Back to the Courtyard of Habit?


Earlier this week the Guardian newspaper published a letter, signed by some 50 noted figures, including TPM’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini as well as Professors AC Grayling and Simon Blackburn. expressing the view that: “introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from a very early age would have immense benefits in terms of boosting British schoolchildren’s reasoning and conceptual skills, better equipping them for the complexities of life in the 21st century, where ubiquitous technology and rapid social change are the order of the day”.  The signatories called for a number of measures intended to “make sure children from all backgrounds get the advantages philosophy at a young age can bring in terms of intellectual and social development..” A number of letters have followed in support, including one from TPM editor James Garvey, who has been involved in the Royal Institute of Philosophy‘s work in schools for the last fifteen years. Back in 2008 Continuum published Philosophy in Schools, edited by Michael Hand of the Institute of Education and Carrie Winstanley of Roehampton University in which it was argued that ‘children of all ages should study philosophy in school because it is the basis of critical thinking’. Hand argued that “Exposure to philosophy should be part of the basic educational entitlement of all children.” This is a view that seems to have found increasing favour. But the idea of introducing school pupils to philosophy, even to older students, has not always been welcomed by philosophers.

Roger Scruton, being interviewed back in 1988 by the journal Cogito (which promoted teaching philosophy to older pupils as now occurs in some schools) said he was “against teaching philosophy in schools”: “It is fine to teach people to question, but first you must give them some certainties. Without certainties the whole point of intellectual endeavour would never be grasped. Unfortunately, and in our time increasingly, school subjects are not being taught as hard fact, but as areas of discussion and opinionated vagueness: that is to say, introducing into the classroom issues which can only be understood properly at the level of postgraduate research.” Scruton was aware of arguments by teachers that ‘the uncritical frame of mind encouraged by rote learning is a bad thing’ and the claim that it is ‘better to encourage critical thinking in children to make them more inquisitive and searching.’ But, said Scruton: “I think they are wrong. They are wrong for the reasons that Aristotle gives, that we enter the Palace of Reason through the Courtyard of Habit, and habit means learning things by rote, doing things without knowing the reason why, so that you will have the moral equipment to learn that reason later…. I think there is an enormous responsibility laid on everyone who [thinks critically] not to be a corrupter of youth. To introduce critical thinking to people who first of all may not be capable of it, and second, who do not know how to use it responsibly, could be a bad thing…”


Homework for this week:

1 Would introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from a very early age better equip children for the complexities of life in the 21st century?

2 Should children go back to learning by rote and  be kept away from critical thinking - would it be better if they were sent back to ‘the Courtyard of Habit’?

Optional Extra Merit Question:

3 The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once said: “to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought … to be one of our educational aims.” Discuss.


  1. Answers: 1/Yes; 2/No; 3/Agreed.

    Discussion: Should philosophy be taught to kids in pre-school?

    It is.

    Think: ethics (right/wrong, sharing, tolerance, diversity), ontology (identity, belonging, self-awareness), epistemology (knowing, understanding), aesthetics (beauty, symmetry), logic (reasoning, true/false).

    Maybe it just needs structure.

  2. I think there is much confusion in Scruton’s objection. Whatever Aristotle may have meant (I do not know the context of the statement adduced), the Palace of Reason that is entered into through the Courtyard of Habit must be practical (= operational) reason [NOT Kant's 'practical reason']. To think we must question. It’s a pity that the questions of very little children are commonly given answers that are supposed to be swallowed whole.

  3. To unfit people for the contemporary world en masse could be disastrous, because most people are not fit for being unfitted, but if I notice someone who does not fit, who seems to have emerged from the Iphone plant with the paint slightly chipped, I’ll do my best to make him or her fit to be unfit for the contemporary world.

    That’s my mission in my life, saving a few souls from fitting in.

  4. D. R. Khashaba

    The ‘courtyard of habit’ is a phrase made famous by R.S.Peters in “Reason and Habit: the Paradox of Moral Education”

    “What then is the paradox of moral education as I conceive it? It is this: given that it is desirable to develop people who conduct themselves rationally, intelligently, and with a fair degree of spontaneity, the brute facts of child development reveal that at the most formative years of a child’s development he is incapable of this form of life and impervious to the proper manner of passing it on… in spite of the fact that a rational code of behaviour and the ‘language’ of a variety of activities is beyond the grasp of young children, they can and must enter the palace of Reason through the courtyard of habit and tradition. This is the paradox of moral education which was put so well by Aristotle in Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics.”

  5. I wonder whether people who connect rote learning to habit-formation are confusing Aristotle’s concepts of character and intellectual virtues. Some things can be learned by rote, like the multiplication tables or the capital of Bulgaria. In a certain sense, knowing that 2×3=6 is a virtue, but not a character virtue – for that you need properly guided experience.

    I come up against a similar issue in my teaching. If you’re going to criticize (say) Hume’s Aesthetics or the Cogito, you must first understand what those philosophers claimed, and then you must exercise the capacity to think critically about said claims. The first point can be obtained by a student being exposed to a teaching put out there by someone else (either from a text or from an intermediary like a teacher’s lecture), and in some sense that learning might be described as “rote.” But the capacity is not developed through rote learning, I don’t think. So there is an element of rote learning in philosophy, but there is all a lot more to the story.

