Philosophy in the classroom? You Kant be serious

Kids can handle Plato, not just playdough: So argue two new documentaries on TV and radio

Rob Grant attends a classroom philosophy workshop: ‘We are all philosophers; we are just out of practice.’ Photograph: Future Visions

Rob Grant attends a classroom philosophy workshop: ‘We are all philosophers; we are just out of practice.’ Photograph: Future Visions

 

Typical! You wait for one radio or TV production on philosophy in schools, and then two come along together. As pupils traipse back to class for the new term, there is a timely reminder of what they’re missing – intellectually speaking – on both Newstalk and RTÉ this week.

As Dr Rob Grant explains in the first episode of Future Visions – airing on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday, September 3rd – Irish students are world-beaters at regurgitating facts but, by the time we’ve done the Leaving Cert, “our ability to think for ourselves is severely damaged”.

Grant, a teaching assistant in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, who is also an eighth of the urban street funk act Stomptown Brass, says: “We are all philosophers; we are just out of practice”. More precisely, he argues, the Irish education system is hostile to critical thinking and for the programme he marshals a number of luminaries to hammer the point home.

“Where is the space for thinking? Where is the space for doubt?” asks UCD linguist Prof Mary Gallagher.

“Some of the best pedagogy can be defeated in a system that is simply drifting to an unfreedom,” says President Michael D Higgins in his own inimitable way.

While philosophy is a common subject at secondary level in several European countries, it is only now starting to gain a place on the Irish curriculum. An optional short course in philosophy introduced under the Junior Cycle reforms was being offered in just seven schools in the 2017-18 academic year. This rose to 13 schools in 2018-19, Department of Education and Skills figures show.

It is not some cute novel thing that is happening; it is people making sense of their experience

There are sprouts of activity, including the growth of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards, now in its third year, and local initiatives at schools around the country.

One example is the Central Model Senior School on Gardiner Street in Dublin’s inner city, which has been running workshops on philosophy and contemporary art for several years – belying the theory that such subjects are the preserve of brooding, poloneck-wearing college undergrads.

Enquiring Minds, a new radio documentary on Newstalk 106-108FM, follows a group of 10-year-olds in the school’s fourth class, exploring fundamental questions like “How can you trust what you can see?” or “Should you always tell the truth?”

“When you engage in philosophy for children it forces you to rethink your understanding of philosophy and rethink your understanding of children,” says project coordinator Dr Joe Oyler, a lecturer in teacher education at Maynooth University.

“It is not some cute novel thing that is happening; it is people making sense of their experience. And just because they are shorter, and have not been around as long, should not make a difference.”

Grant has been working with like-minded sages, including Senator Lynn Ruane, who studied philosophy at TCD, and Aislinn O’Donnell, a professor of education at Maynooth University, in trialling other outreach projects. Members of the group have run philosophy workshops in Mountjoy Prison and, earlier this year, community sessions were held in Rialto where two dozen locals turned up every Friday evening to talk about everything from ethics to existentialism.

“Because it does not obviously contribute to our economy, philosophy can appear to some like a self-indulgent or luxurious pursuit. But it’s actually quite the opposite,” says Grant.

“We all do philosophy every day when we question whether a statement is true or whether a decision is fair… If we were used to exploring these thoughts together from a young age maybe our public debates would be less aggressive.”

Future Visions, episode one, airs on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday, September 3rd at 11.25pm. Enquiring Minds, a Curious Broadcast production funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, airs on on Newstalk 106-108FM on Saturday September 7th at 9pm