What has the DfE got against philosophy?

Chris Couch

England and Wales have a strange system for teaching philosophy. The subject is almost entirely absent from the 11-16 curriculum and, when it is taught, it is through the lens of religion (e.g. arguments for or against the existence of God). After 16, the situation changes, or at least it used to. In the past, at A level, pupils had the opportunity to study ‘religious ethics’ or ‘philosophy of religion’ modules as part of their religious studies curriculum. The philosophy was still God-centric, but wide-ranging enough to allow discussion of anything from the mind-body problem to the ethical justifications for vegetarianism.

Figures are hard to come by, but to judge from the number of textbooks on the market and the views of RS teachers online, it seems that the combination of philosophy of religion and ethics was the most popular for both students and teachers. Some schools ditched the ‘religious studies’ tag altogether and called the course ‘philosophy and ethics’. But from autumn 2016, the Department for Education has decided all sixth forms must devote at least a third of their RS teaching to the in-depth study of religion.

Six ‘major world religions’ will be available for study. But the educational publisher I am working with at present, writing a series of course companions for the new curriculum, is anticipating that most schools will teach Christianity or possibly Islam; a fair bet given the number of church schools nationwide and the current political climate. The DfE’s meddling could put prospective students off the subject, and with ever-tightening budgets, any significant drop in uptake can earmark a subject for the chop.

Entries for religious studies A level have risen 110 per cent since 2003, making it one of the fastest growing subjects nationwide. The upturn in fortunes seems to have started around twenty years ago, when the curriculum began to include more philosophy. Perhaps the popularity of religious studies at A level can be put down to its being philosophy in all but name.

I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with religious studies in and of itself. But it isn’t good that young people who really want to study philosophy should be required to study religion instead. There is only one exam board, AQA, which offers a ‘pure’ philosophy A level (four offer religious studies). It doesn’t have a very high uptake nationally: only 2569 entries in 2015, compared to more than 23,000 for RS. It appears to be offered mostly by further education colleges and public schools. The course was recently redeveloped, and now has a large philosophy of religion component; but it does at least treat philosophy as a discipline in its own right. Now that the philosophical aspects of the RS curriculum have been watered down, there is a chance it will become more popular. Or both subjects could dwindle into obscurity. As seems to be the way in education at present, it is a case of wait-and-see.

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  • 2 June 2016 at 5:58pm
    Graucho says:
    What has the DfE got against philosophy? One suspects the fact that it's difficult. It and mathematics are the two subjects that are, or ought to be, one hundred percent about thinking and zero percent about regurgitating. They also appear to be the two subjects that have suffered the worst from dumbing down in education over the past several decades. A very long time ago there was a case of a professor who was caught helping his students to cheat to pass their medical exams. When asked why he had done it, he offered the defence "Nigeria needs more qualified doctors". As British education morphs from being a public service into a commercial enterprise one wonders if such an attitude is working its insiduous way into the system. Would an applicant readily risk a £40,000 debt to go to a university with such exacting standards that one might not get a degree? Would a university have a high drop out rate and lose those fees? Would a school choose a difficult exam board knowing that it would impact on its league table position? Enough of a rant. There must be people here with hands on experience and a view.

  • 3 June 2016 at 11:35pm
    Russellino says:
    A big question with a thousand answers.

    We have just gone through the DfE/ Ofqual “consultation” process and the subsequent nerve wracking saga of watching the exam boards trying to turn a pigs ear source document into a teachable purse, let alone an interesting and (absurdly) “academically rigorous” specification.

    There may be a god after all. Some of the end products are not disastrous and a few of the religious studies “philosophy” specs improve upon the old “legacy” specs (OCR for example) even with the requirement of teaching a more substantive theology component.

    How one answers this articles' question largely comes down to the personal taste of the teachers/departments/schools teaching these subjects. There are roughly three flavours: those who prefer pure philosophy, those who prefer philosophical theology or visa versa, and those who prefer traditional religious studies.

    The largest group is now the second group which is mostly made up of philosophically inclined or interested theology trained teachers. Given this, they design and/or teach world religions courses, with progressively more philosophy, at KS3 and at GCSE. As a result, staff and students are better prepared to study philosophy of religion and ethics RS courses at A Level.