    If there is a problem with too much uncertainty, I think this comes from other subjects practicing philosophy instead of doing what their subject is really geared toward. I think early education would be better served if the sciences, maths, etc. presented well-established facts and left criticism to fields like philosophy. Of course those fields should be self-critical, but that should be left to a higher education level, when people have mastered the basics. This would let students understand both what we are certain about and the value of doubt, from an early age.

  6. I have an inexhaustible well of contempt for those who pretend that “doing things without knowing the reason why” is the sine qua non of a healthy education. To my mind, when a teacher says something to that effect, it is a clear and remorseless admission of professional incompetence.

    Suppose a man stops me in the street. The man says: attend to and memorize the following set of arbitrary rules, because your future depends upon it. Why shouldn’t I reply: “Sure thing — just as soon as you attend to and memorize my rank-ordered list of favorite flavors of iced cream”? I mean, if I’m supposed to waste my time by doing an activity that is advertised as a trivial ritual, then why shouldn’t I get something in return? (And if the reply is, “It matters to your future”, then why should I respond to anyone’s tacit threats?)

    What Scruton has evidently gotten wrong in the quote above, is that he assumes that there is a one-size-fits-all model of education. But actually, there aren’t any strict rules that apply equally to everyone. Some students need a lot of discipline; others require more carrot than stick. Some students need habits drilled into them; others are so obsessed with habits that they have no idea how to apply the rules they learn in a free and autonomous way. Maybe some students learn best by learning how to do a thing and forgetting to ask why. Fine enough. They are not everyone.

  7. On the business of using philosophical enquiry with a view to morally educating children:

    In is book ‘The War for Children’s Minds’ Stephen Law argues for a liberal approach to moral education that seeks to equip children with the freedom, skills and aptitudes they need to engage critically and creatively with what they’ve learnt. But Law is not suggesting that we leave children adrift in a sea of uncertainty, expecting them to construct their own personal morality, completely unaided, from scratch.

    It is not inconsistent with this liberal project to go ahead and cultivate moral (and other) habits based on the wisdom of parents, teachers and law makers e.g. ‘Don’t speak with your mouth full, ‘never hit your brother’ ‘don’t lie’ etc.

    Alongside habituation, we can simultaneously support children in their ability to engage critically with the reasons that have motivated their parents, teachers and law-makers to habituate them in this way.

    I am not suggesting that a five year old is as well equipped as a 25 year old to critique their moral (or other) beliefs. But my experience has shown me that children as young as 3 or 4 are able to reason. As their capacity to think clearly and critically grows, so too does their right to challenge what they’ve.

    It’s also helpful to bear in mind the distinction, between freedom of thought and freedom of action. In our attempt liberate children’s minds, equipping them to think creatively and critically about their moral behaviour we don’t need to liberate their actions such that we allowing them do what ever they like. There can still be rules, order and authority. There are good reasons for rules, reasons even very little children can engage with.

    A note on uncertainty -

    I work as a freelance philosopher-in-schools. I experience children’s ability to cope with uncertainty on a daily basis. They appreciate that there are areas of human enquiry that are inconclusive. (For example in art ‘What does this painting mean?’ in science ‘How many stars are there in the solar system?’ and in philosophy. ‘Can you think of nothing?’)

    Yet they frequently ask: ‘Why do we have to study maths?’, ‘Why do we have to wear a school uniform? ‘ and ‘Why should I do as I’m told?’ They are already searching for reasons. How can we habituate them without acknowledging that they are already asking ‘why?’ And so they should if they’re to become habituated in the critical and creative thinking that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

  8. I think it’s a terrible idea. To my mind the celebrity academics who put their names to this letter must come from a galaxy far, far away. Because they seem not to grasp the nature of philosophy, or the minds of children, or the limitations of school education.

    Philosophy can’t really be taught – at best, learning is facilitated through free discussion and the asking of questions. But philosophical questions concern matters of life and death, love and hate, sanity and madness, blame, and much else besides. Secondary school teachers could not possibly be expected to allow free discussion of many of these issues among mere children.

    To take a few example of philosophical questions:

    Is it racist to think that some races are inferior to others, or does racism always involve the disregard of interests?

    Does God exist?

    What happens to our minds when we die?

    Were the Greeks and Romans wrong to kill disabled children?

    Is homosexuality an evolutionary adaptation or a disorder?

    Is someone in a permanent vegetative state a person?

    Should parents have the power to make decisions such whether to vaccinate, circumcise (etc.) their children?

    I’m sure my own experiences combined with those of my own children are typical. We have shared classrooms with members of various races, and various religions. Some had parents with near-fanatical religious zeal. Some of our fellow pupils had disabilities, including mental disabilities. One girl was dying of leukemia – and knew it. Another girl’s sister was killed in a car crash, likewise another boy’s father. One boy was put into a persistent vegetative state by a motorcycle accident. Another boy’s father was sent to prison. Several had parents who were more or less severely mentally ill. Many children’s parents were separated or divorced, at least two as a result of one of their parents “coming out” as homosexual.

