I recently posted a review of Julian Baggini’s Philosophy Monthly. In his latest episode he covers a reenactment of the famous Monty Python’s Philosophers’ Football Match, for which there is a dedicated website, complete with video of the original. It is, of course, FANTASTIC that someone has gone to the trouble of recreating the event (“…and Marx, claiming he was offsides…”), what is interesting is who/why. The event was put on by The Philosophy Shop, a social enterprise whose goal it is to teach philosophy in schools and in the community. Their site leads with this quote from Montaigne:
“Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?”
Being a fan of Montaigne’s Essays, having just finished our episode on Rousseau (who is known to have had some views on Education) and being a philosophile myself, I’m sympathetic to the undertaking – in principle. There is quite a lot of information on the site pertaining to their programs, including the cost of having a ‘philosopher’ in residence at your school for an hour a week (£2600). Take a look at their course list and see for yourself, but their overall claim is that children in their programs:
- Develop a disposition towards good thinking (so that it becomes naturalised) rather than simply providing a skill-set (this promotes life-long learning)
- Improve their ability to follow a train of thought
- Are able to give clearer expression to their thoughts and ideas
- Develop speaking and listening skills to the level of dialectic (rational, critical and collaborative exploration through discussion)
- Build on each other’s ideas constructively and collaboratively
- Critically evaluate each other’s, and their own, claims respectfully
I think there’s no disputing that such skills are in short supply in general and, in particular, among “today’s youth”. (At least according to every college professor I know). A former Reed College colleague of mine recently lamented, “The thing which I find most striking about students starting college these days is the inability of the vast majority to read and understand arguments, which is about the most important skill there is for citizens of a democracy. Too much standardized testing? Excessive focus on math and science education? Can people in secondary education explain to me what’s going on?”
If he’s right that these are the most important skills for citizens in a democracy and if they are lacking in today and tomorrow’s citizens, can teaching Philosophy to children help address the problem? There’s an argument to be made that the need is for general critical thinking skills, which can be learned in Philosophy, but also in other disciplines. In fact, when I went to college that is what I was told was the point of a liberal arts education, regardless of major (to be contrasted with the sciences or professional/technical studies, where you gain subject matter expertise within an accepted methodological paradigm).
And I think this is where my unease at the whole thing comes in. What we have is a basic failing of the educational system to instill good rational thinking skills (for whatever reason). Setting philosophical studies up as the antidote implies that Philosophy is all about rational thinking and argumentation (which is part of it and which the Anglo-American establishment would probably say is the essence of the discipline) and that other disciplines aren’t. To suggest that the above set of skills couldn’t be learned through Sociology, Literature studies, Political theory, History or even Economics seems to me to be just wrong. The fact that it may not be being done well right now notwithstanding.
So return to the stated goals of the program (rational thinking, clear argumentation) and Montaigne’s “art which teaches us how to live”. There is a difference between the two. Any deficiencies in the former are, in my opinion, systemic and not unique or necessarily curable by the teaching of Philosophy to children. The latter, however, is also critical, also in short supply and something about which Philosophy has something valuable and unique to teach.