    That is one reason why the “pure” AQA Philosophy course has not taken off. Other reasons include the bad reputation that that specification has or had regarding marking, that the reformed version of the specification is very deep yet very narrow and unabashedly presents philosophy almost entirely as a course in “Analytic Philosophy”. This would definitely be the preferred option for teachers who graduate from most Anglo-American philosophy departments (although this changing) – but they are still in the minority.

    As mentioned above, most teachers of the subject are trained as theologians and there is a much larger number of them who find analytic philosophy too narrow. They are more open to a history of philosophy or theology approach and are more pluralist in that they are more familiar with, if not sympathetic with, “Continental” theology and philosophy. Lastly, the RS “philosophy” courses are, contrary to AQA Philosophy, shallower but far broader in scope and touch on nearly every major branch of philosophy and this might be more attractive for teachers who wish to provide their students with a broad survey course rather than a course in philosophical analysis.

    Given my biases, as someone who is open to both analytic and continental philosophy, the inclusion of Feminist and Marxist thought and other positive changes in the new RS specs, gives room for optimism about maintaining high student recruitment numbers….

    However, the real threat here is no longer curricular but rather the abolition of the AS and/or the dropping of a 4th A Level in an increasing number of schools for financial reasons. It was a well known phenomena that many students who selected RS/Philosophy selected it as their 4th subject and instead of dropping it at the end of year 12 happily continue. With students now being forced to choose only 3 A Levels many students will no longer even consider us in favour of more strictly vocational subjects.

    Happy days!

    • 7 June 2016 at 7:46pm
      gary morgan says: @ Russellino
      I am reminded of my former Head of [English] Department who remarked that she "can't see the point of Philosophy" and I find it hard to imagine that a government proposing education as this one does - see Stefan Collini's excellent three pieces here please - would welcome Philosophical training as it would reveal how barren so much of British education now is and how education and training are being elided.
      Why the government would like to collapse philosophy into religion doesn't require any comment. Ironic that this is happening the very week we seem officially to have ceased to be Christian.
      Right, back to reading Nietzsche. May he sit happily in the curriculum. Religion includes agnosticism and atheism I trust.
      Yrs. naively,
      Gary Morgan.

  • 4 June 2016 at 8:00pm
    Paul K says:
    As Graucho has mentioned Philosophy can be difficult, and yes, mathematics is an allied subject. Why, then, are thy taught in schools in France?
    As I recall many years ago the first year intake of at the Sorbonne medical school was high. At the end of the first year the numbers were seriously whittled down, I believe, by use of a mathematics exam. If you failed this, "out you go".
    Logic, and mathematics are closely linked. One has only to remember that Bertrand Russell was a mathematician, as have been many philosophers.
    However, I'm not sure that moral philosophy, which is mainly addressed here, ought directly to be taught as a subset or Religious Studies. Indeed, the reverse is probably what we should be doing. The British tradition preferences 'religion', which teaches superstition, while philosophy might teach our children to think for themselves, not expect to find answers forthcoming from religious texts.
    The issue of leaving university heavily in debt with a degree in 'thinking' is odd. Perhaps it is because of the British tradition that Philosophy is taught as a subset of religion? Rational, and/or moral thinking might come in handy among the managerial classes in big corporations or in government.
    Being, now, out of touch with the educational system, I do not know the 'structure' of what used to be the PPE degree. With a combination of "Politics", where we have a dearth of thinkers right now, and for some considerable time in the past, "Philosophy", in which moral and logical thinking ought to be high on the agenda in public life, and "Economics", which surely requires both logic and mathematics, such degrees could prove valuable, and therefore a degree to be sought in public life.

