Could Philosophy as a school subject be of value today?

I remember asking a frail but contented old lady who was all of 98 years old, if life was good for her. She answered “Oh, I’m very happy since my son got a place in the Care-Home.” I certainly didn’t expect that reply! Her son had just celebrated his 80th birthday. I went away reflecting about how we are conditioned to thinking a certain way and how we all make simple assumptions.

It is easy to live unthinkingly in our own little worlds, where we interact with the same people, read the same newspapers and watch the same TV programmes. We become ‘creatures of habit’ and rarely do we think ‘outside the box.’

Philosophy can be described as a ‘careful enquiry’, without limitations. Like an inquisitive child, there is no end to the number of questions we can ask. Today, we ask questions within different disciplines such as science, history, sociology, politics and much more. In the formal study of philosophy, a more specific range of subjects and questions arise: the nature of our knowledge - how we get it - reason and reasoning – morality and ethics - society - mind and consciousness.

We are required to challenge our assumptions and the structure of thought that we live by. We are invited ask ourselves hard questions about why we think the way we do about ourselves, others and the world in which we live. Because so many of our hidden assumptions lurk within our systems of thought, it is worthwhile to examine and reflect upon them.

In a school curriculum that is often strongly subject-centred, philosophy has a place. Finding a method to analyze ideas and concepts, to examine theories and to construct imaginative ways of thinking sheds a new light on the problems and issues that the world presents. As a core subject, philosophy should enhance all other subjects studied, and sharpen the mental and intellectual capacities of students.

Primary school children are often naturally inclined to ask questions. Just ask anyone who has encountered a three-year old constantly asking the question “Why?” Yet how often do we fail to encourage the questions children ask and really take the time to further develop the ensuing discussion?

The curiosity aroused in children makes them natural philosophers. Without this instinct, humankind would not be able to survive. So, to equip children with the tools to ask more questions as they grow is accepting that this instinct of curiosity is always in progress. Why is the grass green.….” Well let’s find out together and here’s how we go about it.

By drawing attention to what we take for granted, they begin to learn to think for real purpose. Young minds that query accepted norms hint at an instinctive search for meaning. That quest can be encouraged constructively through the study of philosophy.

Philosophy teaches one to think critically and assess.
We all have an ability to think. Our education system, the media, and the society we live in all help to shape the way we think. There is little freedom left to us as others shape our perspective and thoughts without us realizing. As we process ‘news’ and information from so many different sources, we develop an opinion about everything.

Dig a little deeper and few are able to expand on the reasoning behind the opinion, often expressing sentiments such as “well I feel that…” and so entering the realm of emotion, instead of reason.

By studying philosophy, students learn to think rationally, beginning with observations and propositions and arriving at logical conclusions. It also teaches one to listen to arguments and to expose logical flaws or inconsistencies.

Philosophy asks the fundamental questions of life and offers answers.
We are forever wondering what it means to be a human being. People have always asked Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why does evil exist? What happens after this life?

We all live our lives seeking answers to these questions and so gain some sense of order or direction in our lives. Often, when we say that we would like to be happy, we really mean that we seek meaning or purpose in life. ‘Happiness is not a station that we arrive at but the way we travel.’ By taking time to think about what makes us happy, it is in itself a motivation for finding ‘happiness’ at any given time.

Faith schools offer their own language and perspective on life issues and experiences as a way to find meaning and happiness in relationship with others. In facing key issues, some schools have found that parents are unable to communicate with, speak about or console their children following the passing of a student or staff member at school. While the bereaved family struggle to come to terms with the death of a loved one, parents of class members often choose to avoid the issue altogether, feeling ill-equipped to deal with or speak about death.

This sense of detachment from the horror of ‘death’ derives from never having taken time to think about it as a part of reality. At various stages of life, different issues will be of more importance to us than at others. But some issues remain with us always such as love, suffering and death, and from these we can’t escape.

Philosophy aims to find the truth.
Justice, Beauty, Love and Truth, are regarded along with goodness, as the ultimate desires of all people. This was the claim of the classical philosophers. Aristotle, at the beginning of Metaphysics, said, “All men by nature seek to know.”

After 1950, the Postmodernism branch of philosophy declared that there is no such thing as ‘truth.’ Yet, it would appear that there is always a concern for hearing and protecting it, even amongst those who claim not to believe in ‘truth.’ How often have we heard it said - “That isn’t true,” if or when we make a statement in conversation that our company or friends disagree with. 

The search for truth doesn’t end in our small conversations about everyday life. The debate over what constitutes ‘fake news’ is growing by the day as readers cast doubts over the veracity of what is presented to them as ‘truth.’  

Finding clarity further exacerbated as today’s society becomes inclined to facilitate people who share similar ideas. While access to the internet and lots of commentary is more available, research shows that we can close our minds to different opinions and perspectives.  

‘Tweeters’ can reside in “echo chambers” surrounding themselves only with the people from their group and so not opening their world to different views and experiences. In this ‘groupthink’ environment, often and maybe even unknowingly we can become as the 19th Century Danish social-critic Kierkegaard put it “lost in the crowd and at a loss without the crowd.”

Philosophy helps us to live as better people.
For as long as historians can trace, mankind has always reflected upon life and how we can live together with each other. The writings of Plato and Aristotle have been studied extensively from the 4th Century. Many of the ideas and principles that they formulated were about virtue and how one could best live in relationship with others. The principles in these timeless discourses are every bit as applicable today as they were in 350 BC as students can come to apply their understanding of what it means to be 'good' to their own real lives.  

Many support this pursuit with their religious beliefs in trying to understand the purpose of life. Rational thinking, finding and participating in the truth as well as self-discovery and simply 'being' adds to a valuable learning experience in school.

"The unexamined life is not worth living," wrote Socrates, in the knowledge that none of us is going to live in this world forever.

Often, we are inclined to see only material things. But many engage in deep thoughts, reflecting on the meaning of human life and the purpose of our existence.

With philosophy, students learn that what makes the human being is not only the physical body, or the material world, but also the spiritual entity. We learn that we cannot reach our purpose only by meeting our material needs. We must also satisfy our spiritual needs through our sense of interconnectedness with each other, with a creator or beyond.

The origin of our human spiritual needs is the desire to solve our curiosity, to understand ourselves, the universe and how we relate to others, all in an attempt to make sense of life in this world. Any study or assistance to help us in this journey is to be welcomed.


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