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Philosophy should be taught in primary schools

Aaron ruminates on why he reckons the infamously lofty subject should be taught to younger children

I have recently graduated with a Philosophy degree. I loved every minute of it. I felt it stretched my mind, and my conception of the world, so I admit I may have some positive bias towards philosophy’s potential effects on people and society. This ‘pro-philosophy’ stance is a reaction to an education system where philosophy as a subject is completely discarded in most cases until (sometimes) it’s made optional for A-level. This means that most young people miss out on vital skills only regular philosophising can instil. It may seem like I’m putting a lot of weight on the power of a subject not even available to most school children, but I genuinely believe a widespread lack of philosophical nourishment is at least a part of the cause of some of the big issues our society faces.

A widespread lack of philosophical nourishment is at least a part of the cause of some of the big issues our society faces.

The most fundamental reason philosophy should be taught in primary schools is that it teaches us to question reality unlike any other subject in the current educational curriculum. A very simple example reflects this point. Hearing, seeing, tasting and feeling are our main ways that we collect data from the outside world, helping us to live our lives. I know, for example, not to jump out of the window on the fourth floor of a building through sensory data. Another thing my senses tell me is I am currently sitting still, in a café, typing on a laptop. But the earth is spinning on its axis at a rate of 10000 miles per hour whilst simultaneously travelling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. If this is true, which it is, what other things can’t our senses tell us about the world, or more worryingly, what do they get wrong? Suddenly, even our most basic beliefs about the world (such as ‘I am not moving’) are thrown into question.

Philosophy actually shows us how little we actually know about the world. This gives Philosophy students what I call an ‘open book’ mind-set – no theory or idea is cast aside. They understand that our beliefs are malleable, and should be flexible enough to change providing the right evidence is presented. Philosophy is the only curricular subject that clearly separates ‘what’ you should think from ‘how’ you should think. Spending more time on the latter can only help with the former – something sorely missing from our educational journey. In this way, I have come to believe that a distinct lack of philosophical nourishment in school means we are forming increasingly inflexible mindsets that struggle with concepts like empathy, reasoned discussion and originality.

We are forming increasingly inflexible mindsets that struggle with concepts like empathy, reasoned discussion and originality.

But don’t just take it from me – several projects across the world have recognised the ability of philosophy to provide us with vital skills in a way other disciplines can’t. Tenets of philosophical enquiry are independently useful, but they also applicable to other subjects, from physics and biology to politics and English. For example, ‘Philosophy in Schools NSW’, linked to the global ‘Philosophy For Children’ movement, identifies ‘making important distinctions, drawing relevant influences, using reliable criteria and seeking better alternatives’ as just a fraction of the attributes philosophy can provide. Indeed, a study done at Durham University confirmed that philosophy improves children’s ‘soft skills’ when taught at a young age, including team work and communication. The Independent has also picked up on philosophy’s ability to improve other areas, reporting an improvement in English and Maths in schools where it’s taught. It’s not impossible to learn these skills from other subjects – rather, the intense focus placed on them in Philosophy leads students to full understand them. Philosophy attends to the very basic skills that make other disciplines, and the information they entail, easier to digest.

Even if you’re willing to accept that philosophy should be taught before GCSE, some people are still averse to being taught in primary schools. ‘Philosophy is complicated enough to teach at A level, how do you expect children in primary school to wrestle with abstract concepts that regularly stump academically gifted teenagers?’ I hear people argue. But this is what a philosopher would call a ‘straw man’ argument – it attacks a point that is not being made. I am not suggesting we assign Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as homework for Year Fives. Instead we can take ‘classic’ philosophical problems and redesigning them in a way that’s engaging for young children. This is eaiser than it sounds. Take Giacomo Esposito’s recount in the Guardian in 2015: ‘Recently I was running a session about time travel. In response to the claim that “time is a feeling”, a 10-year-old boy thought hard for about a minute and then said: “Time is different for us than it is for the universe, because 100 years passes in a flash for the universe, but seems a long time to us … so time is a bit like a feeling.” Not only is this an incredible thought in its own right, but notice how it’s being presented as an argument for a certain position.’ Philosophy is as complicated and complex as any other subject at university level, but just like Science, English, Maths and History it has the ability to be carefully and creatively taught to children as young as six or seven. In a way, the younger you are, the more suited you are to practise it. The ‘open book’ mind set I mentioned previously is something we lose in adolescence, and is still very much alive in young children. Esposito deems philosophy, quite brilliantly, as ‘mental gymnastics’ – The earlier on you start practising, the more flexible and open your mind remains for life.

The ‘open book’ mindset I mentioned previously is something we lose in adolescence, and is still very much alive in young children.

I said that widely taught Philosophy could at a minimum remedy some of the problems we face in our society today. Unfortunately I do not have the time or the word count to explain my almost endless opinions on how the mass studying of philosophy by younger people could affect our relationship with social issues such as racism, sexism, the economy, politics and Brexit. So instead I will show how it can be applied to one of the most dangerous and ever-growing problems that we all face in 2019: mass media misinformation. We now live at a time often referred to as a ‘post truth era. Everything from exaggerations of truth to outright lies litter our social media newsfeeds, a web of infinite, inescapable fibs that cloud our judgement. ‘Fake news’, as everyone’s favourite tangerine coloured demagogue would call it, is everywhere. Newspapers, websites and TV shows are owned by oligarchs pushing specific narratives onto impressionable populations. So much of what we read now is at least to some extent fabricated that it is impossible for an average person to sift through.

Two years ago, I thought there was no way to fight against it. But then in my third year of university, I got involved in an analysis project that ‘fact checks’ news based on a philosophical code that incorporates concepts such as bias, justification and truth. The creator of this project, a PhD philosophy student, made me face up to the reality that mass media organisations aren’t going to do anything to help us – they don’t care whether our beliefs are based on truth or not. His idea was to give people the mental tools to assess the media landscape themselves. What tools are they? Philosophical ones. Deeper understandings of what ‘justification’ and ‘truth’ really mean. The importance of scepticism. The right criteria on which to change your mind. Acute awareness of bias. Only these philosophical ideas paired with the right philosophical analysis can let us truly think independently and conquer an increasingly sinister media age on a non-institutional basis.

Maybe I am just a bit of a cheerleader for a subject I enjoyed. There’s probably a little bit of bias in there – and I’m happy to admit that. However, regardless on your opinions on how enjoyable philosophy might be, I feel it is evident that it is good for young people and indeed for society. When a subject has been proven to mentally stretch us in ways others academic disciplines don’t, improve skills of children in other subject areas and hold the key to tackling deep rooted problems like media misinformation, it seems only logical and practical to start incorporating it into the initial stages of learning, through to A-level and beyond.

What’s your take? Do you think we should be trying to open our little one’s minds with philosophy? Leave a comment and let us know.