Philosophy at KS3: avoiding a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” – David Hume

This was the quotation placed on the desk in front of me when I applied to read Theology at Cambridge now many years ago. Just one question accompanied this, and an intimidatingly thick stack of lined paper.

‘On the basis of Hume’s advice, should we burn the Divinity Faculty library?’

I’ve been told since that my response was anything but erudite. I cobbled together some sort of argument, threw in some Big Names and tried to sound a lot more knowledgeable than I actually was: the story of my life. In an ironic entry for Providence, it was Nietzsche who saved the day. I recognised the ‘unseen’ text given to me by my interviewer as a passage from The Genealogy of Morals. I pretended that I didn’t know who had written it, but suggested that it sounded pretty German.

I said in an earlier blog that I would try and tackle the topic of what, if any, philosophy there should be in the KS3 curriculum. This is a topic very close to my heart: I agonised hugely over whether to apply to read philosophy or theology at university. I eventually chose the latter because, although I had little or no belief in God, I seemed more interested than the philosophers were in playing the devil’s advocate.

  1. RS is different from philosophy.

RS begins by taking as self-evident that religion exists, even if God does not. As I understand it, the purpose of RS is to provide pupils with a knowledge and understanding of the world religions because a) their histories, beliefs and practices are inherently interesting and worthy of study and b) we can’t possibly be considered culturally literate without a basic religious literacy. I would add to this that I think that we’re also asking children to make informed judgements about truth and reality, if either exists at all. We should celebrate competing truth claims (religious and non-religious) and equip pupils with the knowledge and understanding to make critical judgements.

  1. Philosophy usually involves a different sort of enquiry and different subject content.

I think philosophy is a different sort of enquiry from the study of religion. It sees discussion about religion as nothing more than ‘sophistry and illusion’: religion contains no ‘experimental reasoning’, few (if any) ‘facts’ and no ‘existence’ – at least not the sort that philosophers like. It is a different sort of enquiry because philosophers are usually asking different questions than those of theologians, even if sometimes they’re asking those questions of the same material. I studied both Hume and Aquinas as an undergraduate theologian, but I was probably asking different questions of their work than the undergraduate philosophers.

1 and 2 both being true, why don’t I think it should be a totally separate subject at secondary school?

Knowledge

Political philosophy is not just the study of politics; it is the study of what we know about politics and how we wish to organise our societies. Aesthetics is not just the study of beauty; it is the study of what beauty might be. Epistemology is not just knowledge; it is the nature and quality of knowledge, and what we can know. It is no coincidence that at many universities, Oxford for one, it is not possible to study ‘philosophy’ as a single discipline. One studies ‘physics and philosophy’, ‘PPE’ or, indeed, ‘theology and philosophy’. It may be true, as the Oxford philosophy handbook says, that ‘the study of philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticize and reason logically.’ But I think it does so because such skills are the corollaries of analyzing something, and criticizing and reasoning logically about something. For children to ‘philosophize’, I think they need something to philosophize about. If you believe (and I think this does qualify as ‘belief’) that such thinking skills can be taught in isolation then I’m not going to even try and convert you; here I offer only heresy.

Opportunity cost

This being the case, I think there can be a huge opportunity cost in trying to teach philosophy when children do not have the knowledge to be able to make meaningful judgements. Having been trained in the so-called ‘Philosophy 4 Children’ programme, I have some experience of the sort of lessons which might charitably be described as a glorified speaking and listening exercise: pictures of women clothed in rainbow-coloured LGBT burqas used to provoke ‘engaging’ discussion about gender roles and/or sexuality. You can imagine the sort of insightful (and sensitive) comments these elicit from the average Year 7 class. At best, you get some provocative discussion supported by prior knowledge. But the pupils aren’t learning anything new. At worst, they’re just repeating and recycling unsupported opinions in a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance. This is a massive opportunity cost when a) the knowledge deficit is so debilitating and b) curriculum time is at such a premium.

Priorities

I don’t think that all who argue for philosophy as a separate subject in secondary schools see this as philosophy proper. Unfortunately, many do. Either way, I do think we have to be careful about introducing philosophy too early, not least because I think it does genuine philosophy a huge disservice. I think it’s also unrealistic to fracture the school timetable anymore than we’ve done already. There are a myriad different academic disciplines chomping at the bit for a bit of lesson time (Psychology? Anthropology? Citizenship?), and I think there’s good reason to be conservative rather than adding yet another variable to the mosh pit that is school timetabling. I have considered whether I could introduce some philosophy of mind, aesthetics or epistemology at KS3, but I’ve always come to two conclusions:

  1. I would rather pupils knew and understood the three Abrahamic faiths than wrestle with a watered down version of Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, Scruton’s Beauty or some John Searle.
  2. This knowledge base already embedded and assumed, philosophy of religion and philosophy of ethics is the right way to begin to introduce pupils to the discrete subject that is ‘philosophy’.

Next time, I’ll write about what this looks like in practice and my attempts at creating an overview that tracks the history of ancient and modern ideas: Christianity at the same time as the Reformation; Islam just before the Crusades and scepticism at the time of the French Revolution.

