The Need for Philosophy

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

The Need for Philosophy

Is this situation familiar to you?

The class is conducting an enquiry into a religious question such as ‘Who or What is God?’. As part of the enquiry structure the children have, while learning about what the Bible says, formed their own question: What does God look like?

In the next lesson they Google this question and they are presented with a picture of Michelangelo’s God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel. The next picture is the relatively large humanoid and often headless God that talks to Ned Flanders in ‘The Simpsons’. ‘Wonderful’ they say as they now know that God is a Leonardo Da Vinci lookalike floating on a cloud in a pink tunic.

The question is answered: God is a man but with special powers because he can fly and created stuff, he is old and has a beard, he is white and wise and not afraid to wear pink.

The nature of philosophy comes down to the etymology of the word and to know what the parts of certain words mean eg. prefixes and suffixes, is an essential part of the English Curriculum at KS2 (Pg. 39 onwards.) . The word is made up of Philos meaning ‘loving’ or ‘love of’ and Sophia meaning, not knowledge but, ‘wisdom’. This distinction is of the utmost importance as in the above example the children in your class have asked a religious question and have come up with a culturally derivative answer that gives them ‘knowledge’ but has not caused them to use their wisdom. But wisdom is not particularly easy to pin down so instead I will rephrase what I have just concluded: The children have acquired knowledge of what other people have thought; they have not thought themselves.

'The more you know, the more you know you don't know.' Aristotle

As the lesson goes on the teacher may ask them whether they agree with the depiction of God detailed by Michelangelo. They may ask if they have a different understanding and therefore answer to the question. They may refer to the part of the Bible that details the creation of Man that says that we were made in God’s image, much like the humans constructed out of clay in the story of Prometheus believed in some 700 years before the birth of Jesus. This is great knowledge and it may lead to some wonderful thinking about why people choose to believe this or where Biblical ‘knowledge’ comes from. This may lead to a great deal of thinking about the human mind and how it sees humanity and order everywhere. This may lead to a conversation about Freudian Projection and the idea that God is merely the projection of the perfect father we never had. It may lead to a critical view of a human’s desire to personify things in order to understand them. It is, afterall, difficult to imagine a being making the heavens and earth but not having any hands with which to do so. But as this conversation and enquiry grows and knowledge is picked apart something is emerging in the children in your class. That something, which is so hard to pin down, which is demonstrated by critical thinking, is Sophia, the very wisdom we want to cultivate in our pupils.

To quote an old friend of mine:

‘The more we Google, the less we know.’

And so, like Aristotle before him this man has hit on the very problem of modern society today. If we simply mistake the knowledge of others for wisdom we miss out on the art of discerning the truth as it stands or seems to. We might mistake an argument designed to appeal to our fears as a ‘rational’ appeal to our ‘rational’ minds because we have come to do something quite ridiculous; we have come to mistake the internet, a human creation and sum of almost all our knowledge as an end in itself. The internet will solve our problems, our staff room arguments, our pub disagreements, our RE enquiries. We have come to believe this because instead of thinking for ourselves we just ‘google it’ instead. We may even cut and paste it and present it as our own work. I would argue that the regurgitation of facts demonstrated by rote learning is a type of mental plagiarism.

We are at a fork in the road in education, as we always seem to be, and we, as teachers, can make a choice. Do we seek to fill our children’s heads with facts in the vain hope that this accumulation of knowledge will see them through or do we teach them to think for themselves? But, of course, like all good cutlery this fork has at least three prongs. There is, as Aristotle, the Buddha and even Hegel might have it, a middle way, a synthesis.

We don’t and shouldn’t expect children to ‘discover’ the wheel again or ‘find’ the way to do long multiplication all by themselves. We all know that discovery learning has a great deal of power but we are not asking children to rediscover the world a new, although this may be a good idea. We know that great thinkers have arrived at their new ideas by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. So, in order to cultivate a pupil who is ready to face the uncertain future we should be ready to impart knowledge and then ask where that knowledge came from. Philosophy should be, and more than likely, already is a part of your lessons, whether you realise it or not. The questioning of the reliability of sources is the very essence of Cartesian Doubt and a major skill in the History Curriculum. The very essence of Socratic method is the building blocks of reasonable argument and systematic discovery and the desire to make sense of the knowledge we have ‘now’ and predict the knowledge we might acquire in the future. Falsifiability, the very root of good science is itself a philosophical concept.

We are surrounded by ideas, we are almost crushed under a knowledge based curriculum (the English curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 alone contains over 88 pages) and yet in this years’ SATs papers (2019) there were questions that were not traceable to any learning objective, as the papers seemed to be testing something other than the ability to regurgitate knowledge. The papers seem, at some points, to actually be testing ‘true knowledge’, that is to say what I would call ‘Wisdom’. The application of knowledge learned in one situation but applied to another demonstrates wisdom, as the knowledge has been critically pulled apart and studied, tested and used and can be depended upon as well as recalled, adapted or even discarded if it proves false or simply not applicable.

So I invite you not only to use Philosophy in Religious Education lessons but anywhere else you ask children to acquire knowledge.

For nothing is as effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life[.]

The above quote from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the film Gladiator as well as famous stoic philosopher, refers to the systematic pulling apart of knowledge to examine where it comes from and why. This process is slow but we may find that you only have to do it once and in an overloaded environment fed by a curriculum necessitating an obsessive revision timetable including after-school ‘booster’ classes perhaps we should be focusing on making knowledge stick. By picking it apart, testing it and utilising the tools of the wise perhaps we wouldn’t have to revise so much. Have you ever had to revise concepts you truly understood? And once you truly understand something don’t you find yourself using this understanding in unfamiliar situations? This slower process cultivates real learning and real assimilation of knowledge. If the exams are rooting out those children who have simply learned ‘tricks’, taught and rehearsed in class with left-field questions that are not directly related to the curriculum then we find ourselves already preparing for the uncertain future. Even if, in this example, the future is only as distant as the beginning of May.

The middle way mentioned above is where I think education should tread now, we live in a world where dichotomies abound and we are all choosing sides. Are we progressive or traditional? Are we old school or forward looking? Why choose? We have all the knowledge of the internet at our fingertips but a lot of it is either untrue, deeply contested or irrelevant and so we must cultivate a pupil who is able to wisely discern their way in an uncertain future without picking a side that might eternally cloud their judgement.

As we cannot simply expect our children to one day say, ‘Hey Google, what do I do in the case of catastrophic climate disaster?’ I think we need a generation of children who are going to use the knowledge of the past, edit and add to it, not simply ‘Google it’ and then repeat. Although many may argue that the solutions are there, in plain sight but are simply being ignored in the case of climate change. If, as Dr. Maria Da Venza Tillmanns has it:

Wisdom reaches our grasp deeper into the world. It sometimes seems as though we have tried to replace thinking with knowledge. The more I know, the less I have to think. I have answers, so I do not have to live in a world of uncertainty, ambiguity, feeling perplexed or ‘at a loss’, even though uncertainty is exactly the place where true thinking begins as suddenly we have to ask ourselves, “now what?”.

Perhaps the uncertain times we find ourselves in are exactly what we need to get some real thinking going on and why we are so disenchanted by politicians peddling out old solutions for new problems. We are at a point in the history of the world where we may not be able to depend on anything, not even the certainty that ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’. And so, children will need wisdom and knowledge to solve the problems they will face. It is an old phrase and perhaps a tired one but here goes:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

My final question, which I also ask myself is: Am I teaching these kids to fish? If not perhaps I need to make a change.

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