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Roland Martin - Issue #70


Roland Martin

October 11 · Issue #70 · View online

Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London; Chair - Society of Heads - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

Why does Philosophy matter in schools?

I was very kindly asked by our Philosophy Society at School to give a brief talk to start their varied programme of speakers scheduled this year. I am, of course, totally under-qualified to talk about philosophy though have always been interested in it - possibly increasingly so - and certainly think it has a value in schools, as outlined eloquently by Peter Worley in his excellent June opinion piece …
A school of thought: why British pupils should study philosophy | Peter Worley | Opinion | The Guardian
The challenge of the alternative
I imagine that there are plenty of students, possibly teachers and even some Heads across the country who don’t see the point of philosophy. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to be a discipline that is as well-respected as it should be in this country, although we have gone through waves and fads – not least where Critical Thinking as an A Level subject was concerned. Here at Freemen’s, we obviously have access to Philosophy through the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics Department, through the Scholarship Programme, as part of Free Minds and through the offices of this Society, which – to be fair – is more than we had a few years ago, but when you compare us with some other cultured societies, we are still thin on the ground in terms of our exposure to this crucial subject. I admit to being a bit biased as the father of a son who I once thought – back in those giddy Prep School days – was likely to read Physics and Philosophy (a truly fine combination!) at University. That didn’t work out quite as I thought it would!
The cynics would argue that Philosophy involves going round in circles.
·     Is truth preferable to peace? (surely both are important?)
·     Does power exist without violence? (is power always a negative thing as the question anticipates?)
·     Can one be right in spite of the facts? (definitely one for an adolescent audience…)
·     Is art real?
·     Is it absurd to desire the impossible?
·     Can you ever be certain of being right?
Can anyone give absolute answers to many of the Philosophical conundrums? Possibly not. And possibly, that’s one of the reasons that the discipline is important. Although there are plenty of subjects where we can find binary answers to questions, Philosophy ain’t one of them. But life doesn’t give us binary answers either - which you will have already worked out - so therefore it is important that we expose ourselves to the challenge of the alternative.
Oh, to be in Paris...
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…
...or possibly not...
…Or is it? I mean, maybe this is one of those situations where the theory is all very well, but somehow reality does not behave as it is supposed to? 
Well, one of the effects of having such an ideas-based vision of society, and elevating ideas to such heights, is that people actually start believing in them, and then maybe they start thinking the ideas are worth fighting for, or perhaps dying for, or perhaps even killing for.
And then what?
Maybe Dominique Venner provides a case-study. He was a philosopher and essayist of the far-right. In his last blog post he quoted Heidegger saying the last second of a man’s life had as much significance as all that went before. 
In May, 2013, Venner pulled out a shotgun and shot himself through the mouth beside the main altar of Notre Dame Cathedral shortly after 16:00 in front of some 1,500 people. Perhaps an odd backdrop to stage a suicide for a practising pagan.
Here was a man, arguably, who fell so in love with his own ideas – which included vehemently opposing the legalisation of same-sex marriage - that he decided to take his life. This said, perhaps it could only be in France that someone would go metaphorically ‘to the barricades’ to prove their point. And one could be really cynical and suggest that it might be easier for a man of 78 to take a matter of principle to its extreme, especially one suffering from a serious illness.
In spite of Venner, I would argue that ideas matter and would back the value that teaching ideas through exposure to Philosophy has in the curriculum. Most of us can balance an ideas-based vision and the concepts of both belief and reality. In short, I am a little covetous of the way that they approach the subject of Philosophy across La Manche and hope that this Society gives you an opportunity in the year ahead to come to grips with many of life’s important questions…
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