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6 thoughts on “Philosophy at KS3: avoiding a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance

  1. Interesting and thought provoking. I think all teachers should be trained in the philosophical dimensions of their subject. Applied philosophy certainly exists already in the school curriculum, but unfortunately many do not even realise its nature. For example, by the very act of teaching comparative religion in the way you mention, you are in fact teaching a form of scepticism conducive to relativism, because when all truth claims are presented as equally valid, the implicit assumption is that truth does not in fact exist in the form that Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas would have understood it. Of course literature is also packed with philosophical implications, and unless teachers understand these properly they will be unable to explain texts fully.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Anthony. I totally agree. Read my response to Collective Consciousness below. I like your idea of all teachers being ‘philosophical’ about the knowledge they’re imparting. I suppose some people would respond that there should be specific curriculum time for things like logic? I certainly think political philosophy can be covered by historians and metaphysics/ethics by RS teachers. Aesthetics by art teachers? Something to think about.

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  2. An interesting post about a topic close to my own heart too!

    I’d largely agree about Philosophy4Children. As an enthusiastic new teacher and philosophy grad, I was keen to try P4C but pretty disappointed with the results. There was the odd nugget of gold, but most kids just weren’t familiar enough with how to pursue a critical line of questioning to do much. I didn’t attempt it again.

    While I think you could teach philosophy to KS3 (Descartes’ scepticism for example – not in all its complex glory but a simple yet undistorted version), I also take the point about curriculum time.

    All that said, what I think you can do, and is important, is to retain a critical and analytical element in other subjects. A GCSE maths teacher (who had done some philosophy in his degree) once set us the homework question ‘what is infinity?’
    I knew nothing really about philosophy – I had certainly never read any – but I wrote an answer which, if crude, was nonetheless a decent go at philosophical analysis. It received an enthusiastic response from my teacher, and that experience was a big motivator in me ending up studying philosophy at Oxford. Reading it again years later, it still strikes me as a decent effort. I have no idea what others wrote, but what I think was valuable for everyone was the indication that these concepts, which we were otherwise just given, can (and should) be interrogated.

    The linguistic jokes my Mum used to make (me, holding dictaphone, “Mum, say something!” Mum: “something” Me:”Nooo! You know what I mean!”) were another bit of pre-philosophical training that laid the groundwork for the analytical philosophy that came later.

    Clearly I’m not suggesting that one should mandate the latter as part of a curriculum! But what I do think is that it is important to regularly and consistently nod towards the fact that there are questions one can ask about almost anything which go beyond the obvious and which are intriguing and surprising. The challenge is to know how to do this without causing confusion in the learning of knowledge. But I think that, particularly with a curriculum (rightly) focused on learning and memorisation, it is important.

    Finally, when I think about my own experiences, there is one thing I constantly come up against. While I know your views on ‘teaching critical thinking’, I know that philosophy taught me to think. The habits of mind and analysis I learned in metaphysics and philosophy of language are transferable. I didn’t learn them in a vacuum, but nor are they wedded to the content I developes them on. And while they were not particularly sophisticated pre-uni, they were certainly there. But without a little philosophical ‘nudging’ here and there, I’m not sure they would have been.

    Thoughts?

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    • Thanks for posting. I really do want to stimulate a debate on this! Just a couple of points:

      1) I do agree with teaching scepticism at KS3, as well as some psychology of religion and other critiques. I’m designing the overview at the moment so that this is the first half of the year in Year 9, the other half perhaps looks at Eastern philosophy/religion. I just think it’s impractical to ask for separate curriculum time at KS3 and that the ‘world religions’ stuff is best done in Years 7+8 BEFORE Enlightenment thought.

      2) I really like your idea of every subject teacher being a little bit ‘philosophical’. I’ve recently been teaching about Athenian democracy and, inevitably, we went into discussions about what the ideal system of government might be. Some would say that this requires separate curriculum time to do ‘political philosophy’. As you say, I think it’s an attitude to your subject matter rather than a complete separate form of enquiry, particularly at KS3.

      I suppose, then, that would be my response to your final point. Perhaps the best ‘philosophy’ we can provide schools is that constant ‘nudging’: asking questions about the knowledge that is being imparted from teacher to pupil? Perhaps, like character, this is something we instil via osmosis and habit rather than through separate curriculum time?

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  3. Fascinating article. I totally agree that Philosophy is important, so have begun to introduce it in religious education lessons at my school. With year 7 we looked at arguments for the existence of God and examined the teleological, cosmological and ontological arguments as well as Pascal’s wager. The pupils flew, so much so that I’m now going to include a topic called ‘What is religion?’ looking at Freud etc…
    Our pupils experiences of religious education at primary school are very different and not always positive. They have responded very well to the inclusion of more philosophical and ethical ideas in their lessons. I’m even looking at changing the name of the subject to ‘Beliefs, ethics and philosophy’
    I have a constant debate with myself (one man department) on what the purpose of RE is and what would be the best approach or our students. I am currently (ie today) of the view that gaining knowledge about the world religions isn’t that valuable for our cohort and they would be better served by gaining critical thinking skills and answering the massive questions that they ask on a daily basis. (How did the world start? Why do people believe in God? How can there be a God if bad stuff happens?) I was fed up with the answers they were giving to these questions being surface deep, so started to push the pupils and introduce A level philosophy ideas.
    I obviously still value knowledge and believe you need to know the basics before you can argue but I think I’m going to get the pupils to study this knowledge for homework taking inspiration from Joe Kirby and also the flipped learning model. My school is a Cornish school quite close to a primary school who were forced to remove pupils from a trip to a Mosque because of parents fears about a terrorist attack
    The year 7 pupils I quizzed about their lessons this year have found them challenging but enjoyed them, they have said that “It makes their head hurt”
    I think that’s a good thing.

    I would be fascinated to see how you have developed this idea.

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