    Does anyone really expect children to be able to discuss these matters without being compromised? Only someone who is blind and deaf to the abuses of power between children – and by adults over children – could possibly think so. Does anyone really expect teachers to risk their careers by allowing free discussion of these matters among the vulnerable or weak? And if it isn’t free discussion, it isn’t philosophy. At best it will be an intellectually castrated, politically correct, half-baked secular “religion class”.

    I suspect that most of the signatories to the letter are aging authoritarians who have forgotten – or never knew – what philosophy is, what childhood is, or how schools are obliged to protect children from abuses of power. Many adults do not have the stomach to confront their own mortality, and these people want to make it in effect compulsory for children!

  9. I don’t mind teaching philosophy in schools, provided its done with concrete examples.

    Abstract thinking takes a LOT of time to develop in isolation.

    Certainly the products of modern philosophy at the minor degree level do not even seem to have grasped what the subject is all about.

    A good place to start might be ‘if video games keep getting better, how would you know whether you were playing one or not?’

    Or ‘Is life just a big video game?’

    It doesn’t really matter what the subject is: the point is to encourage thinking things through from first principle to final outcome.

  10. Jeremy makes my point. Is philosophy ‘just about religion’? surely not. Leave people out of it and social ethics out of it. That way lies madness.

    How about basic logic.. If Ben is a white cat, are all cats called Ben white cats, or not?

    If not why not?


  11. If we’re honest, the claim that children should be “morally educated” is another way of saying that they ought to have the right moral opinions.

    That is just a defence of orthodoxy ( = “right opinion”). To defend orthodoxy is anti-philosophical, and it denies the simple, obvious fact of moral disagreement (such as the deep and possibly irresolvable difference between consequentialists and non-consequentialists, for example).

  12. Jeremy, I reread the original post, and apparently have looked over the part where they push for “moral education.” To say that teaching philosophical techniques and critical thinking skills to children means that necessarily confronting K-6 graders with school room brawls over whether or not homosexuality is a disorder is a fairly large leap to my mind. I guess I can see where the anxiety comes from, but it seems like there’s due cause to step back from the worst of all possible classroom experiences hypothetical and toy with the idea that that might not be the only way to teach philosophy to children.

    I guess I just don’t see how you stretched the original post’s intent to defending orthodoxy. I apologize if I looked over something simple, yet critical to my understanding.

  13. I’ve never taught philosophy, but I taught years of English as a foreign language and English for future English teachers, and I always tried, often unsuccessfully, to stimulate reflection and critical thinking.

    In my experience, 75% of students only pay attention to what will appear in the final exam and their only interest is in getting a good grade, by fair or foul means.

    Another 20% are on the lookout for any heresies or “weird” ideas in the teacher’s outlook which they can report to the local branch of the Stasi.

    That leaves about 5%, whose critical thinking can be stimulated, who are open to learning reasoning skills or to discussing “issues” in a non-conventional or non-stereotyped manner.

    Due to peer pressure to dumb down, which Jeremy notes above, not all of that 5% will let the teacher see that they are
    attentive, but a few will, sometimes.

    I always taught for that 5% and I suppose that philosophy classes can do that 5% some good, can teach them skills that will give them a push towards wondering whether they care to fit or unfit into contemporary society.

  14. Hi Michael,

    I wasn’t thinking of “brawls” breaking out so much as something like the following scenario.

    In his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer discusses controversial psychological “research” into the average IQ scores of members of different races. Singer has a perfectly legitimate point to make: it wouldn’t matter if there were factual differences between races, because racism is not a belief of any kind, but the failure to give due consideration to interests. What’s morally wrong with racism is not the having of a false belief, but the practical neglect of interests.

    Singer has to confront this issue, because he wants to argue that “speciesism” is morally wrong for the same reasons. He thinks our current treatment of animals is similar to racism.

    Now this issue would be awkward enough for adults, and contains the potential for abuses of power even among them. But imagine such a discussion taking place in a classroom with one black child among numerous white children. That is an abuse of power waiting to happen. It would generate more than mere “discomfort”. No teacher in her right mind could allow such a discussion among children. Yet the treatment of animals, racism, etc. are topics that children naturally want to discuss.

    I can imagine a scenario similar to the above for each of the philosophical questions I mentioned in my earlier post. And philosophical questions naturally lead from one to the next. For example, a discussion about morality naturally leads to divine commands theory, which naturally leads to a discussion about the existence of God.

    School teachers might attempt to artificially raise “fences” between issues, so that discussion of some topics is forbidden even though children want to move on to them. But then they wouldn’t be doing anything like philosophy. It would be a phoney – and indeed power-abusing – “nudging” of children to accept the current orthodoxy, which I think should also be forbidden in classrooms.

    Philosophy is for adults, not children. “Bambified” philosophy is not philosophy at all.

  15. @Jeremy: Then it seems like you’re telling me we can’t let kids think critically (or at least show no evidence of thinking critically) in the classroom.

    I started thinking critically and philosophically long before getting into Singer or dealing with divine commands theory. It seems like you’re saying now that once we start teaching kids arithmetic, we’re going to have to start worrying about whether or not we can explain their questions in regard to finite math.

