OPINION:THE RADICAL changes to junior cycle education announced by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn are heartening and long overdue.
One of the proposed changes is that students will be able to substitute two short courses for one full subject, allowing minority subjects to be taken. This is an ideal opportunity for another long overdue change to Irish education: the introduction of the study of philosophy to children.
A lot has been written about “the three ‘R’s” at the core of any school syllabus: reading, writing and arithmetic. There is also a fourth ‘R’ that for too long has been neglected: reasoning. A strong case can be made for introducing philosophy, or philosophical reasoning, as a new short course in the curriculum of all schools across Ireland, ideally at all levels in both primary and secondary school.
Over the last 30 years there have been a number of important research projects, in different parts of the world, aimed at showing that introducing school children of all ages to philosophy can have great benefits, including improving a child’s reading and mathematical skills.
The empirical evidence is overwhelming. Building on the pioneering work of Matthew Lipman at Montclair State University in New Jersey, there are now similar projects in Australia and across the European Union.
For a nation that prides itself for its long tradition of saints and scholars, it is surprising that when it comes to introducing philosophy into schools Ireland is lagging behind its European partners and global competitors.
Philosophy is the art of clarity and analytical rigour in thinking and reasoning. One of the most ancient branches of philosophy is logic, or critical thinking. Until recently philosophy was thought to be too difficult and uninteresting for children, but nothing could be further from the truth: many perennial issues are typically encountered by children as young as four or five. For example: when daddy and mummy tells me to be good, or that they love me, what do they mean? Why do I have to share? Where did grandpa go when he died? My doll is beautiful.
Children and adolescents are not only capable of doing philosophy but need it and appreciate it for the same reasons adults do. Children think and reflect on their thoughts. Like adults, children are engaged in a constant and tireless pursuit for meaning. Philosophy offers children the chance to explore ordinary but puzzling concepts. But most of all, philosophy can improve a child’s thinking. Philosophy helps children to make sense of the world around them, and their place in it.
Finally, by valuing their thoughts and reasoning, philosophy also empowers children and enhances their self-esteem and confidence.
Introducing philosophical reasoning in schools can also have other potential benefits. Ireland is becoming increasingly culturally diverse, and while this generates great benefits it also means the country is facing problems that include racism and religious intolerance. Philosophical reasoning may stimulate equitable exchange and dialogue among the future generation of Irish citizens, while engendering mutual understanding, respect and equal dignity of all peoples.
The proposed reform of the Junior Cert is a great opportunity to modernise education in the Irish schools. Perhaps the best way to be modern is to learn the ancient art of philosophy.
Vittorio Bufacchi is a lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork and the author of Social Injustice: Essays in Political Philosophy.