age of heroes it takes a brave school or teacher to give children the time and space to do philosophy. Not just to learn about it, so that they can pass an examination which shows on the hustings that you're on top of your game - but actually to do it.

There is a connection here with your second point: yes, the curriculum is overcrowded, but over-crowded with what? Excitement? Creativity? Passion? Hardly.

I don't mean to be a killjoy, because there has been a discernible unclamping of the departmental buttocks in recent years, but it's not learning that's crowding our curriculum, it's facts: masses of them, wrapped up in little packages of content and "subject knowledge", which are regurgitated in classrooms and exam halls across the land.

Of course, I'm not opposed to knowledge per se - it's how we ask our children to get that knowledge that I'm concerned about. Maybe those Radio 4 listeners saw in philosophy the possibility of replacing facts with truth; of making facts rather than just getting them; of educating children (educere - to bring out, to lead) rather than just training them in examination technique (traho - to drag). You see, David, there's a philosophical argument (Socrates' actually) which argues that we cannot actually acquire any knowledge through learning: in order to learn anything, we have to discover a truth we didn't previously know.

But how then could we recognise this new truth as a truth at all? All knowledge of forms or universals we must already have in our minds - all we need is the teacher-facilitator (not instructor), who will have the space and time and skills to be able to nudge our memories, to awaken that dormant knowledge.

Am I nudging anything in you, David? Maybe this is what you're anxious about. Maybe you've seen through us already, since you already have the knowledge. You've seen that philosophy might take us to a citizenry truly engaged, critically aware and better able than us to cope with life's contradictions, paradoxes, uncertainties and ambiguities.

It might also help to mould children who can, and are prepared, to make choices that go way beyond Gap or Nike, Coke or Pepsi; who can make up their own minds, and refuse to follow a doctrine which proclaims a leader as omniscient, or which measures the quality of education solely in terms of A-grades.

Does this really terrify you David? If not, go on. Do it. I dare you. Let them think. Give them philosophy.

Yours sincerely, Barry Hymer

Barry Hymer is a teacher, trainer and chartered educational psychologist.

He was awarded the 2003 Award for Excellence from the ICPIC - the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children. For a guide to philosophy for children go to

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