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What philosophy can tell Davos about educating for a better future

Schooling doubt. Ethan Lofton, CC BY

What philosophy can tell Davos about educating for a better future

How do you create a generation that can think its way out of problems and face the challenges of a rapidly changing world? The Davos meeting this year is all about how we can cope with the immense challenges posed by the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – an era of rapid and complex technological change, where our role in the world is resting on shifting sands.

The next generation of workers will have to be properly equipped to meet these enormous challenges. I believe that, if well-taught and using high-quality materials, philosophy classes can grant children, in Britain and across the world, extraordinary benefits as that era unfolds.

I will be taking part in several panel discussions at the World Economic Forum 2016 at Davos and as part of this, I will be trying to convince the policy makers and power brokers at the Swiss ski resort that we must insert practical philosophy into the heart of schooling.

Through my roles in the British Philosophical Association and the Philosophy in Education project (PEP), I support the continuation of a philosophy A Level and the introduction of a philosophy GCSE. I would also like to see the introduction of at least a year – ideally many more – of non-examined philosophy classes for all children aged between seven and 14.

The range of ideas and arguments on offer in philosophy classes can show children that there are different ways of thinking and living than those immediately on offer in their own postcode. Philosophy is one of the main subjects which extends a child’s imaginative range of possible lives, and this is true for children from all socio-economic backgrounds.

We are not just products of our genetic inheritance and environment; reason can provide at least a partial way out – but only if reason is properly trained. The challenge is then to avoid circularity: is such a training only possible if one is lucky enough to go to a good school (or, in other words, is the development of reason in fact wholly dependent on one’s immediate environment after all)?

Opening doors. Klearchos Kapoutsis, CC BY-SA

This is true only up to a point. There are excellent materials widely available, including online. But children do at the very least need to be aware that such materials exist, that there are doors to open.

Questions of belief

Crucially, philosophy can provide children with a superb training in how to ask questions, analyse concepts, analyse and construct both inductive and deductive arguments and, in general, consider whether there are any good reasons to believe whatever it is they are being told. It helps them to develop good habits of reasoning and thinking for themselves.

This would suggest that philosophy might give children a better chance of resisting any attempts to brainwash them, whether from political or religious extremists, advertisers, or indeed teachers. It is difficult to find hard data on this as yet, but research from Britain’s Department for Education does speak of “reported impacts”.

This idea would seem to have informed a recent British Council paper on education and extremism. The education department’s own research in 2010 also suggested a link between philosophy teaching materials available from the group Philosophy for Children (P4C) and protection against indocrination. There is currently a working party exploring whether P4C is useful for the Prevent strategy, but I am not sure whether that specific question is necessarily the right one to be asking.

Teaching a way to leave the herd. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Philosophy classes pitched at the right level have the merit of being inclusive, whereas some have criticised the Prevent programme for being divisive. My point is that it is healthy for children to be encouraged to question and think for themselves – and philosophy is one of the subjects that is particularly good at this, irrespective of any particular agenda.

Rigour and flair

Philosophy hones both speaking and listening skills – and it fosters the ability to engage in robust yet respectful dialogue. It allows children to understand that you can disagree with someone without coming to blows and it encourages them to separate intellectual criticisms from personal attacks. It may therefore have a role to play in encouraging resilience and strength of character.

Both the clear, rigorous thinking and suppleness and flexibility of mind that philosophy requires and fosters will be key skills in a 21st-century workplace defined by constant innovation.

But, important though this is, philosophy does much more than train pupils for work. I believe that the activity of philosophy can in itself form one of the components of a flourishing life for children, both individually and collectively. This flourishing is not just a goal for their future adult selves, but also something that is important for them throughout their education.

Making happy grown-ups. Henrik Sandklef, CC BY-SA

As schoolchildren mature, philosophy can help them reflect on such issues as flourishing, happiness and pleasure and how they may (or may not) interrelate. Philosophy can thus help children work out their own life goals.

Encouraging doubt

Those at Davos who are concerned about how the future of education should look in this age of uncertainty can find solace in philosophy. It can help children understand that ethical decisions have always had to be made in conditions of uncertainty and that technological advances have not changed that (though they may have deceived us into thinking that life is more predictable than it is).

Philosophy can also help children develop conceptions of flourishing which can exist in uncertain times and it can help provide them with the mental agility and adaptability that uncertain times require. It is not excess of doubt that is currently causing so many problems around the world – quite the reverse.