    If you’re in 6th grade, and I want to start training you in the ways of critical thinking, and applying philosophic rigor to your methods, this is not to say that I’m starting out with the issues you’re bringing up. How Singer deals with racism is not going to affect my notion that I should teach kids not to be racist. I’m going to teach my children not to be racist, and I might not introduce them to Singer long after the fact that I hope they’ve learned not to be racist.

    Again, I’m not seeing the leap. And I’m really trying hard to avoid being obtuse (which might not be obvious. I grant that I might seem obtuse to you). When you start teaching math, you don’t start teaching the toughest math right off the bat. You don’t even assume that all of the children you’re teaching arithmetic to are ever going to enjoy trig, but you still teach them arithmetic.

    The bonus that would come along with people reaching early adulthood and having some idea about what it means to think critically surely outweighs whatever awkwardness would also ensue. And besides this, I don’t think racism could take a foothold amongst people who were taught to think critically.

    Thanks for your response.

  16. Hi Michael,

    “How Singer deals with racism is not going to affect my notion that I should teach kids not to be racist.”

    Learning philosophy involves learning to think for oneself, not to unquestioningly absorb orthodoxy. So the object of the exercise should emphatically NOT be to “teach kids not to be racist”.

    Instead, the idea should be to get them to ask — and attempt to answer for themselves — such questions as:

    - What is racism?

    - Is it wrong?

    - If it is wrong, what makes it wrong?

    Of course no individual philosopher (such as Singer) need be mentioned, but those questions would surely have to be asked if anyone hopes to do anything like philosophy.

    Personally, I think most children have naturally questioning, hypothesising minds already, and the best adults can do is let them think for themselves rather than coaching them in “correct” ways of thinking, which is all “philosophy in schools” is likely to amount to.

  17. Thanks to all for commenting. Do keep your thought coming.

    A number of interesting points raised, I found Grace Robinson’s insights especially interesting.

    Amos you do get a gold star for discussing Alasdair MacIntyre’s comment that “to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought … to be one of our educational aims.”

    I just thought I’d take the opportunity to draw readers’ attention to a piece in the TPM from April of last year, “Get ‘em while they’re young” – “20 years on from the introduction of philosophy in British primary schools, Brooke Lewis looks at how the subject is faring.” Its here:

  18. s. wallerstein (ex amos)


    It sounds great from the article. You have a highly motivated, skilled teacher and a group of receptive, bright students.

    However, in imagining the results of any educational method or technique or project, you have to factor in the fact that not all teachers are highly motivated and not all students are receptive and bright.

    You would think that teaching something as objective and dry as English grammar and punctuation would be as standard as driving a bus on a fixed route, but actually, the results of different grammar teachers vary according to their personality, their motivation, etc. and the climate in the classroom.

    Teaching philosophy seems even trickier than teaching grammar, more dependent on a subtle chemistry between the teacher and the students, a chemistry which can work in favor of opening a dialogue or of producing intellectual deadness and mutual hostility.

  19. Scruton’s appeal to Aristotle rests on the unjustified assumption that the ability to reason and think critically, and the ability to do so with specifically philosophical questions, are not themselves skills which require habituation to develop and refine. Moreover, a focus on rote learning doesn’t seem to have to exclude a concern for other kinds of learning.

    I’ve taught traditional ‘academic’ philosophy in schools and universities, the more exploratory, methodogical approach of Sapere’s model of P4C, and critical thinking. My experiences with 11 to 14 year olds doing the P4C were illuminating; after repeated practice in discussion and taking time to think and asking questions to fruitfully pursue a line of reasoning there were 30-40 minute discussions on the nature of liberty and of moral responsibility and the meaning of religious claims. They practiced the skills, and their ability and confidence increased. This is anecdotal; but if this and further evidence supported the claim that these outcomes are consistent, I’d be curious to see what arguments could be used to deny that such outcomes are a good reason to do philosophy in schools.

  20. I don’t mean to defend Scruton’s position here. My argument is much simpler. Philosophy is a “special” subject, quite unlike any other. Teachers and learners of philosophy have to be approximate equals. This situation cannot exist between adults and children. To learn philosophy, you have to do philosophy; to do philosophy you have to think freely; to think freely you have to be able to talk and disagree freely. But children in a classroom are not (and up to a point should not) be allowed to talk or disagree as freely as they must to do anything like philosophy.

    The impression that children in classrooms are learning philosophy is largely illusory. That illusion is so compelling I think it deserves separate comment.

    Most professions have unique dangers and temptations. For example, a therapist gets money and affirmation from sick people, so to some extent it is in a therapist’s interest to keep people sick rather than to help them get well. A good therapist will be aware of this temptation and try to resist it.

    Teaching too has its attendant dangers. A familiar problem is the urge to demonstrate how much I know already rather than to bring students to learn new things. We might call that “narcissism”. Another problem is that we often encourage the learning of something other than the subject we are charged with teaching. We might call that “nannying”.

    Philosophers ought to be aware of their own weakness for both narcissism and nannying, and to be aware that both dangers are heightened when teaching children. That’s because no adult can regard a child as an equal – and many adults assume that children are suitable material for “moulding” to their own moral, political or metaphysical views.

    For example, most adults will have the urge to “teach children not to be racist” instead of helping them to reflect in a philosophical way on race, which would necessarily involve allowing them to entertain racist views, which of course all decent people rightly disapprove of.

