Philosophic attitude

31st January 1997 at 00:00
George Hegel was born 226 years ago. He spent almost his whole life teaching and writing philosophy. His life as a university professor seems a world away from that of the children growing up in the urban landscapes of Britain in the l990s. Yet, what he had to say about self and consciousness can help today's teachers, hard pressed as they are with the unremitting pressure of everyday classroom life.

In one inner-city primary school in the East Midlands his ideas helped us - me, a visiting educational researcher with an interest in philosophy, and Carol, a class teacher - understand some of what was going on when seven-year-old Bartholomew kept getting beaten up by his nine-year-old cousin Leroy. As a result we were able to develop a principled approach to stopping the trouble, both between them and other boys in the school. Not that Hegel would have agreed with our practical, critical ways of using his ideas.

Teachers and philosophers have a lot to offer each other. All of us cannot but theorise about the world we live in. Teachers live their theories every day as they make the hundreds of decisions which teach children about themselves and their place in the world. Hegel, like other philosophers, tried to make his theories explicit.

The trouble is that the worlds of philosophy and of teachers have separated from each other in Britain (though not everywhere else in Europe). To use a well-known metaphor, philosophers spend their time on the hard high ground of abstract ideas, keeping a lofty distance from the everyday professional life of teachers in the swampy lowlands below.

We can extend this metaphor. The lowlands, made up of woodlands, fields and gardens, provide places for all kinds of life to flourish, but the sheer richness of detail can halt the eye, and it is often hard to understand the overall pattern of the landscape. Climbing up to the stony, less fertile, high ground lets you see the whole area (weather permitting) but you are liable to come to grief if you think you can see enough of the details of the fences, thorn bushes and streams to give you an accurate guide to continuing your journey.

From his place in the high ground Hegel developed part of his theory in an allegory of "master" and "slave" which he constructed to show the importance of domination in coming to be a self. In this story, Hegel argues that the emergence of self-consciousness arises from a struggle in which the self resolves a double difficulty. It requires another consciousness in which its own being will be acknowledged or recognised; it also requires that it is possible to negate the other to show that the other person's view of the self is not binding on it.

Back in the primary classroom, this idea illuminated what was going on for Bartholomew and Leroy. Bartholomew seemed to be a classic case of a "victim" - a child likely to be bullied. When he was in Year 1 and Year 2 he was already having trouble with other children bothering him. He would be tearful at the thought of coming to school. The problems continued into Year 3, at least at first. He complained about being bullied to Carol, his teacher. She took a long time getting to the bottom of what was going on. It was true that the little boy was getting bullied by older boys, and by Leroy in particular.

The older boys were duly called to account and the problem seemed to be sorted. However, the case did not stop there. Leroy and Bartholomew continued to get into fights: it turned out that Bartholomew was following Leroy about, rather than avoiding him. It seemed that he was both wanting and not wanting to play with Leroy - and similarly the older boy both wanted and did not want to play with his young cousin.

The problem for the two boys, when the teachers finally got to the bottom of it, was that they had no model for two boys playing that did not include fighting. As Bartholomew's teacher said: "Both thought that playing together meant hitting seven bells out of each other."

Hegel illuminates what was going on for these two children. They needed to struggle in order to affirm themselves. No wonder, then, that this case does not fit into the usual accounts of bullying in schools.

However, there is a twist to this account. Teachers know that some groups of children - notably girls - do not learn to affirm themselves like this. Feminist and black critics point to other ways that a self can be created. The everyday theorising of teachers helps constitute a critique of philosophy even as they learn from it.

Carol's critique was a practical one. With her help both children spent a playtime drawing up a "Guide to Playing Nicely". The two boys were learning to see friendship as co-operation as well as macho competition.

The usual story about bullying is based in the psychology of both "bully" and "victim". However, it misses the fact that some apparently individual cases of bullying arise out of the same social structures which support males' macho ways of constructing themselves.

Bartholomew was not a classic "victim". A purely psychological approach would have suggested he needed help with this syndrome. However, his problems with Leroy were not so much about his individual attitudes to others and himself. They were more the result of the sexist, macho culture in which he was learning to play.

Philosophers can come down from the hard, high ground not only to tell us what they have been able to see from up there, but also to learn from teachers and others what it looks like from down below. Both parties benefit from the encounter. And, more importantly, so do the children in schools, whose education will be the better for the clearer understanding of what and how they are learning.

Morwenna Griffiths is professor of education at Nottingham Trent University

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today