Philosophy makes a difference

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Nic Barnard meets a teacher buzzing with ideas to challenge traditional RE teaching

Socrates, that first great teacher, saw himself as a gadfly, buzzing and biting around the state to provoke people into action. You could cross the gadfly with the industrious worker bee to find John Waters. While holding down his day job as head of religion and philosophy (RP) at Parkstone Grammar School in Poole, Waters runs teacher-training courses, co-edits a twice-yearly journal, has just produced a CD-Rom and a DVD and has more in the pipeline. He finds time to run GCSE courses for staff and parents; and he's happy to spend a few hours talking while posing for photos with his Moral Philosophers' Periodic Table.

The table - the basis for his well-reviewed Ethical Theory CD-Rom - came to him "in a Eureka moment" while covering a chemistry lesson. It sets out several dozen key philosophers in a table of disciplines from divine command to existentialism, from Abraham to Sartre - and Peter Singer.

Singer is also the subject of a stimulating hour-long interview, filmed at his home in Princeton, in which the controversial defender of animal rights and voluntary euthanasia sets out his philosophy of preferential utilitarianism and whizzes over current moral terrain from abortion to Iraq via atheism and the concept of intrinsic good. If he seems occasionally to be let off lightly, Waters says the idea is to let students hear current voices speak for themselves; Mary Warnock and other influential figures will follow in the projected series.

The atheist Singer seems a provocative choice for a teacher who starts from a Christian perspective. But Waters calls the Australian one of his great inspirations and role models, even while believing him wrong in key aspects. He spent four years chasing the interview.

"He's challenging and he's counter-cultural, and I think that's important.

Jesus was counter-cultural, Aristotle was counter-cultural, Vaclav Havel was counter-cultural. People who speak the truth do so from the counter-culture."

Waters agrees with Singer on the importance of taking a micro, not macro, view of life - that small actions accrue and we don't have to change the world to make a difference.

Singer is popular among teenagers, and Waters is on a mission to spread RP.

His classroom walls feature life-size figures from The Matrix - he loved the first one: "It was John's Gospel and stories don't come any better" - and Mr Men, redefined by students (Little Miss Wise is pragmatic, Mr Greedy is a hedonist and Mr Bump demonstrates empiricism - well, one way to prove something exists is to smack your head against it.) This is more than a bit of fun. "There are two reasons RP is popular: the academic rigour, and the reflections and understanding of issues that matter on life's journey," he says. It is not an abstract subject, he insists. The big question it poses is: "How does this work in practice?"

The approach has certainly been successful. In 1994, Parkstone's A-level group numbered seven. Today, 90 sixth-formers study AS or A-level. He credits the rise to his decision with then-colleague Carol Langford to switch syllabus from RE to religion and moral philosophy. RP, he believes, inherently requires critical thinking and emotional literacy. Regurgitating and summing up get his students marked down.

Waters is scathing of old-style Christian RE, stuck in a dumbed-down rut with syllabuses content to ask students to name the parts of a church. "My daughter of six could answer that." He is critical, too, of the "scientific materialistic reductionism" he sees everywhere, which finds meaning in materialism.

Dialogue magazine - co-edited with old friend Jeremy Hall - was launched to fill a perceived gap in resources between GCSE and university. Leading philosophers are invited to write challenging essays for a sixth-form audience. The result is not a light read, but wins approval from Parkstone girls.

Students like the stimulus. "It's not syllabus-led," says one sixth-former.

"It's more about thinking." Another says: "You can't just read from your notes. And everybody contributes, unlike some other subjects where there are just a few talkers."

Another says: "You think he's gone off at a tangent. But when you get to the exam you realise you know so much more, and it all links together."

Waters says the subject is all about asking questions. One of his adult students talks of starting the course a devout Catholic and coming out a Doubting Thomas. Above the classroom door runs Socrates' dictum: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates is another role model - the imprint for his CD-Rom and DVD is Socratic Ideas.

His next project could not be more different from the Singer DVD: a 10-part course on Jesus, based on his sayings. Waters wants people to recognise Jesus as a philosopher and plans an "existentialist perspective - not simply the faith claims, but the ethics and lifestyle".

It could have been very different. As a graduate, Waters was poised for a career selling washing powder, but decided to take a PGCE instead. "I asked myself, where are you going? Proctor and Gamble, and a Mercedes? Or doing something more important?"

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