I have de­vised a fan­tasy foot­ball team of philoso­phers for schools

The Guardian - Family - - Family - Tim Lott @tim­lot­twriter.word­press.com

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.

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