Were we in Paris, rather than Greater London, you would be finding out the high esteem in which Philosophy is held. The Bac Litteraire – the Literature Baccalaureat is a humanities-based course with a heavy dose of Philosophy but even if you were opting for a science-based option, you would find that Philosophy is a compulsory part of the course.
The Bac Litteraire would involve you studying eight hours a week on Philosophy and this element of the course is weighted in a way that this element of the course counts for the most in terms of your final outcome. You would have to cover a range of themes, for example, courses on consciousness, the other, art, existence and time, matter and spirit, society, law, duty and happiness: that’s quite a decent preparation for life, isn’t it. And you would be required to do a spot of reading, too: Seneca, Plato, William of Ockham, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre.
Do you wonder why there is such a prominence on philosophy in French Schools?
Napoleon launched the Baccalaureat in 1809, and philosophy was one of the subjects in the first ever exam. Though to be fair, I’m not sure many of you would have enjoyed the challenge: back then it was oral, and in Latin, and only 31 students took it. And they were all male.
The purpose of the philosophy Bac is not to understand the history of human thought but, rather, to leap into the stream that is the actuality of human thought. If you learn about what Kant or Spinoza once said, it is not so much to understand their argument as to use their argument.
The idea behind philosophy on the curriculum in France was itself entirely philosophical.
In the newly created republic (and yes, I know Napoleon had just made himself emperor which is a bit monarchical, but the point still holds) it was important to create model citizens. The great writer and thinker Montesquieu himself said the republic relied on virtue, and virtue consisted in the capacity of individuals to exercise their own freely-formed judgment. Philosophy was a good way of developing that freely-formed judgement. The purpose of teaching philosophy was - and remains, in theory - to complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think. You will hear me and other educators talk a good deal about wanting children in their classes and schools to become ‘independent learners’; what better way to encourage independent thought than by exercising the mind through philosophical challenge?
To see the universal arguments about the individual and society; God and reason; good and evil and so on, is surely an important part of our development. And if in so-doing we escape from the binding imperatives of the now - by which I mean the dictatorship of whatever ideas are most pressingly forced on us in the day-to-day by government, fashion, political correctness and – in particular – the often nefarious influence of the media then more to the good…