Philosophy now?

13th July 2018 at 00:00
Few people, ironically, have yet made a persuasive, rational argument for the introduction of philosophy onto the school curriculum, but Michael Hand believes he’s nailed the syllogism that proves the case

Calls for philosophy to be taught in schools are all the rage.

John Taylor and AC Grayling are spearheading a national campaign for the introduction of a philosophy GCSE. The Education Endowment Foundation recommends philosophy for children, as a way of developing effective learners in primary schools. And the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, champions the teaching of philosophy to help young people navigate “an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world”.

But the current enthusiasm for teaching children philosophy is not always accompanied by well-articulated reasons for doing so. And where reasons are given, they aren’t always persuasive.

Perhaps the most oft-cited justification for philosophy in schools is that it improves children’s thinking. It certainly does do that – but so do all the other subjects on the curriculum. Rigorous academic study of any kind improves thinking, so more needs to be said about what exactly philosophy brings to the table.

In a recent issue of the open-access Journal of Philosophy in Schools, some colleagues and I tried to meet this challenge. One kind of argument, advanced by Phil Cam and Peter Worley, is that, while philosophy has no monopoly on the improvement of thinking per se, it does have a special role to play in developing higher-order or metacognitive thinking. Another idea, advanced by Laura D’Olimpio and Andrew Peterson, is that philosophical themes are already embedded in the school curriculum – for example, in works of English literature – and educators have a responsibility to draw them out.

Here, I’ll focus on what I think is the most compelling argument for teaching philosophy in schools. It goes like this:

  • Children should be equipped by their education to deal effectively with at least those problems that feature prominently and pressingly in ordinary human lives.
  • Some philosophical problems, such as the problems of justifying subscription to moral, political and religious standards, are prominent and pressing in just this way.
  • These philosophical problems should therefore feature on the school curriculum.

The first claim should not raise too many eyebrows. A central task of education is to prepare children for adult life and, while adult lives differ widely in the directions they take and the challenges they throw up, there are at least some problems that more or less all adults must contend with. Whatever else we might want to put on the curriculum, inescapable problems and the means of tackling them surely belong there.

The second claim needs a bit of defence. Importantly, it is only some philosophical problems that bear directly on ordinary human lives; many, perhaps most, do not.

A moral imperative

Bertrand Russell said that we must distinguish, for the purposes of general education, between the parts of philosophy that have “cultural value” and the parts that are “only of professional interest”.

Notoriously, quite a lot of academic philosophy falls into the latter category. But not all of it. Alongside their more technical and esoteric preoccupations, philosophers wrestle, and wrestle productively, with fundamental questions about what life means and how we should live it.

One cluster of philosophical problems that seem undeniably prominent and pressing are those of justifying subscription to moral, political and religious standards. All of us endorse at least some moral norms and back at least some political causes, and many of us hold ourselves to religious injunctions, too. Our moral, political and religious standards characteristically matter a great deal to us; they are central to our identity, and they routinely trump our other commitments and inclinations when demands conflict.

And while we often don’t get much choice about the standards we initially subscribe to, we are confronted with choices about whether to keep up our subscription to them and whether to add new ones. We are frequently exhorted to adopt moral, political and religious standards different from our own and, even in the absence of exhortation, we can hardly fail to notice the diverse range of standards to which people hold themselves in plural societies.

Presented with these choices and alternatives, we can’t avoid asking ourselves whether we are justified in subscribing to the standards that we do, and whether there are other standards we should adopt as well or instead.

These questions are philosophical ones, and to answer them intelligently, we have to do some philosophy. We need an understanding of the difficulties involved in justifying moral, political and religious standards, and we need access to the philosophical arguments and analyses that allow us to make progress.

Let me offer an example of the kind of help philosophy can give. A standard of mine is moral when I expect everyone to comply with it and when I support penalties for non-compliance. As JS Mill observed, “the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency” is that, in calling something morally wrong, “we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it”. But standards of this sort are hard to justify because they are so intrusive on other people’s lives. What could entitle me to impose my standards on others, and to punish them for failing to comply?

Well, one thing that might entitle me to do this is what David Copp calls the “problem of sociality”. There are certain features of the human condition – rough equality, limited sympathy, moderate scarcity of resources – that make human social groups permanently liable to outbreaks of conflict and breakdowns in cooperation.

We can hope to avert these outbreaks and breakdowns only if we hold ourselves and each other, on pain of punishment, to some basic standards of conduct. These are constraints we must all accept as a condition of peace and productivity.

Helping children to see both the difficulty and the necessity of morality is a vital part of preparing them for adult life. So, too, is helping them to pick their way safely through the minefields of politics and religion. Philosophical training gives children a fighting chance of thinking well about the bewildering range of moral, political and religious standards from which they must choose. That is more than enough reason to put philosophy on the curriculum.

Michael Hand is professor of philosophy of education at the University of Birmingham. His latest book is A Theory of Moral Education

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