Thinking About Thinking: Croydon’s students must be taught philosophy at school


By - Friday 18th October, 2013

Cormac Mannion explains how if Croydon’s youth are to lead the way for the town, they must gain an understanding of understanding


‘To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.’ Bertrand Russell  Image by John Keogh. Used under Creative Commons license

‘To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.’
Bertrand Russell
Image by John Keogh. Used under Creative Commons license

The late American comedian George Carlin wryly observed that politicians have traditionally hidden behind three things: the flag, the Bible, and children. The first two are perhaps not so relevant here in Britain, but the third, children, certainly holds true. The general election is drawing inexorably closer and Croydon’s local elections are less than eight months away. Much like Christmas, promotional campaigns are being foisted upon us earlier and earlier. Expect to be drowned by a deluge of rhetoric on the importance of education and educational reform. I am not going to delve too deeply into the murky depths of party politics; my somewhat lofty purpose in writing this article is to convince you that philosophy should be taught as a core subject at secondary schools.

There has been something of a spree of articles concerning philosophy over the last few days following a rather tactless remark by Australian Coalition MP Jamie Briggs who described a University of Sydney research project into the refashioning of concepts of ‘God’ in societies that have begun to challenge the idea (highly relevant to British society today, particularly in a richly diverse and pluralistic town such as Croydon) as a ‘ridiculous pursuit.’

Students and teachers of philosophy alike have stirred themselves from reflective contemplation of the ceiling, placed their well-worn pipes to one side, and spoken out in passionate defence of their subject. Emma Worley, co-founder of the Philosophy Foundation (a British charity foundation dedicated to bringing philosophy to schools and the wider community), wrote an article for the Guardian in which she argued compellingly that philosophy should be a foundational subject for children alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.

Ms Worley highlighted research that suggested the teaching of philosophy to students as young as twelve will augment learning in almost every other subject thanks to its focus on logic, reasoning and the tackling of difficult concepts. I unreservedly agree with her. Philosophy helps children to learn by teaching them to think about thinking (or what is known in educational jargon as metacognition) which has been demonstrated to help improve learning in a myriad of ways.

George Carlin argues the education system is deliberately structured to ensure that people are just smart enough to be obedient workers

It was once considered (and still is by many) an indubitable truth that Philosophy should only be taught at university, with younger students considered incapable of grasping the complex abstract concepts central to the subject. Research by the likes of the Philosophy Foundation and the P4C movement (shorthand for Philosophy for Children) has done much to disabuse this belief. My purpose in writing this article is to not only to tip my cap in the direction of Ms Worley, but to beat my own drum to a slightly different tune and to respectfully disagree with Lord Russell’s comment above.

Later in the same stand-up routine, Carlin bemoans the absence of critical thinking within school education, claiming that the education system is deliberately structured to ensure that people are just smart enough to be obedient workers and to do what they are told but not smart enough to look critically at the world around them and ask awkward questions.

There is something that rings uncomfortably true about Carlin’s comedic rant. Rhetoric from politicians about the need for education to impart practical skills that help students find employment might sound like good old fashioned common sense, but there is a darker exclusionary element to this utilitarian attitude as highlighted by Briggs’ flippant comment (and indeed, often echoed by our own politicians) that suggests areas of pure research or the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as an end in themselves are somehow worthless.

Croydon needs young people who have a deep, rational understanding of the world around them and the ability to engage with it critically

Yes, of course it is important that students are taught valuable skills that they will need in the workplace, but is the sole aim of British education to be the manufacture and production of an efficient work force in order to ensure a competitive economy? Do we not want to cultivate informed, engaged young men and women capable of placing our current zeitgeist within a broad historical and philosophical context, and capable of reasoned and independent thinking? If a liberal democracy is to flourish are these traits not merely desirable but essential? I can think of no greater inoculation against sophistry and demagogy than the teaching of philosophy.

Thus, I must respectfully disagree with Lord Russell – the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do, is to teach people how to engage their critical faculties in order to assess and, if deemed necessary, change the world around them. It has become a simpering cliché to state that ‘children are our future’, but worn-out platitudes aside, a town like Croydon, seething with potential but beset by the same problems as any other major British town, needs young people capable of being more than ‘obedient workers.’

Croydon needs young people who have a deep, rational understanding of the world around them and the ability to engage with it critically; young people who can spot rhetorical appeals to tradition, authority and feeling rather than reason; who have the strength and eloquence to denounce such casuistry, and the intellectual wherewithal to be agents of change if necessary. A solid grounding in philosophy and philosophical inquiry can reap these benefits.

Cormac Mannion

Cormac Mannion

A born and bred Croydonian, Cormac has recently completed a PGCE at Cambridge University following a History and Philosophy degree at Exeter University. A keen sportsman, Cormac worked for two summers in America at an underprivileged sports camp in New York and spends his spare time playing for local Croydon rugby team the Old Mids. When he’s not playing rugby or writing for the Citizen, you will most likely find him at Nandos complaining that he has yet to receive a Black Card despite his inordinately frequent custom.

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  • Mario Creatura

    Very well said Cormac. Critical Thinking either as a formalised subject in its own right or embedded within the curriculum is crucial to changing the perceptions of the town’s young people, demanding more from our civic leaders and from the general community.

  • Terry Coleman

    I heartily agree with this article.
    It makes me realise how fortunate I was to be educated at Stanley Technical School in the 1950s. We were certainly taught to be critical, take nothing at face value. They dished out Precis and Comprehension as homework like it was going out of fashion, it got us to evaluate everything we observed and read about, then deconstruct and sort the wheat from the chaff. We did a bit of formal logic too. It certainly helped me in my later years: decision making, report writing etc.
    I was always weak on grammar though!
    Happy days.

  • Philip Koenigsburger

    Well said old chap

  • Catherine

    In my school we teach p4c as lesson starters, early work, by creating opportunities for debate and general questioning throughout the day. For me I think teachers should be encouraged think about how to include it in their every day activities, rather than becoming a discreet subject in our primary schools-there is no room! Plus its use is in the application. I can’t comment for all schools, but you may be surprised that philosophical opportunities through a creative curriculum and questioning is quite common place. Having said that it would be good to see it as a strand within each subject in the new national curriculum.

  • George Harfleet

    What a refreshing article. Agree 100% and hope those who are responsible for the education of future generations agree too.

    Reading and comprehension has to be the essential skill for schoolchildren, imo, and this will be a solid foundation for further learning. Then let the children decide, through discussion and argument, what path they prefer as they progress through school.

    I’d go so far as to say that ‘self selection’ by the pupil should be the way forward. To have force-feeding of subjects which the child finds difficult or uninteresting seems pointless and a waste of both the teacher’s and the child’s time.
    Thanks for posting such a good article.

  • Susan Oliver

    Nice!
    Perhaps you should be an agent of change yourself and offer a class? I’d sign up!

  • David

    Thought provoking article!