Peaceful Tectonics

The Queen of Sciences
February 10, 2007, 11:34 am
Filed under: Education, Philosophy

Julian Baggini shares his interesting take on the trouble with kids today, that they don’t philosophise enough.  Although some psychologists would debate me on this issue, claiming that only certain age levels have the ability for abstract thought, but I too tend to agree that one problem with schools is that they do not emphasize critical thinking in any of their curriculum.  I am not talking about higher level philosophy or logic and reason but an emphasis on questioning and re-thinking or even challenging what students think they know.  I feel that the real crooks are the teachers who have set up a classroom which diminishes questions in order to maintain authority over the material.  Perhaps I should throw out all my material  and focus on the critical thinking skills for the rest of the semester.  I have a sinking feeling that despite the loss of content covered , that my students would consistently perform better in all their other classes and probably for the rest of thier educational track both inside and outside schools.  Shouldn’t we have a class devoted to these skills in high school? 

Kant or Cant?

Julian Baggini

February 5, 2007 4:45 PM

Forget turkey twizzlers, DVDs, computer games, lack of fresh air, parental separation, pre-pubescent sexualisation and early-onset mad consumerist disease. None of these alleged modern ills lies at the root of the trouble with kids today. No, the real problem is that they do not philosophise enough.

That is the conclusion you might be tempted to jump to if your powers of logical reasoning were deficient and you’d read about the amazing resultsachieved in Clackmannanshire, where children as young as four have been given philosophy lessons. The results, allegedly, include significant leaps in IQ, emotional intelligence, behaviour, confidence and self-esteem.

If there’s one thing philosophers are not in short supply of it’s confidence and self-esteem. Ours is the “queen of sciences”, the only discipline that goes right to the foundations and examines the fundamental assumptions upon which all belief is based. The unexamined life, we are fond of repeating, is not worth living. It sounds very noble, until you realise that the subtext is that not only are the Big Brother-watching masses unfit for existence, but even those engaged in less fundamental academic pursuits are lower forms of life.

The kids, however, are not studying semantic holism, logical positivism or first-order predicate calculus. What they’re actually doing is being encouraged to ask questions and investigate them together in a co-operative, supportive environment. This is nothing like the adversarial contests of erudition and logic that take place in the seminars of a traditional British philosophy department.
This is because the children, we are told, are being schooled in the older, Socratic method of question and answer. Poppycock. Socrates was not a consensual conversationalist. He specialised in picking holes in people’s beliefs until they were left humiliated and unsure of anything. If teachers really were subjecting toddlers to Socratic grillings, the child protection agency would be onto them like a shot.

It’s not philosophy as we know it at all, which is probably why it works. But “proper philosophers” could still learn something by the way in which these kindergarten Kants learn to really listen to one another. Formal schooling in philosophy tends to teach you to listen for just one thing: logical consistency. That is as wrong-headed as learning to listen only to the melody of a piece of music and to ignore harmony, rhythm, timbre, phrasing and the rest.

I’ve increasingly noticed this in debates about religion. Many atheist philosophers seem to think the value and nature of religion is determined purely by the truth or falsity of its creeds, understood literally. Religion’s other dimensions – practice, attitude, form of life and so on – are ignored as irrelevant at best, and secondary at worst. As an atheist myself, I find this spiritual tone-deafness detrimental to the cause.

Philosophy is supposed to discourage over-confidence that we are right, but, in practice, it tends to encourage over-confidence that its practitioners uniquely have the right tools to determine what is right. Everyone tends to exaggerate the importance of what they do when advocating it to the wider world. But philosophers have a special reason to refrain from over-hyping their discipline. As Simon Glendinning, the director of the Forum for European Philosophy, explains it, philosophical scepticism must be extended to the value of philosophy itself, if it is to have any integrity. Any philosopher worth her salt will frequently wonder if what they do isn’t just a bathetic waste a time.

The children of Clackmannanshire provide heartening evidence that thinking hard about big questions, in a co-operative, respectful way, is a good thing. Philosophers should learn from the experience, not take all the credit for it.