Things that annoy and worry me about debates around Philosophy in education

26th April 2015

In my view, Philosophy is a distinct, interesting and valuable area of the curriculum. For this reason, Twitter debates about Philosophy in schools frequently upset and enrage me. Most recently for example, in this discussion, Philosophy was described as ‘critical thinking lite‘, a view I fundamentally disagree with.

However, before I respond to that claim I first want to address another common misconception about philosophy – the view that Philosophy is just another facet of Religious Studies.

1.   Religious Studies masquerading as Philosophy.

Religious studies and Philosophy are different subjects. I don’t really want to get into which I think is more important (Philosophy) or more interesting (definitely Philosophy) since before we even begin that discussion we need to acknowledge that they are different disciplines.

The distinction between the two is muddied in schools and exam syllabi across the country. For example, this specification from OCR is called “Philosophy and Applied Ethics”, yet the questions it explores are all viewed through the lens of a particular faith: the specification explains that “each of the faiths studied will be examined according to the issues specified below” and lists a series of ethical issues. Were it really Applied Ethics I’d expect to see some exploration of basic ethical theories, such as utilitarianism and deontology, and I would expect students to “apply” those theories in contemporary situations. They could then engage in some sort of critical evaluation of the issues. Meanwhile, for a specification to count as Philosophy of Religion, it should ask important questions about the nature of God, miracles, the problem of evil and require students to think analytically about them. Being able to list and explain what different ancient traditions have to say on the topic is interesting, and an important part of Religious Studies but not critical enough to be described as Philosophy. A philosophical approach would look at these religious responses alongside non-theistic ones, and then critically evaluate them.

If a kid was learning about volcanoes and schools and exam boards called it History there would be an outcry. I made a massive fuss about this in my response to the new specifications, and some others must have done so too since the DfE response to the consultation on the new specifications says that 25% of respondents wanted more Philosophy and Ethics content, and 11% wanted these areas to be treated separately to the Religious Studies content.

The DfE response goes on to say that “the structure of the qualification has been designed in such a way that will not allow students to debate philosophy and ethics issues without any reference to religious knowledge and understanding” revealing a basic misunderstanding about the difference between Religious Studies, Theology and Philosophy. Serious Philosophy of Religion problematises the very notion of ‘religious knowledge and understanding’, recognising that it is inherently contestable. A proper Philosophy of religion course would explore this and many other such fundamental questions. To be clear – I don’t think students should be credited in RS exams for arguments that don’t reference religious knowledge and understanding. But in a Philosophy exam? Of course they should.

I’m not sure why this happens. RS teachers have plenty of good reasons for arguing that RS is important and interesting – so why not be proud that it is RS that is being taught rather than shoehorning in philosophy?

2.     Philosophy is really just Critical Thinking, or examining other disciplines

This argument is frustrating because it is often used by people who want to attack the idea that Philosophy has a place in the curriculum, for example in this post by the education blogger Old Andrew. The argument is made that Philosophy has no place in the KS3 or 4 curriculum (or possibly even 5, and certainly not 1 or 2) because:

a)     Alaisdair MacIntyre says so.

This is typical ad hominem reasoning, and on top of that, ignores the fact that MacIntyre later retracted that view. He states his view early on (for example in After Virtue). He then modifies it in Three Versions, and by the time he came to Dependent Rational Animals was clearly in favour of students doing proper collective critical reasoning about the good.

b) you need a lot of background knowledge in other subjects, like Maths and History, before you can engage with Philosophy.

c) Critical thinking can’t be divorced from subject content (as argued by Willingham.)

These two are representative of quite lazy thinking which seems to presume that Philosophy is just “thinking really hard about something else”. It’s not. It is a methodology, which is why something like Aquinas or Hume could be taught in other lessons. They are important works of literature and valuable historical documents, and so could feature in an English or History lesson. But they are also works of Philosophy, and can be independently assessed as such. Doing so involves a fundamentally different sort of enquiry, which requires a different class, different knowledge and skills, and, in all probability, a different teacher.

But the main point is that Philosophy is not just an approach or a way of thinking about other subjects, like Literature and History. It also involves a set of important, exciting questions, which don’t properly fit in those lessons, all of which come with a particular intellectual subject content. Philosophy explores questions like “what is mind?” “what forms of political authority are legitimate?” and “what are ethical judgements, and how are they substantiated?” You don’t need to have done a lot of Maths, or History to explore these – you need to have been given the opportunity to think about them, and what other people have written and said about them. Children absolutely can do this – and what a fantastic thing to let them learn about!

Of course we can debate what level of knowledge and content is appropriate at each key stage – as we do in all subjects (see the recent debates in History about whether KS2 kids should have to learn about the heptarchy, or whether Foundation Tier Maths pupils should understand simultaneous equations), but the existence of those debates does not mean Philosophy should not exist as a school subject.

So why should we  teach Philosophy? Well, firstly – it’s interesting and secondly, because it addresses important questions. I think the world would be a nicer place if everyone had thought about how to make ethical decisions sensibly, and how much power the state should exert over us. As to why it should be taught by Philosophers, in separate lessons, I leave you with the words of my little brother, a lecturer at Oxford who is far more clever, and pithy, than me: “Well, mainly because leaving it to non-philosophers to crowbar it into their courses is like suggesting students will pick up how to build violins in music lessons.”