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.