I have devised a fantasy football team of philosophers for schools
Iwas pleasantly taken aback recently when my teenage daughter came home from her (state) school telling me that she had just had an interesting lesson on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. At her age, I had neither heard of these philosophers nor been able to spell their names. Philosophy is now often disguised under the rubric of “religious studies”. Despite this, I think its adoption is an immensely positive step. Organisations such as The Philosophy Foundation and Philosophy4Children are working to push philosophy further up the educational agenda.
The inventors of philosophy, the ancient Greeks, had a different idea from us of what education meant. You weren’t at school in classical Athens to prepare yourself for the world of economic activity – on which much of modern education is predicated – but to learn “virtue”: how a citizen should live a good life.
You might go to a school of the Epicureans or the Stoics or the Cynics – and each would offer a different approach to life. I don’t think there is any more important question than: “How should you live?” that can be asked in schools, particularly now, when there is such confusion around the answer. It seems crucial to ask: “What are we doing all this for?” rather than just assuming everyone wants to work to buy a nice house, put nice possessions in it, possibly have a family and then retire and die.
Taking my cue from Plato, who enjoyed speculating on the ideal organisation of society, I have been asking myself which philosophers I would teach in schools to provide instruction on ethics, meaning and “virtue” – a kind of philosophical fantasy-football team. I might well leave Plato on the bench, given his belief that only philosophers had the wisdom to build the ideal society, but his mentor, Socrates, who believed truth was something that was real and could be uncovered, rather than just being a matter of clever argument, would definitely feature.
Heraclitus, with his formulation that “you never step into the same river twice”, would be a proponent of the idea that pupils should appreciate their childhood, because it’s going to disappear. The Stoics, who were in no doubt that life involved a lot of suffering, were experts in understanding how that suffering could be navigated – and what more valuable lesson could there be to our children?
Given the nature of the teaching profession, I suspect the philosopher who won the BBC’s “greatest philosopher of all time” vote in 2006, Karl Marx, would be the most popular choice for schools. I wouldn’t let kids anywhere near him, not because his philosophy is “bad” – although an awful lot of people have died in its name – but because it is largely incomprehensible, at least in its more contemporary formulations (step forward, backwards and sideways Adorno and the Frankfurt School.)
And what about Marxism’s bastard children, the postmodernists, who teach that truth is an ideological construction? Theirs probably isn’t the ideal path to go down, because 2+2 can be made to add up to 5. They would probably oppose classical philosophy on the basis that old, dead, white men invented it and therefore were pushing their own agenda.
As an old, white man myself, I don’t believe wisdom can be corralled into any age, race or gender. This is an unfashionable view, but freeing yourself from fashion (and ideas are subject to fashion as much as cars or dresses) should start as early as possible. Otherwise, we end up, well, where we are now. And I definitely wouldn’t wish that on my kids.