Why students are turning to philosophy
More and more young people are choosing to study philosophy at A-level and university. Claire Smith finds out why - at a time when job prospects are so important - teenagers are turning to Plato, Kant and Hume
Thursday 04 May 2006
Philosophy is like thinking, only louder". The posters on the walls of Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire are working. With more than 200 students signed up for this year's AS and A-level philosophy, Farnborough is the UK's biggest philosophy centre. But it's not the only school where questions about life, the universe and everything are gaining momentum.
Over the past six years, the number of annual A-level philosophy candidates in England and Wales has doubled - up to 2,459 in 2005 - while in Scotland, where the philosophy Higher exam was only introduced in 2000, candidates have tripled - up to 800 across 87 centres.
It may have something to do with Alain de Botton's TV series on how to lead the good life. It is certainly ironic that philosophy is growing in popularity at a time when the Government is calling for vocational-style education, and the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Sir Digby Jones, says it's "employability" that must be at the heart of our studies, that the subject with probably the fewest job prospects is on the rise.
"I think the director-general of the CBI would be challenged by some of the thinking and discussions going on in our A-level philosophy classes. Probably humbled," says Dr John Guy, Farnborough Sixth Form College's principal. Perhaps. After all, if philosophy is thinking, only louder, it's probably the one subject that is useful for all professions, from driving buses to governing the country.
But isn't this the "dumbed down" generation? We frequently hear that all teenagers are interested in nowadays is text messaging, reality television and celebrity culture. What's causing them to join Plato's army? Is the unexamined life not worth living after all?
"For a start, philosophy sounds sexy," says Jeanne Neal head of religious, moral and philosophical studies at Uddingston Grammar School in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where the philosophy students outnumber both the history and physics classes. "You're not saying this is the right answer, you have to learn this. We pick a philosopher and ask does it make sense? It's a less passive way of gaining knowledge, as opposed to just keeping them busy with a worksheet."
Plato would like that. "Nothing taught by force stays in the soul" he wrote in The Republic. And for 16-year-old Joanne McCue from Uddingston Grammar, it was precisely not being forced to do maths - philosophy is offered as an alternative - that made her give it a go. Now it's the classical texts that have got her hooked. "It allows you to see what other people saw and thought. And you have the freedom of being able to think for yourself. It's become my passion."
Not even Tony Blair with all his ambitions for education has dared to hope that a 16-year-old could become "passionate" about schoolwork. But McCue is not alone in her fervent enthusiasm. At Oban High School on the west coast of Scotland, the philosophy Higher, offered for the first time this year, was so popular - 49 applied - they had to cherry pick students based on their English marks to create a class of 30. For next year they plan to double the size of the class and offer it at Standard grade (GCSE level). Even head teacher Linda Kirkwood jokes about wanting to sign up.
What made them decide to add it to the curriculum? "The old-style religious and moral education course had become tired and jaded. Only seven students signed up last year," says teacher John Carrey. "We thought that with the age we live in, philosophy would broaden their understanding of important issues within the world."
As part of moral philosophy, students discuss crime and punishment, euthanasia and with poignant relevance, just war. "They talk about George Bush. They ask, is this man sane? Is he a good president? And they link it in to the conflict in Iraq," says Carrey. "We don't have to raise the topics, the kids raise them."
For Craig Hobbs, 16, this is a key part of his education: "It's very important now, with war a modern issue, that you know where you stand and can analyse the ideas that are out there. Especially with politics. You need to know what kind of morals politicians have when they are making their decisions."
Tony Blair will be glad to hear that. He's not shy to tell the nation that Christian theology is at the foundation of his decision-making. Though he might not be so glad to hear that arguments for - and more often, against - the existence of God, are the other hot topic in the classroom.
For some it's given them ammunition to fuel their own atheism. "I didn't believe that there was a God, but I didn't have anything to base it on," says Nick Tingle, 17, a student at Farnborough College. "The metaphysics course helped me come to my own conclusions."
For others, it's helped them have a pluralistic view of religion. "I believe there is some kind of God," says Paul Addison, 16, from Oban High. "But I realised what I think of as God might not be what somebody else thinks of as God."
And what's more, it's not just giving them insight into the bigger picture, but also into their own lives.
Smithycroft Secondary in the east end of Glasgow is next door to Barlinnie, the infamous "Bar-L", one of Scotland's toughest prisons. Drug abuse and gang violence are part of daily life in this part of the city, and yet many students prefer to spend their afternoons in the philosophy club. Philosophy teacher, Ernie Salveta, started the club with council funding over six years ago, to give smarter students something to do in the afternoons. He reeled them in by showing films like The Matrix, Hollywood's take on Descartes Evil Demon argument - the idea that the whole world might be an illusion caused by an evil demon that has control of your mind.
"It brings up questions that are relevant to them, like 'are we free to make choices about our lives?'" says Salveta. Now part of the Highers curriculum, it's not just the smart students who are signing up. "The less academic thrive in this atmosphere of being able to express themselves," says Salveta. "They begin to see that they have opinions and they are valid and valued. It boosts their self-esteem."
Student Graeme Denham, 17, believes philosophy has helped him outside of school. "It makes me think a lot more about things before I take action. It makes you think more about the consequences of your actions, and what they'll be like.
His classmate Sam Smylie, 17, also thinks it might go some way to helping students in this socially deprived area if it was taught at Standard Grade: "The majority of people at this school leave at 16. I think it would give younger people a better chance at thinking about things."
Plato, however, might not have agreed. He thought that young people would use the tools of argument to be contradictory just for the sake of it, and wanted to wait until his prospective philosophy kings were older before he armed them.
But Dr Gary Kemp, head of Glasgow University's philosophy department, reckons the younger it is taught, the better. "Philosophy is more accessible than people realise. People at that age are naturally curious, more open-minded and less cynical. Philosophy is a bridge-building subject. It will help them to be more reflective about their other subjects and how all their education fits together."
The only people who might not agree are their parents. Every student admitted that philosophy had made them better at arguing. "When you're arguing with your ma you tend to win more because you've got the skills," laughs Smylie. "They get quite annoyed because I can beat them in arguments now," admits Hobbs from Oban. Though by all accounts, their minds are also being expanded. "My mum used to think David Hume was just a guy she worked with," says Gary Nelson, 17, from Uddingston.
So are there any budding philosophers among them? A few. Though not Neil McIlvride from Uddingston Grammar. "It's a lazy job, that," he says "Come in at 12 o'clock every day and just sit and think." Perfect for teenagers, then.
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