    Adults cannot allow that sort of thing, especially in a school setting, so the best they can do is teach something other than philosophy. Most apparent successes in teaching philosophy are instead successes in moulding children to express the teacher’s views. These may be entirely worthy and admirable views, but this is a disaster for philosophy.

    I mentioned racism above, but much the same would apply to allowing (or not allowing) children to entertain other controversial views, such as views sympathetic to (or hostile to) creationism or evolutionary theory. Legal issues may be involved, which inhibit still further the extent to which children are allowed to think freely, or to think aloud in a classroom.

  21. Amos,

    I’ve had trouble finding any negative anecdotal stories regarding philosophy in primary schools and quite a few anecdotal pieces have appeared in the press over the last few years. (Of course it is unlikely people will be invited in to witness and report on classroom disasters right enough.) Philosophy in early schools at the moment probably is in the hands of a few dedicated and enthusiastic teachers. Presumably the in-class discussions do not affect grades and the children either have a good teacher guiding their education as a whole who do this with them or they are being taken by specialised staff away from the ordinary class for a an hour or two a week. In the latter case, the kids may well be enjoying the break from their demoralised, overworked, underpaid ‘general’ teacher and indeed the tedium of maths, spelling and grammar. (I remember the couple of hours of art being a welcome break from the constant maths and English taught and the frequently cruel teacher I was stuck with all week). If philosophy became a compulsory graded aspect of primary teaching, taught by general staff (who may not be particularly philosophical themselves) then, as you say, it may not prove to have the results across the board that are being presently reported.

  22. Zara,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    If empirical evidence backs up the outcomes you report as a consistent result of P4C for 11 -14 year olds, then arguments against doing philosophy in secondary schools *on the grounds that those outcomes are undesirable* would be rather predictable I think – though I don’t think they will tend to come from philosophers.

    Some parents and religious groups simply will not want their 11-14 year olds discussing ‘the meaning of religious claims’ or ‘nature of moral responsibility’ at school. They will want their view of the meaning of certain religious claims taught or at least for the religious beliefs they try to implant in their children not to be brought into question at school. (When the Institute of Public Policy Research recommended that schoolchildren should be encouraged to think critically about their religious beliefs a few years ago and this did not go down well in all quarters.)

    Presumably teachers will not be discussing the meaning of religious claims with primary school children, and I think many parents will not want the nature of moral responsibility ‘discussed’ at primary school either – they will want their idea of it instilled, and children taught to obey it. Many, I think, want moral education for their children – not ‘free’ discussions on ethics (if such a thing is possible between an adult a group of very young children). Presumably most parents will want moral discussions in primary schools to lead children to the ‘right’ answers. Parents may not want their young children coming to conclusions that are fine for adults but not necessarily for the very young such as stealing and lying are permissible/obligatory in some circumstances, and they may not want certain orthodoxies questioned.

    Personally I’m sympathetic to the idea of encouraging philosophical reflection and critical thinking in young children and I think this much can be done without running into issues such as the above. Whether philosophy as a subject can and should be taught before secondary school seems a different matter – it all rather depends on what people mean by ‘philosophy’ here (I think that philosophy for young children will, rather obviously, be rather different from academic philosophy as it is studied by young adults). Further clarification of what the 50 signatories envisage philosophy for young children to involve would be helpful. I suspect this may be something that comes up at TPM in the next while.


    ‘Plato for primaries’

    What is the meaning of life when you’re six? asks Jonathan Wolff

  24. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Intelligent nannying is ok.

    Children arrive at school, already nannied and indoctrinated by the television, by internet,
    by their parents, by mass society. In general, none of the above base their nannying on reasons.

    A good teacher may be a Marxist, a Thomist, a liberal, a utilitarian, a Kantian, a skeptic, a Spinozist: it does not matter.

    What matters is that the child is exposed to reasoned arguments.

    Listening to a reasoned set of ideas awakens a response in an intelligent child or youth or adult.

    His or her dialectical response to a reasoned set of arguments will be to disagree; and that disagreement should be listened to and not repressed by any good teacher.

    After listening to the child’s response to his or her reasons, the teacher should then give counter-reasons. All of this is obvious to the readers of this blog.

    Thus, the child practices philosophy or at least critical reasoning.

    I recall the incredibly strong impression that meeting D.H. made upon me as a young man. D.H. was the first person whom I had ever met or perhaps to whom I had ever paid attention who gave reasons for everything he said or was capable of giving reasons for everything he said.

    I had never realized that it was possible to give reasons for everything that one says.

    Little did it matter D.H.’s philosophical school or ideological tendency. From him I learned to reason about my life in a systematic way.

    By his example, from his example.

    Thus, it hardly matters if the teacher nannys, as long as his or her nannying stimulates reasoning.

    Now, nannying may also lead many students to blind conformity, but those students are probably already condemned to a life of conformity.

  25. One can learn some philosophy from reasoned attempts to persuade, but only if both parties are presumed equals, at least in the context. That cannot be the case between adult teachers and children in a classroom.

    It’s often a good thing if a child is persuaded of something — such as that racism is morally wrong or that creationism is factually mistaken, say — but the act of persuasion by someone with greater powers is not the teaching of philosophy.

