As long ago as 2004, in a poll by the Today programme on Radio 4, the subject that overwhelmingly topped the list when listeners were asked what subject should be added to the curriculum, was philosophy.
The point had already been well-put by 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?’
Why indeed? Well, of course, you might answer, we do. Recent years have seen philosophy and ethics growing in popularity, for the most part thanks to their inclusion in RS courses, at both GCSE and A level. But now, the proposed reforms to this part of the curriculum may well put this process into reverse. By putting the focus on textual and religious topics, with ethical issues being examined chiefly as they arise within religious contexts, the space for wider exploration of philosophy and ethics may be curtailed.
There is clearly going to be a lively debate about this, but whatever happens as a result of this consultation, I think it is time for a discussion of what we might do to increase the opportunity to introduce young people to philosophy.
Philosophy is a subject which has so much to offer. It is engaging, stimulating, thought-provoking and challenging. Philosophical reflection on the foundations of knowledge serves to provide depth and integration to the learning process. The opportunity to examine the foundations of morality can lead to an appreciation of the importance of handling deep-seated disagreement by a process of critical inquiry, mediated by rational reflection and open discussion.
The strength of the case for teaching children something about the best of what has been said and thought concerning the most fundamental questions human beings can ask is undeniable. Whilst it is true that all subjects can be taught in a manner that will foster the development of skills in critical thinking, argument and inquiry, these valuable attributes have an especially close connection to philosophy, a discipline which has, over the course of millennia, built up a battery of impressive tools for helping to sharpen our capacity for careful reasoning and reflection about the conceptual frameworks which structure our life and thought. Moreover, embracing as it does the discipline of ethics, that part of philosophy in which we seek to answer Socrates’ great question – how, then, should we live? – philosophy ought to have pride of place in an education system which takes as its goal the formation of individuals who appreciate that human well-being and ethical living are deeply intertwined.
For all these reasons, then, I think it is time to make the case for philosophy to be established in the curriculum at GCSE level as a subject in its own right. A philosophy GCSE would sit comfortably alongside reformed RS courses, providing students with an opportunity to encounter more of the riches of thousands of years of inquiry by the world’s deepest thinkers, in a more integrated, coherent fashion, than is possible when it is squeezed in as one element amongst others in a religious studies course.
To echo Montaigne, isn’t philosophy the sort of subject children should be instructed in?
Dr John Taylor
Director, Philosophy in Education Project
Head of Philosophy, Rugby School