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

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/julian_baggini/2007/02/post_1057.html

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.



The Educational Spectrum
December 6, 2006, 1:57 am
Filed under: Education, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

I picked up the following article on The Philosophers Magazine Online.  This is going to sound really dry, but its about the debate between the merits of authoriatrian verses liberal teaching methods.  I know that sounds boring but hear me out.  I really like it for two reasons, the first being that it is written in an open debate format in which the author requests or challenges the reader to respond with an articulate argument.  Second, Stephen Law (the author) does a wonderful job at arguing in favor of liberal education and student centered learning, which just happens to be my guily pleasure.

PS. If you don’t want to read the whole thing at least scroll down and check out his spectrum charts and explanations.

An Open Debate: The War For

Children’s Minds

Stephen Law

The author argues for a more liberal education for kids. To join the debate, see the end of the article.

In my book, The War for Children’s Minds , I respond to an anti-liberal mythology that has developed over the last couple of decades – a mythology that tends to blame everything that’s wrong with modern society – from rising crime to delinquency to teenage pregnancy – on 60’s liberals, and in particular, on liberal attitudes to religious and moral education. Many social and religious conservatives now argue that, if we’re to cure these problems, we need to move back in the direction of the kind of traditional, authority-based moral and religious education that tended to predominate in religious schools before the 60’s.

I’m not objecting to religious schools (not here, anyway). My concern is with the type of education delivered in them. My fear is that many of the new religious schools now in the pipeline will offer a rather traditional form of religious education in which, rather being taught to think, question and make their own judgements, young people are encouraged to defer more-or-unless uncritically to some religious authority such as their imam or the Pope,

I argue that all schools, religious or not, should be liberal, in the sense that they should encourage young people to think critically and for themselves about moral and religious issues – including their own religious views. That will strike many as sensible. But not everyone. When the Institute of Public Policy Research recommended all children be encouraged to think critically about the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, Melanie Phillips ( Daily Mail ) and the Daily Telegraph were outraged.

Many arguments are used to justify a return to traditional, authority-based moral and religious education. Often these arguments have a philosophical dimension. Some appeal to a familiar criticism of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers: that they were wrong to suppose that reason alone is capable of furnishing us with moral principles. In which case, conclude defenders of authority, the individual has no choice but to rely on an external authority instead. Some appeal to communitarian ideas, maintaining that religious authority – and the social bonds it forges – provides a much-needed corrective to our increasingly fragmented and individualistic society. Some refer back to the thinking of Aristotle to justify a form of moral education based not on thinking, but on doing. Some argue that authority-based religious values are the only alternative to the moral relativism that, they insist, is eating away at the fabric of Western society like a cancer.

You will find all these arguments heavily woven into the thinking of a great many religious conservatives. They can’t all be dealt with here. Nor is there room to make a positive case for a liberal approach. I’ll simply provide a rough sketch out the kind of liberalism I defend, and then lay down a blunt challenge to those who believe that the kind of traditional, authority-based moral and religious education that tended to predominate in religious schools up until the 1960’s is acceptable.

Let me begin by clarifying what divides “liberals” and “authoritarians”.

Should children and young people be free to do just whatever they want? No. Everyone thinks there should be some rules. Just how restrictive these rules are, and just how aggressively they should be enforced, is one issue that divides “liberals” and “authoritarians”. Many believe that, particularly over the last fifty years or so, we’ve moved too far up the liberal end of the scale. We’ve become excessively permissive. The time has come to redress the balance – to move back in the authoritarian direction. Perhaps they are right.

But there’s another way in which we can distinguish between “liberals” and “authoritarians”. The issue here is freedom of thought and expression . To what extent should children be encouraged to think for themselves? To what extent should they be allowed publicly to disagree, to express their own opinions?

Here, too, opinion is divided. But notice that those who are pretty authoritarian on the freedom of action scale might turn out to be fairly liberal on the freedom of thought scale. It’s one thing to prohibit doing so-and-so. It’s quite another to prohibit people from thinking, saying or arguing that they should be allowed to do so-and-so.

We can represent the freedom of action scale like so:

This scale ranges from total hands-off anarchy at the top, where there are no rules or discipline at all, to an extremely regimented, boot-camp-style regime at the bottom.

We can now add the freedom of thought scale like so:

To reduce confusion, when the issue is freedom of thought, let’s spell “Liberal” and “Authoritarian” with capital initials. An “Authoritarian” believes we should place more emphasis on more-or-less-uncritical deference to Authority rather than on independent critical thought. They’re to the right. The “Liberal” thinks we should place the greater emphasis on independent critical thought and freedom of expression. They’re to the left.

You can see there are four possible combinations of Liberal, liberal, Authoritarian and authoritarian.

It’s possible, for example, to be, liberal with a small “l”, yet Authoritarian with a capital “A”. Take Alice, a parent who merrily tolerates all sorts of bad behaviour from her children, yet smacks them hard if they ever dare to question the religious faith that she has raised them to accept uncritically. Alice is in the top right quadrant of our chart.