    In addition to recent calls for the teaching of philosophy in schools, there have also been calls for the banning of creationism in schools. As a committed Darwinian, I can see why. However, good though that may be for the teaching of biology, it is inimical to the teaching of philosophy.

    Philosophy requires a “sifting humour” (as Hume called it) in which we “turn things on all sides” and consider the merits and demerits of opposed positions, including those of our opponents. An adult teacher might conceivable allow children to consider the merits of phlogiston theory, say, but no adult teacher will (or possibly should) allow children to consider the merits of racism. That’s for adults only.

  26. “An adult teacher might conceivable allow children to consider the merits of phlogiston theory, say, but no adult teacher will (or possibly should) allow children to consider the merits of racism. That’s for adults only.”

    Of course there are other topics.

    Questions they are now asking the children in primary school:

    Is it possible to think of nothing?
    Is the universe infinite?
    Is the mind and brain the same thing? (Used with Year 1 upwards!)
    Would a prisoner who has everything he wants and has no desire to leave the prison be free? (Paraphrase)
    If you and I swapped brains where would you be? (Paraphrase)
    Is it better to be an unhappy boy or a happy pig?

    (Example Philosophy Shop Questions used with primary age children)

    Is it beyond the wit of those trained in such things to facilitate a conversation about on such topics without imposing a correct answer on anybody? I’m not convinced it is. And I’m not sure just how much Socratic midwifery goes on in universities.

  27. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    I recall having good conversations with young students (around age 11)
    on the subjects:

    can computers think?

    what is my self?

  28. Hi Amos,

    I have been reading into this and spoken to a few people involved now too. It is being pushed by people with experience of doing this in schools. Whilst I can appreciate concerns about how it might work out in the hands of a bad or untrained teacher, they do seem to have techniques developed to facilitate philosophical discussions suitable for children and to be getting good results.

    There’s actually a lecture going on tonight about what universities can learn from the teaching of philosophy in schools,

  29. Jim wrote:

    “I’m not sure just how much Socratic midwifery goes on in universities.”

    Not much in philosophy classes, I would agree. Maybe some occurs between philosophy students, in the pub, etc., where everyone is assumed to be an adult and an approximate equal.

    All teaching of philosophy is corrupted by the assumption that good philosophers should be “activists”. At least a fair proportion of (nominally) adult students can reject that. But I wonder how children can deal with it.

  30. “All teaching of philosophy is corrupted by the assumption that good philosophers should be “activists”. At least a fair proportion of (nominally) adult students can reject that. But I wonder how children can deal with it.”

    Who has the assumption good philosophers should be “activists”? Who holds it, what do they mean by it, and how do they think that their activism should affect their ‘teaching’ duties (if they have any)?

    JH: “I’m not sure just how much Socratic midwifery goes on in universities.”

    JB: Not much in philosophy classes, I would agree. Maybe some occurs between philosophy students, in the pub, etc., where everyone is assumed to be an adult and an approximate equal.

    Okay, so children in primary schools – unlike students at university – actually appear to be engaging in some semblance of real dialogue with their peers during their actual ‘teaching’.

    University students, get lectures (along with a few hours of tutorials that are rarely the Socratic ideal) and on the basis of what they are *taught* they *may* actually engage in real philosophical discussion outside the academy. Inside the academy they are given exams you can cram for, and many will go through their philosophy degrees learning the arguments and regurgitating them in order to get a degree that is merely a means to an end.

    It is possible to look into what they actually seem to be trying to do for young children in schools rather than make assumptions, from the armchair about it ‘must’ amount to. If you do look into the matter, and compare what they seem to be doing in primary schools, with what they seem to continue to do at universities, I’m not sure who come out best, if what you value is meaningful philosophical dialogue.

  31. It seems to me that almost everybody one meets in life they will be found have a viewpoint about something, or in the more philosophical person, about many things. It does not matter much as to what it is about, how valid or invalid it sounds, it is life as they see it. For this reason I claim that everybody is philosophical. Even the person who says he has no use for philosophy has made a philosophical point. Just ask him why, and you are immediately engaged in a philosophical discussion. Some people are better at philosophy than others, take training in it, and sometimes teach it. If you look at the great diversity of subjects discussed on this blog you will see that opinions flood in. One could say philosophers have their noses into everything.
    Children are not exempt from expressing opinions and for this reason they should be encouraged to explain and express, making an attempt to justify what they say. A respect for the view of others can be encouraged and so far as is possible attempts should be made by the teacher to proceed to a healthy debate. Hopefully a critical appraisal of one’s own views can be inculcated into children, to admit one is wrong is to learn something, They will learn in due course that catch phrases and terms of abuse have no part in healthy discussion. With very young children barely of school age, what I suggest can only be employed in a most rudimentary way. What is hoped is that eventually the children will become adults who can think coherently and critically, and express their views in the best way that their innate abilities permit. A gradual passage from the basis I have outlined above can be made to teaching Philosophy in school as we understand it academically.
    So far as Rote learning is concerned, it appears that the Human brain is structured such that learning by rote is possible and profitable and to spurn this or deny it to children is to go against the course of human nature and to neglect developing a certain mental capacity to its optimum level. At school we were taught multiplication tables by rote by about the age of eight or nine I knew them all up to 12. My own children deprived of rote learning were at those ages still fiddling with their fingers looking into the distance before with little confidence they suggested that six times seven could be forty two. Passages of poetry were never set for learning and thus they never learnt any. Poetry is difficult, personally I found that is was often after some years I understood a passage learnt by rote properly. Had I not been made to learn it by rote I would not have bothered. Learn by rote if applicable and you will eventually see the reason and logic afterwards it will dawn on you, so often to learn from first principles is near on impossible for some, as I found when learning The differential calculus.
    I am wondering what Certainties Scruton thinks we should teach children. I can’t think of any. “The Problems of Philosophy” By Bertrand Russell opens with the words “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? Sounds like a good question for say nine year olds.

