Philosophy in schools: A Necessity, not a Luxury

NOVEMBER 13, 2014

The idea of introducing philosophy to secondary schools has enjoyed  attention recently. This has been motivated, in part, by a sense of frustration with our memorisation-focused exam system that leaves students ill-equipped to deal with the fast-changing world we live in.

A proposal submitted by the Royal Irish Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in 2012 was later shelved. A petition in support of the proposal followed. Yet, between cabinet reshuffles and other issues, interest in philosophy for schools has waned.

With a new Minister, Jan O’ Sullivan, now in place, and President Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in full swing, it is apt to consider once again just how valuable philosophy is for the future shape of Irish society.

By emphasizing clarity, rigour and logical analysis, philosophy teaches students the structure of good arguments. This is a valuable transferrable skill. Studies show that philosophy graduates achieve the highest scores on assessments of verbal, analytical and numerical reasoning. Philosophy students make good thinkers.

However, philosophy is more than useful training in how to think. Its greatest value lies in what it encourages students to think about: the subject matter, rather than the methods alone.

Philosophy examines the most fundamental concepts we have about what it is like to exist as a human in the world: knowledge, truth, meaning, justice, beauty, freedom, consciousness. Our assumptions about these concepts influence every aspect of our lives. Our standards for truth and knowledge influence our scientific and religious beliefs; our ideas about justice, equality and freedom determine whether we are liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist.

In examining these concepts philosophers rarely come up with neat and tidy answers. The literature is full of expansive treatise on justice, knowledge and truth, yet none are immune to counter-argument.

Philosophy teaches students that our understanding of these basic concepts actually rests on shaky foundations. In so doing, it reveals the limitations of human knowledge and understanding.

An awareness of these limitations helps students to be wary of others who claim to have certainty and truth; it protects against dogmatic indoctrination and group-think. Philosophy celebrates the complex, nuanced nature of our understanding. Instead of congratulating ourselves on what we already know, philosophy reminds us of what we still do not.

In recent decades, Ireland has been marred by corruption and exploitation in our most powerful institutions: the church, the financial system, and a political system complicit in both. These crises were allowed to progress to such a devastating extent, in part, because we accepted, implicitly or explicitly, the ideologies of those who held power.

To prevent the same from happening again we need to equip students with the awareness and ability to ask difficult questions, and challenge the ideas that lurk behind powerful institutions. The only way to do that is to teach them that such ideologies exist, and that things can be different.  Why does religion play the role it does for people? Is Economics scientific? Is voting sufficient participation in a democracy? Philosophy encourages the kind of open-mindedness needed for students to explore the many perspectives on such issues.

By revealing the limitations of what we know, philosophy also teaches students a measure of humility and caution; two much needed values in a world that reveres decisive action. Just do itMove fast and break thingsYOLOCreative Destruction, are just some of the slogans of our techno-consumerist age; all encouraging us to act now, think later (which often means buy now, pay later). Consumer society constantly attempts to remove time for reflection: it makes us less likely to make that impulse purchase. Amazon have succeeded with their 1-Click ordering.

Philosophical study is a counter-balance to this culture of fast-action. Maybe it’s time we moved slow, and didn’t break anything for a while.

The problem in Ireland is not that we lack intelligent people: we have plenty of smart lawyers, and accountants who can solve problems. What we lack are public figures with the awareness, or courage, to publicly question the unarticulated values on which society is based. This is necessary if we want to be the conscious authors of our future.

Bertrand Russell said, “If all humans were well off, if poverty and disease had been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society”. While we haven’t reduced poverty and disease to their lowest level, we are lucky enough to live in a part of the world where we can openly debate the kind of society we want. For that, we need philosophy.

* This article originally appeared in The Irish Times in October 2014. It had 16,000 Facebook shares, and 461 Tweets: