Kids, Philosophy & Religious Objections

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” – Robin Williams (as John Keating), Dead Poets Society

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of philosophical education for children in schools, and was delighted to find this recent article written by Stephen Law, a philosopher at Heythrop College: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/religion-and-philosophy-in-schools.html

In this article Law defends the teaching of critical thinking skills to children against some common objections. What is most amazing to me is that we should have to defend the teaching of critical thinking skills at all. And yet there really are people – Law cites a popular British columnist and a leading Rabbi – who are very influential, should be intelligent, and yet who oppose it. Law points out that many religious people would be absolutely fine with such a programme of education, and yet (as I too find in my own research) those who oppose it are typically religious.

But let’s look at a few positives first. It’s my own view that philosophy is of such fundamental importance that we should consider it alongside traditional staples of education such as mathematics or English. At its most basic philosophy is about reasoning well about all manner of subjects – from every day run-of-the-mill issues to the big questions of life, existence, meaning and morals. It can help us to cut through nonsense and waffle, spot reasoning mistakes in the work of news reporters, journalists, politicians, and even teachers, as well as analyze complex concepts and entire worlds of thought. In a mini interview Guy Longworth, a philosopher at Warwick University, captures neatly the importance of philosophy: “Many important questions – including truths about morality, aesthetics, the very general structure of reality, and our relation to that reality – can be known, if at all, only through philosophy.”

I recently took an IQ test (130 if you’re interested, and even if not I’m bragging) which included questions that the vast majority of the population gets wrong, and yet in order to get them right all you need are basic reasoning skills – the sort that understands nothing more complex than modus ponens or modus tollens. Apparently the failure to spot elementary reasoning mistakes is widespread. I’m reminded of an article I read a number of years ago which reasoned that because most rapes were committed by men that therefore most men were inclined to be rapists. Quantifier shift fallacy. Logic 101. Of course, philosophers also make mistakes and propound invalid and unsound arguments (I’ve propounded a few myself), but rarely so glaring and basic, and are typically more willing to abandon (or able to correct) a poor argument when the mistake comes to light.

Reasoning skills are vital. Does anyone seriously suggest that a lack of reasoning skills is a useful thing? Is it a bad thing that children learn skills that will assist them in analyzing complex problems, read carefully, critically assess all kinds of ideas, and explore the big and most interesting questions of human existence? Is there some supposed problem with teaching children to express themselves with clarity and precision, or how to construct a solid case for something? Learning to think for oneself is an important part of maturity and intellectual growth, the skills for which can be taught from quite an early age. I routinely use Lego to explore philosophical topics with my 7 year old son – ranging from free will, to right and wrong, good and evil, and the existence of God (see my blog post here: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/category/lego/). And none of it goes over his head. Kids tend to respond incredibly well to philosophical issues and problems, and often display a creative intelligence and curiosity that, sadly, many adults have long since lost. Whilst some people claim that we run the risk of raising a bunch of argumentative brats, I would argue that when properly taught philosophy should increase one’s levels of intellectual humility. After all, in philosophy we’ll see incredibly intelligent opponents stating their case, we’ll come to appreciate that even seemingly obviously wrong positions aren’t quite as silly as they look at first, and that when dealing with ultimate questions the answers are rarely straightforward.

The strength of philosophy as a discipline is well known. For instance, recent studies in the US have shown that university students who have studied philosophy at undergraduate level exceed other graduates on standardized professional and graduate school admissions tests (such as the LSAT, GMAT and the GRE). Incredibly enough philosophy graduates even perform better on verbal skills than English graduates, and unsurprisingly outstrip all other graduates on analytical skills. The following link and the graphs contained therein illustrate just how strongly philosophy graduates perform in contrast to other disciplines:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/12/verbal-vs-mathematical-aptitude-in-academics/

And thus it’s really no surprise to find philosophy graduates in all manner of careers from law to banking to journalism. So, it seems that philosophy is massively beneficial (though, of course, the philosophers reading this will point out that perhaps it is the case that smart people choose philosophy, not that philosophy makes one smart!). This evidence isn’t conclusive of course, but it’s highly suggestive that it’s a great discipline to study and master if one wishes to excel at a range of skills that are valuable both in life and to potential employers.

As beneficial as studying philosophy seems to be, there are opponents; and as already stated these opponents tend to be religious. This baffles me – a “non-Calvinist Presbyterian!” I first attended university to study chemistry but found I wasn’t interested in it enough to study it. I decided to switch to what I was interested in: theology and philosophy. I remember the look on the face of a church elder when I told him I was going to study theology – sheer delight. I remember how his faced changed when I added “and philosophy” – sheer horror. “You’ve got to watch that philosophy!” was his advice. To be honest, in my experience, the study of philosophy is much more conducive to religious belief than studying theology. Theology was often dry and tedious, not to mention full of shockingly poor reasoning. I ended up approaching the subject primarily as a philosopher than a theologian, choosing theology modules that were more philosophical in nature – such as Christian thought and world religions, though admittedly the Old Testament always fascinated me. Philosophy, by contrast, was much more of an “adventure of the mind.” It was in my philosophy classes that I met authors who forever changed how I think – William James and Alvin Plantinga being particularly influential on me. Moreover, they changed how I think as a theist in ways that theologians rarely did (though I happily give a nod in the direction of NT Wright, one particular exception).

So what lies behind this suspicion of philosophy on the part of many religious believers? I suspect the biggest problem is simply ignorance – ignorance of what philosophy does. Or perhaps ignorance that considers it synonymous with rabid atheism. Ignorance too of the fact that there are many philosophers who are both religious and of the highest academic standing: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, Evans, Davis, Pruss, Helm, Hick (deceased), Wolterstorff, Alston (deceased), McGrew, Stump, Leftow. So many, in fact, that atheist philosopher Quentin Smith complained that God is alive and well in His one academic stronghold – philosophy departments.

But I think more than ignorance is at work. I detect a strong level of fear: the fear of risk. What if we study philosophy and it turns out that the case for God crumbles and atheism appears to be the truth? Some Christians prefer the discipline of apologetics to philosophy of religion for this reason. Apologetics is about defending what one believes. Philosophy of religion is about seeking the truth wherever that may lead, even if it leads away from the beliefs that one currently holds. There’s no real way to assuage such fears – such a risk will always be present in any truth seeking discipline. But as a theist I honestly cannot imagine being in the position of having to give up theism. It’s a risk, sure, but a small one, I’ve discovered. In any event if one is sure of one’s faith what is there to fear of any discipline that seeks to discover truths about reality?

The teaching of philosophy would be greatly beneficial to children. So important, I think, that the fears of a largely religious minority should not have veto power over it. Thus it’s difficult to disagree with Stephen Law when he concludes: “all children should, without exception, be encouraged to think critically – and thus philosophically – even about the moral and religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom. Religious parents should not be able to opt out.”

Stephen J. Graham

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1 Comment

Filed under Education, Philosophy

One response to “Kids, Philosophy & Religious Objections

  1. Excellent piece. As though “they’ll be argumentative and we’ll actually have to defend what we’re saying to them!” is a bad thing.

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