Education is born free and everywhere is in chains. The quote may be mistaken but I trust the sentiment is not: the mass of contemporary schooling is anything but liberal, being the servile follower of every fad and fashion that descends out of academia’s ivory tower like mana from heaven. A generation ago, information technology was touted as the new summum bonum for students; since then, we’ve had open-plan classrooms with flexible or project-based learning and, more recently, STEM. All the while, the gap between young people’s years in school and their basic competencies in reading, writing and arithmetic is growing further and further apart. Why is this happening?
“That is the one eternal education: to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child… Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself.”
- G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World
The reasons are obviously too numerous and complex to venture into here. A significant part of problem lies in the system’s surrender of truth and tradition to pragmatic utility. As the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration 2019 states in its vision for improving the educational outcomes of young Australians: “Education has the power to transform lives. It supports young people to realise their potential by providing skills they need to participate in the economy and in society…” before (incidentally?) adding “and contributing to every aspect of their wellbeing”. Like a ship that is equipped to sail to only one port: the workplace, education has jettisoned anything identified as “excess baggage” to keep from weighing down students with unnecessary distractions. Unfortunately, one of the things thrown overboard is the lifeboat! This is philosophy. Once the queen of the sciences (in ancient times), then the handmaiden (in medieval times), and now seemingly the scullery maid, it is one of the few disciplines that can respond to the resounding distress call emanating from modern education to help rescue the sinking vessel and, indeed, save our souls.
Philosophy has always been at the heart of classical education. In its broadest sense, learning with a liberal mindset involves philosophy as wisdom or the virtue of prudence. Through this lens, education is not merely a theoretical mental exercise but the application of skills and knowledge to living, involving the development of a virtuous character with which to navigate well the vicissitudes of life. Wisdom thus helps to build the whole person to knowingly make good decisions and contribute to a better society. It also tailors the individual to recognise and value the truth, avoid falsehood, and search after beauty. The goals of Australian educators and politicians as expressed in such declarations as the one at Alice Springs a couple of years ago might be admirable but without a philosophical underpinning, it is unlikely the most important ones will be achieved.
In this short article, however, I would instead like to reflect on the more specific understanding of philosophy, that is, as the subject of thinking hard about things. This kind of philosophy is a limited enterprise, often taught separately in school curricula, but even then, it has a central place in classical education. Likewise, it should be the nucleus of all models of education and not relegated to an elective chosen out of curiosity about the existence of God or whether we do indeed live in the matrix after all. There are at least six reasons for putting forward philosophy as a preeminent and required area of study for any school.
Perhaps the most basic reason for philosophy’s need is that it analyses concepts and asks relevant questions about them. This practice, called elenchus, was perfected by Socrates. It helps us to understand what precisely we are talking about and clarify misconceptions and confusions that might be present in the thinker’s mind or between interlocutors. Questions about love, equality, freedom and justice are frequently on our youths’ radars but too infrequently are they genuinely wrestling with these ideas rather than being guided in their awareness of them by the cultural zeitgeist, whose understandings are trite and emotive. In this way, philosophy also forms an essential part of dialectical argumentation, which brings me to the second point.
Philosophy helps us to think logically and form valid arguments. Young people have so much to say – and much of it is valuable and ought to be heard – but without a strong foundation in philosophy, their points are often flabby, convoluted and contradicting because they haven’t been trained to construct sound arguments. In a practical sense, philosophy makes logical thinking communal by employing and building up one’s rhetorical skills. Additionally, with such learning a person can listen to opposing positions dispassionately, recognising the merits in them, and respond cogently with counter arguments instead of emotional retorts and shameful silencing.
Thirdly, philosophy aims to understand the nature and existence of things, their ontology. If you pardon the pun, this is essential to all educational disciplines because it becomes somewhat ineffectual to be enrolled in subjects like law, biology or mathematics without understanding what their aims are, the parameters of their study and, in a deeper sense, what the reality of their matter is. (The student or teacher who hasn’t grappled in some way with realist or nominalist perspectives on numbers doesn’t really know maths intimately.) It is a lack of philosophy that leads to problems like scientism, where a few areas of learning become too big for their boots and think they can stamp out all other claims to knowledge.
Of course, another means of tempering the bravado of a popular discipline is through epistemology. This branch of philosophy is concerned with what and how we can know, along with instilling a good deal of critical thinking. Students can benefit by growing in confidence about conclusions reached but be equally cautious regarding grand claims. It further opens potential doorways of knowing that probably had not been considered, such as cognitive and religious knowledge. Epistemology helps to humble us so that we can follow in Socrates’ footsteps in being wise in recognising the limits of our own knowing.
At the mention of humility, we have a fifth boon philosophy delivers to students: the growth in virtue by studying the good life. Philosophy encourages people to look beyond material wealth and social status and see value in the more grounded aspects of living. Along with developing morally good citizens, the subject provides a reason for why they should want to grow up as morally good citizens. By reflecting upon different ethical systems and the value our society recognises in the law or politics, young people are challenged to justify a lifestyle that is too often taken for granted and understand that morality is more about thinking through problems with both a good sense and a good heart than reacting with sentimentalism.
Nevertheless, philosophy does have a romantic side. It can embrace one’s soul and move our youth to love learning (and to desire to be life-long learners). The act of pondering life and how we think about our actions – a far more dangerous activity than it first appears! – engenders an appreciation for the various facets of lived experience. In its counter-cultural way, philosophy positions young people as champions who question and defy the status quo that seeks to bully them into unthinking submission. It is a fighting subject. This passionate side can also be evidenced in it’s being one of the few studies in school that engages with beauty.
I began this article with a rather unfortunate nautical metaphor and I shall end with a similar one. In Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe, the eponymous protagonist is shipwrecked and isolated for decades from ordinary English society. His mind has time to contemplate deep questions, especially those religious and ethical, amidst the strange and sometimes deadly experiences he faces. At first in being alone, free from distractions of the world, and then later with the few people he meets, Crusoe has time to self-reflect and to grow as a person. Philosophy enters his life more profoundly and, by the story’s end, he is a vastly better man. We do not know when this current tide of education will change, no matter how hard we try to change it, but we should hope and work to, perhaps in a small way, make our philosophy classrooms islands of contemplation for our students so that, through such encounters, they may grow to become better men and women.