Or take Sophie, who imposes a strict set of rules on her daughters. She expects them to tidy their rooms, do as they’re told, and be in bed by nine o’clock sharp. Sophie’s pretty authoritarian with a small “a”. But still, she wants her children to think for themselves. While Sophie is fairly authoritarian, she’s also Liberal. Sophie’s in the bottom left corner.

The question with which I’m concerned is: how Liberal or Authoritarian should we be when it comes to moral education? I argue that, whatever our views on rules and discipline, we should be more Liberal than Authoritarian. That’s to say, wherever we are on the vertical scale, we should be well to the left, and certainly not to the right, on the horizontal scale.

One common misconception about the Liberal approach is that it’s somehow incompatible with a religious upbringing. Christians, for example, will want to teach their children about Jesus and the kind of morality he represents. As Liberals, they’re free to do that.

The difference between, say, an Authoritarian Christian and a Liberal Christian lies not in what they teach children, but in how they teach it. The Authoritarian will expect children to embrace Christian belief more or less on the say-so of a religious Authority. The Liberal, by contrast, will certainly tolerate, and may even actively encourage, critical scrutiny of religious beliefs.

Just as some wrongly assume the religious must be Authoritarian, so others mistakenly suppose atheists must be Liberal. Robin Le Poidevin nicely sets out the positions at the extreme Liberal and Authoritarian ends of the scale like so:

Compare these two desires: the desire to subordinate oneself utterly to the wishes of some authority… and the desire that one’s behaviour should reflect one’s own ideals, to act because one thinks it is right, independently of the will of any other individual. Which is the better ideal, as far as our moral development is concerned? The atheist insists the second desire is the better one. For the atheist the moral ideal is autonomy, or self government. The truly moral agent is one who wishes to be his own master, not the instrument of some other power, and not to trust the deliverances of some supposed authority, but to work out for themselves the rightness of certain kinds of morality. ( Arguing For Atheism )

Le Poidevin characterizes the atheist as a Liberal. That’s a mistake. Atheists can be Authoritarian too, as many totalitarian regimes demonstrate. The party member who sees herself as a mere cog in the great machine, who blindly and faithfully accepts what she is told, who dares never to hold or venture any opinion other than that which has been officially endorsed, may have a mind no less enslaved and ruled by Authority than that of a hard-line religious zealot.

Authoritarian atheist regimes can also be just as brutal in expunging unacceptable beliefs. In Stalinist Russia, the feared knock on the door would come, not from the Holy Inquisition hunting down religious heretics, but from the secret police hunting political heretics. What both regimes had in common was an Authoritarian obsession with controlling, not just action, but thought.

We can represent the various possible combinations of Liberal, Authoritarian, religious and atheist like so:

In the top right corner you’ll find the religious Authoritarians. Some consider the Pope to be the ultimate religious Authority. While he may not be treated as an infallible Authority by all his followers (many Catholics openly disagree with him on birth control), still, there are those who believe that, when it comes to matters of faith, the duty of any Catholic is to defer to His Holiness, rather than to make their own private judgement (perhaps the current Pope’s view?). The following, for example, is from the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on “infallibility”.

[O]ne must listen to the voice of those whom God has expressly appointed to teach in His name, rather than to one’s own private judgment… he who chooses to make himself, instead of the authority which God has instituted, the final arbiter in matters of faith is far from possessing the true spirit of faith.

In the bottom right corner is Joe Stalin – a brutally Authoritarian atheist. Over in the top left corner are the religious Liberals – they believe in God, but they also believe that each individual must judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong. When I presented this little chart to Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, he located himself in the top left hand quadrant. Ward is a religious Liberal. Finally, in the bottom left corner, you’ll find the Liberal atheists.

There are regular spats between those at the top and bottom. Richard Dawkins is well known for his provocative attacks on religion. His criticisms frequently outrage believers. In fact what Dawkins attacks is typically a highly Authoritarian brand of religion. Dawkins tends to focus his attacks on those in the top right hand corner. Perhaps he would do better to build alliances with those Liberal religious believers in the top left corner (like Ward) with whom he probably has far more in common with than he does with any of those over to the right (who include atheists like Stalin, of course).

The noise and smoke generated by the battle over religion has tended obscure a no less significant debate. I believe the really crucial dispute is not between the believers at the top and the atheists at the bottom – it’s between the Liberals on the left and the Authoritarians on the right. It’s to this underlying, more vital dispute that public attention now needs to be drawn. Drawing attention to it is one aim of the book.

Now here is the challenge. Those who favour a move back in the direction of the kind of Authority-based religious education that predominated up until the 1960s should ask themselves the following question. Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts.

If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage. These establishments would be accused of educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They’re the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places like Stalinist Russia. My question is, if such political schools are utterly unacceptable, if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

Disagree? Got something to add? Join the debate. Stephen Law will be replying to three of the best responses posted to this article. To increase the chances of yours being picked, please address specific arguments made in the article: it is better to deal with one key point well than reply to as many as possible. We suggest you compose your reply off-line and then return here to post it when it’s complete. Keep your replies to 600 words maximum, and less is even better. Email: editor@philosophers.co.uk with your responses.