The answer’s easy: it would give young people the opportunity to discover the subject as a centuries-long conversation amongst the world’s deepest minds
Children are natural philosophers. If you doubt the capacity of young people to engage fruitfully with life’s deepest questions, drop a philosophical question into one of your lessons or a tutor group session: What makes me me? Is the mind separate from the brain? What is time? What makes an action right or wrong? Questions such as these have a catalytic effect: they energise conversation, stimulate thought and create a sense that here is something mysterious, intriguing, and worth arguing about.
As Aristotle put it, philosophy begins in wonder – and wondering is something children do well. It is also something that we’d like to see them do more of as they get older and questions such as “Do I need to know this for the exam?” or later still, “I didn’t really spend all that on credit last month, did I?” tend to take over.
The exciting potential of philosophical questions to stimulate inquiry and promote thought about the most important questions of all should be a sufficient reason for its inclusion on the curriculum at all stages. In primary schools, groups such as SAPERE (the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education) and The Philosophy Foundation are already doing pioneering work involving children in philosophical inquiry. In the secondary sector, philosophy currently forms a component of religious studies GCSE. The OCR religious studies GCSE has two specifications. In 2014, 5,159 candidates took the world religions exam whereas a vast 45,115 took the philosophy and applied ethics paper.
All this, however, looks set to change with the proposed new GCSE religious studies subject criteria. Whilst philosophy and ethics remain, their study looks set to be curtailed, as the focus moves back to study of religion itself, with philosophy and ethics forming only one component alongside these.
Leaving the story of philosophy as a closed book is a missed opportunity
This is not unreasonable. The study of religion involves a great deal more than just the philosophy of religion or religious ethics. Moreover, there is a great deal of philosophy that really ought to be explored as part of the initial formal teaching of the subject and which simply would not fit under the religious studies umbrella.
It is time, then, to take seriously the proposal that philosophy should exist as a GCSE subject in its own right.
A philosophy GCSE would give young people the opportunity to discover the subject as a centuries-long conversation amongst the world’s deepest minds. If education is about opening up the minds of young people to the best of what has been thought and said, then leaving the story of philosophy as a closed book is a missed opportunity.
Engagement with the rich history of philosophical thought contributes to personal growth and ethical development. By encountering the rich diversity of ways in which thinkers have gone about trying to answer Socrates’ great question (“How, then, should we live?”) students learn that their own ideas about life are open to hatfield post office challenge and critical question, and through such discussions is the formation of understanding and tolerance.
All this questioning, though, leaves some teachers and students cold. What is the point of asking all these unsettling questions when secure answers seem to be thin on the ground? The great David Hume turned this argument on its head beautifully when he remarked that philosophical conversation has a civilising effect, precisely because of its uncertainty.
The benefits of teaching GCSE philosophy are nothing less than these: that it offers a rich and enjoyable topic of study, that it brings young people into contact with the thought of the greatest minds, that it offers them the opportunity to carry on the great conversation of humanity about the ideas that shape our lives and that, through the open nature of the conversation, they can learn to handle differences of opinion that have the potential to be seeds of discord and conflict, in more intelligent, reasonable and humane ways.
Dr John Taylor is Director of the Philosophy in Education project, and Head of Philosophy at Rugby School