  32. Drill and Skill: Progressive educators are wrong to think that rote learning stifles creativity. Roger Scruton, The Sunday Times, 2001:

    “Children write poetry before they have memorized a single line of it …. Grammar, spelling and punctuation are downgraded in the interests of creative self-expression … it is obvious even to educationists that you can be a creative genius in mathematics only if you have acquired the discipline of mathematical proof. They also recognize that chemistry taught with a régime of pure self-expression would soon degenerate into alchemy, just as ‘creative’ physics would be hard to distinguish from witchcraft. Why then do they think that things are so different in the case of language, history, and the arts? The answer is to be found in the long tradition of woolly thinking that began with Rousseau. On the one hand, educationists believe, there is the objective world of facts, and this we must explore through disciplined learning and the building of theories. On the other hand, there is the subjective world of opinions, feeling and artistic urges, to be explored through self-expression. Such thinking is contradicted by the obvious fact that self-expression is not innate but acquired. We do children a great wrong by withholding the discipline, the knowledge, and the store of examples that confer the art of self-expression. The anger of many young people now leaving school is the anger of the inarticulate….

    People who have learnt poetry by rote and who know how to com-pose the occasional sonnet may not revolutionize the consciousness of mankind as Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Baudelaire did. But they are likely to understand what those great writers were saying, are likely to live on a more exalted plane as a result of doing so, and are also able, through their life and example, to make a positive contribution to the great war against Dullness.”

  33. Jim asks:

    “Who has the assumption good philosophers should be “activists”? Who holds it, what do they mean by it, and how do they think that their activism should affect their ‘teaching’ duties (if they have any)?”

    Hmm… How about any of the 50 “noted figures” who signed the letter that prompted this conversation?

    I call “activists” people who don’t just have moral/political opinions of their own and try to persuade others of their views, but go further by taking action – perhaps by using force, or invoking their status as presumed “experts” to persuade, or whatever.

    I don’t think activism is always wrong, but I don’t think anyone can be an activist and a philosopher at the same time. Philosophy requires an epistemic modesty that I think rules activism out.

    In many contexts the word ‘armchair’ is appended to the name of a profession to express disdain for a lack of hands-on experience. For example, an “armchair cartographer” would be someone who hasn’t gone out into the field to do the things map-makers should do. An “armchair brain surgeon” would be someone who hasn’t operated on brains. And so on.

    But I would argue that philosophy is different from those professions, and that the appropriate “theatre of operations” for a philosopher is the armchair itself. Why? – The most influential philosophical ideas are generally a bit “nutty” and immodest. For example, consider Berkeley’s idea that there is no such thing as matter, or Descartes’ radical scepticism. The proponents of such ideas tend to overlook how hypothetical they are, and indeed how untestable they are. Because philosophical hypotheses have an “a priori” flavour, they can seem dangerously “undeniable” to those who hold them. And activism enters the picture when philosophers lose sight of the fact that their speculations are “long shots”.

    The one philosopher who was aware of the true nature of his own “abstruse reasonings”, to his credit, was David Hume. He realised that his own philosophical speculations were just that, and that they come into conflict with everyday activities guided by common sense. With mitigated scepticism, and due modesty, he let common sense take priority.

    Hume’s attitude is unfashionable nowadays, and “armchair philosophers” are despised as being somehow inauthentic – like “armchair cartographers” or “champagne socialists”. Personally, I think that is a great mistake. Philosophers are not moral experts, any more than celibate priests are experts on sex or family relationships. I would argue that the quality of academic philosophy has suffered from a lack of due modesty, and a tendency to assume the traditional “guiding” role of churchmen.

  34. JH: “Who has the assumption good philosophers should be “activists”? Who holds it, what do they mean by it, and how do they think that their activism should affect their ‘teaching’ duties (if they have any)?”

    JB: Hmm… How about any of the 50 “noted figures” who signed the letter that prompted this conversation? … I don’t think anyone can be an activist and a philosopher at the same time. Philosophy requires an epistemic modesty that I think rules activism out.”

    That Philosopher A strongly agrees with a given cause and signs his name to it in a public letter does not mean he thinks “all good philosophers should be activists.” A may perfectly well agree that there are outstanding philosophers who take no part in ‘activism’ of any kind (even if thinks being a good person sometimes obliges you to speak out). What he may also agree with, and this is rather more pertinent, is that such ‘activism’ should stay outside the tutorial room.

