Reaching out philosophically from the university

By way of introduction to Second Thoughts, it seems appropriate to launch our blog with something about how we come to be doing philosophy with children, and what as philosophers we get out of it. I will start here from my own experience.

Between 2005 and 2016 I developed outreach philosophy sessions for school-aged students in association with my ongoing role as a teacher at Lancaster University. For a lot of that time I was lucky enough to do this in collaboration with my colleague Miffy, and more recently also with Faye. The work was funded by a variety of agencies including the former National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, the North-West Excellence Hub, AimHigher and Excellence in Cities schemes, the Higher Education Academy, the Lancaster Alumni, and latterly the university’s Student Recruitment and Outreach Office, as well as by the schools themselves. Uptake was always encouraging, and some 70 schools (both state and independent) from across the North-West had been involved in the programme over the period up to last year when the university – responding to perverse incentives too boring even to mention, except that they propelled us into forming Second Thoughts – suddenly ceased to fund it.

Our approach to work in schools had always been eclectic, informed both by the ‘philosophy for children‘ methodology and by experience of academic teaching. So sessions explored key philosophical issues through age-appropriate activity and discussion, but also through introducing classic philosophical figures and writings as appropriate. With younger students (top primary to Years 7 or 8) we would raise odd or surprising conceptual questions – could your pet be your best friend? what does it really mean to be brave or fair? what makes you you?… With a top primary class, for instance, we might explore the idea of fairness by prompting them to discuss and vote on different ways to divide up a stache of sweets – including various kinds of lottery, the rewarding of merit and even the meeting of need (“I‘m thin so I should get more!”), as well as the one sweet each with which they eventually end up.

For older students at Key Stage 3, and at Key Stage 4 and above, we essentially extended the Citizenship curriculum by addressing the concepts behind topical political, moral and social issues. An extract or clip from Lord of the Flies could introduce survivor-group role-play (suitably moderated) demonstrating how a community needs rules and laws if it is to escape the Hobbesian state of nature. With older students, visiting an American website offering the chance to clone your pet could provoke sharp debate about the ethics of new genetic technologies. A critical discussion of Al Gore‘s film An Inconvenient Truth (even more topical now that both climate change and truth have become so inconvenient in the US) could open up Humean questions about knowledge and scientific prediction, as well as ethical questions about our relations to the future, in a real and urgent policy context. We’ve also done occasional similar sessions with adults, from a ‘silver surfers’ post-retirement programme, to drop-in shop-front philosophical discussion in Lancaster City Centre. We had built up by last year what is now a rich, varied and extensive menu of such activities.

Involvement of university philosophy students had always been a key feature of this work. The methods just outlined evidently depend heavily on small-group work, to ensure the involvement of all the children in getting to grips with challenging, complex and open-ended topics, and this needs teaching assistants as group facilitators. We deliberately promoted that work to students, and more widely as a potential component of the student philosophy experience at Lancaster, because of its educational value for the students themselves. Nor are we just guessing at that value. Some ten years ago we were funded by the Higher Education Academy to run a small-scale study to identify the benefits of helping with the programme as perceived both by the students themselves and by their lecturers and seminar tutors. I reported on this in a paper for the HEA’s journal Discourse (Volume 7, No.1). In brief, we found that participating students identified two distinct though related strands of benefit to their studies. The first was that helping school pupils to find their way through philosophical topics had required them actively and critically to revisit their own prior acquaintance with these topics. (“I had to make my own thought a lot clearer…which helped me to be clearer in seminars and essays”) and had sometimes involved helping pupils recognise that “there isn’t always a right answer”. The second was a real pleasure in what might be called the rediscovery of philosophical innocence, of first-hand philosophical engagement:

The children aren’t weighed down by preconceived philosophical theories.”

They came up with obvious points I wouldn’t have thought of.”

It made me realise that philosophy doesn’t need to be unfathomable”.

These last comments in particular point to an aspect of the experience of university philosophy which it is easy for those used to it to overlook. The discipline as offered to university (or indeed many A-level) students is typically so text-based, and teaching material moves so quickly from an exposition of the issues in a given area to tracing the arguments of the classic writers and their contemporary commentators, that any fresh first-hand encounter with philosophical problems can very rapidly be left behind. It is this lost freshness of vision and response which student participants in our outreach work were so clearly relishing in the school-kids, and enjoying by proxy in working with them.

This helps to remind us that for all involved, philosophy isn’t (or shouldn’t be) something to which that fresh, first-hand, essentially innocent encounter with its perennial problems is optional. Philosophical questions are not a set of research problems which, after two millennia of trying, might still be solved by one last, heroic intellectual heave. Rather, issues like free will and determinism, the mind-body problem, the distinction between appearance and reality or the nature of ethical obligation – the puzzles which arise at the inevitable crunches of agency or personhood or knowledge or morality – are nodes of the kind of deep learning about ourselves, about the fundamentals of the human condition, which comes from probing at the limits of our understanding. Philosophical problems are not there to be solved at all – that’s a mistake based on a false analogy from the sciences. They are there to be kept fresh in our experience as sources of wonder, intellectual humility, the stimulus to clarity and precision and the courage always to go on questioning.

That’s for me, and I think for all of us in Second Thoughts, the real excitement of philosophy in schools and why we’re so committed to going on doing it.