  • 5 June 2016 at 5:08pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    “Philosophy” is a capacious word, and when it comes to teaching it during the last century or so, various academic departments have qualified their special knowledge or area of interest with modifiers such as “moral”, ethical”, “philosophy of the mind”, etc. The branch that deals with the basics of thinking or “knowing” (epistemology), especially logic, is intertwined with basic thinking about mathematics, and this branch seems the most difficult for students – they really have to work at it to make any progress and reach an acceptable standard of reasoning and writing well (not easy). Survey courses can introduce college undergraduates to these subjects, but whether they have any real effect on the way students think once they go out into the world of work is questionable. Advanced mathematics requires the most concentrated and persistent effort, and many people may just not be bright enough to handle the subject (even though they are generally well-educated and articulate – or glib). Other difficult philosophical inquiries (e.g., ontology) may represent the long-term pursuit of illusions or red-herrings (who knows, yet?). The most glamorous fields within physics (and chemistry), such as cosmology or fundamental particle physics produce some very brilliant thinkers, who themselves may feel that they need the assistance of the most advanced mathematicians in order to express their ideas and findings in the accepted form of equations. Some of the greatest physicists have been very strong as experimentalists (where technology meets inspiration) who are willing to be guided or interpreted by mathematics, but who work more inductively ( a sort of “what if” thinking) than deductively. And so on, leading to a situation where many physical scientists worry more about results (and their applicability, including pointing to the next unsolved problem) than about contributing to the “philosophy of knowledge” – they are happy to let philosophers ponder the broader meaning of their achievements, while being wary of philosophers who overgeneralize without having mastered the basics of the science about which they are generalizing (think here about the expanding field of neuroscience and the efforts of philosophers dealing with consciousness; a neuroscientist has no obligation to make his or her findings "philosophically self-consistent or philosophically signficant”, but the philosopher of consciousness definitely has to take the neuroscientific literature into account). It is, I think, difficult for some branches of philosophy to make their case to university administrators about why their subject is important (without resorting to vapid generalizations and nostrums). And, thank our lucky stars, there is always the possibility that some “skillful amateur” who is a clear thinker but who has not been made to jump through the certification hoops can write compelling philosophy in a way that has a broad general appeal because it describes the present state of our knowledge in everyday language. By the way, it seems that religion (or that aspect of it concerned with morality, rather than "divine cosmology" or “divine historical intervention”, both pretty weak ideas) is logically a subset of moral philosophy, and it is in that context (or a comparative cultural context) that it should be taught. The other way around seems like a travesty – it’s the strong emotions (hope, fear, pride, anxiety) associated with religious beliefs and rituals (especially with respect to death) that prevent people from seeing this.

    • 7 June 2016 at 7:55pm
      gary morgan says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I recommend a dose of Alasdair MacIntyre's pithy essay 'Are Philosophical Problems Insoluble? The Relevance of System and History.' It'll give you the tonic you or any of us might need before arguing for Philosophy is a world hell-bent in other directions.
      Gary Morgan.

    • 8 June 2016 at 8:12pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ gary morgan
      I will read MacIntyre's essay, as recommended. Around 1965-66 I was attending an American college where I took an undergraduate philosophy course titled "Philosophy of the Mind". MacIntyre gave a large-hall lecture as a “visiting professor”, and I remember how the attendees, including me, were bowled over by his presentation. Naturally, 50 years later, I don’t remember a word he said. A good deal of the course’s small-seminar discussions dealt with Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”, and I can’t remember any conclusions that our teachers and the brighter students (a group that did not include me) came to, but everyone seemed to be “blown away” by LW. However, I think my point about the relationship between philosophy and science is still a valid one; it’s something like this: Science (in general) takes its basic style of argumentation and proof from an epistemology that came out of philosophy – but that’s a very general condition that most scientists don’t fret over. Philosophy, especially that part of it that address the issue of consciousness, cleans up some of the mess (or unresolved matters) left by science but also feels compelled to consider the latest findings of disciplines like neuroscience or cognitive psychology in order to guide its own questions. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the scientists should be paying more attention to philosophers, but on their own they seem to generate enough questions and unresolved problems suggesting further work. I myself believe that there are some “fundamental questions” that neither science nor philosophy has any chance of answering. Should such questions be dismissed? That I don’t know, but I suspect they won’t be dismissed because they are intrinsically intriguing.

    • 8 June 2016 at 10:08pm
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Macintyre's essay can be found in Patricia Cook, ed. Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory: Appropriating Historical Traditions, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 65-82.

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