    The Philosophy in Schools campaign is unlikely to involve taking action using force. As for philosophers writing in ‘activist’ mode dropping in phrases like ‘philosophy can show us this’ and so on when it sodding well doesn’t, that personally annoys me very much indeed.

    As for the claim that no philosopher should ever be an ‘activist’ – that they should have sufficient epistemic modesty not to show public support for campaigns against wars, torture, environmental destruction or the improvement of the education of the young, that they should be ‘above politics’ in the way some think the Queen should be. If somebody else wants to run with you on that as a new topic of conversation on this thread that’s fine. But supposing I agreed with you, this has no bearing on the question of whether philosophy should be taught in schools. And that Philosopher B is ‘wrongly’ an activist outside the classroom does not mean he brings his activism into the classroom. It seems he might be able to teach metaphysics or encourage discussion of metaphysics perfectly well during the daytime even if he is an activist for the environment or communism at night and there is some impropriety to that.

    Armchairs are fine, but sometimes there are matters of fact you can go and check. Making no effort to find out what x is and arguing what it ‘must’ be is just being foolish. Often you don’t even have to leave your armchair to do it, if you have a laptop.

  35. JH:
    ‘That Philosopher A strongly agrees with a given cause and signs his name to it in a public letter does not mean he thinks “all good philosophers should be activists.”’

    Doesn’t it suggest Philosopher A assumes philosophy and activism don’t pull in opposite directions? I’m suggesting Philosopher A may have missed something.

    ‘The Philosophy in Schools campaign is unlikely to involve taking action using force’

    You must have gone to a better school than me! (But really all I meant was that a philosophical discussion in a classroom is importantly attenuated in the range of reasons its participants can appeal to, because in a classroom some ideas cannot be mentioned. In that context, some reasons are “out of bounds”. In my understanding of philosophy, NO ideas are “out of bounds”, although some actions are. This is a “campaign” remember!)

    “As for the claim that no philosopher should ever be an ‘activist’ – that they should have sufficient epistemic modesty not to show public support for campaigns against wars, torture, environmental destruction or the improvement of the education of the young, that they should be ‘above politics’ in the way some think the Queen should be.”

    But I didn’t say that. My point is not that philosophers should be more like the Queen but that they should be less like priests. No one can be an activist or “guardian of society’s morals” and a philosopher at the same time. I think that’s obvious, for example, in the case of Quine’s letter to The Times aimed at blocking Derrida’s honorary degree. Quine was a great philosopher, but he was an activist and not a philosopher when he signed that letter.

    I’m 100% in favour of philosophers expressing their opinions in public. What I’m not in favour of is appeals to authority instead of reasons. Appeals to position, name, reputation, professional standing, etc. make my flesh creep, and they’re not philosophy.

    When letters to newspapers are signed by a collection of “notable figures”, they go beyond individuals expressing their opinions and defending them with mere reasons. They are trying to press ideas with more than mere “reasons”.

    I’m sorry if you think I’m staying off topic, but priests have corrupted schools, and academic philosophers are quite capable of doing the same. (That last sentence spoken as an activist, by the way!)

  36. Jeremy,

    If you want to say that when Professors Blackburn and Grayling signed their names to the petition they were exercising their rights as persons, but were not acting in their capacity as philosophers that’s fine. If you feel they were making “appeals to position, name, reputation, professional standing, etc” and were pressing ideas with more than “reasons” that’s a claim you’re free to make. But those are claims about, or objections to, their campaigning not the end they campaign for.

    The relevance of your claim about there being a wrong and common assumption that “good philosophers should be activists” to this conversation was that it makes teaching philosophy to children problematic, because children cannot ‘deal’ with that assumption whilst adults can reject it. Even if there were such an assumption, which I doubt, this does not in any obvious way argue against children having philosophical discussions in schools. Philosophy teachers like other teachers should leave their political agendas at the school gates. In a classroom there are indeed many ideas that cannot be mentioned. But, as I tried to indicate earlier, there are a great many metaphysical ideas and puzzles that can be fully and freely discussed without causing any problems. If you think the fact that children are and should not be free to discuss the morality of racism, argues against allowing them the opportunity of having philosophical discussions about personal identity or the nature of the relationship mind and body then I am rather at a loss.

    “Priests have corrupted schools, and academic philosophers are quite capable of doing the same.”

    I simply don’t accept that those who whose job it is to facilitate philosophical dialogue about the Ship of Theseus pose the risk posed by members of religious orders – the job of the latter being, by force of authority, to indoctrinate children into believing in the truth of unpleasant fairy tales. And I don’t think a petition by a group of philosophers will determine education policy. All it can do is draw attention to the educational methods and techniques that have been used with some apparent success and encourage those who make these who make these decisions to look into the matter. It seems worth mentioning that the signatories are involved in the actual projects on the ground or have at least seriously looked into what is being done – they are not merely random philosophers who signed this petition on a whim.

    I can’t condemn anybody for straying off-topic. I have diverted many a thread. And usually I’d have much more time to go down the many avenues of interesting discussion available here. But I am, unusually, constrained by time and I just wanted to keep clear on which of your ideas – many of which others may well wish to pursue – are pertinent to the question of whether teaching philosophy in schools is or is not a good idea. I am, of course, quite happy to see this thread stray onto other matters, though I must myself focus on other things.