An article in today’s Irish Times makes the argument for philosophy to be introduced as a subject in Irish secondary schools. Whilst there will no doubt be a lot of sympathy for that suggestion, I’m not sure that the author of the piece really makes the case particularly well given his tendency to over-hype the potential outcomes. It sounds as if all known problems in society will be solved as a consequence. As a colleague commented on twitter, it’s always interesting to see how those within particular academic disciplines believe that only their subject is capable of really promoting ‘critical thinking.’  We see the same in recent promotions for arts and humanities programmes, perhaps as an attempted counter-balance to the resurgence of interest (in this country) in science and engineering. As if only a humanities background will enable students to see the wider picture, to make sound judgements and be creative.

The truth is, as often, more complex. Perhaps we’re better off arguing the case for a broad education, where students, particularly at school, are exposed to the widest possible range of human knowledge and culture (and surely one of our greatest cultural artefacts of the past couple of centuries has to be science). But not just made aware of, as far as possible also supported in engaging in the subjects, experimenting, expressing themselves, producing, creating, trying and exploring. We forget that disciplinary boundaries are often somewhat arbitrary and can be crossed by any adept individual. This is not to argue against ultimately following a particular specialist interest and studying a topic to the highest possible levels. Such pursuit by itself often requires the deployment of a wide range of skills, approaches and attitudes and, rather than the current fixation on content-less ‘transferrable skills’, we know that these are best acquired through practice, experience and a highly motivated curiosity.

The argument about philosophy itself echoes much of the debate in Scottish educational history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the subject of the highly-regarded thesis  entitled ‘The Democratic Intellect‘ written by George Elder Davie. In this and its sequel, the discussion centres around generalism vs early specialisation, expressed through the position of philosophy as a discipline within the university curriculum and indeed (in the later volume) the changes to school education.

Another interesting aspect of the article itself is the supposition that simply because a subject is formally ascribed to the secondary curriculum it will have an impact in people’s lives and attitudes. That must be why everyone in the country is a highly fluent and confident speaker of Irish and mathematically dexterous!  One more item to be crammed, perhaps.

There is though, not raised here, a push in many countries to encourage ‘philosophical thinking’ at primary school level and that, I think, has tremendous potential, particularly if such a disposition can be carried through to other levels beyond.  Examples of some of this work can be seem in the P4C movement, building on the work in the 1970s of Matthew Lipman and his notion of ‘community of inquiry’.  It has also led to a resurgence of interest in Scotland at primary and nursery level as well as secondary.

And sure, didn’t those of us brought up in Scotland as late as the 1970s and 1980s learn ‘natural philosophy’ instead of ‘physics’?