Dr Huw L Williams argues the upcoming Assembly election gives the new Education Minister an ideal opportunity to bring more Philosophy into the curriculum
Whoever the new Minister for Education is in May (or June, depending on how things go), it is unlikely that philosophy will be at the top of his or her to do list. Yet one of the more intriguing legacies left by the current incumbent is the question around the future of the Religious Studies curriculum, and the scope for expanding philosophical studies within it. Huw Lewis’ main interest seems to be the not unfounded notion that the further study of ethics, in particular, could provide the grounds for greater mutual understanding and respect as a bulwark against more extreme views.
Such a proposal throws up some interesting considerations, especially if we take a brief look at the history of philosophy in Wales. In particular, if we take our educational institutions as a starting point, the subject, it seems, has not made itself thoroughly at home in our pedagogical culture. We do not have a philosophy A level on the books with the WJEC, whilst it is taught in only a handful of our schools as a 6th form subject. As for the Higher Education sector, it is only in three of our universities that it can be pursued as a single or joint honours degree.
There are historical reasons for this less than burgeoning relationship. As a subject practiced to a large degree within Universities, the late arrival of higher education in Wales denied the subject any meaningful historical precedent here, whilst our commitment to theology meant that it was only towards the end of the 19th century, as that subject became increasingly influenced by philosophy, that names such as Kant and Hegel became a staple part of our intellectual horizon. Indeed, it is not unknown for some more recent Welsh philosophers to suggest that there is something more fundamental at work – a deep and unhealthy scepticism towards the subject in our culture.
If this is the case (and I’m inclined to think it an exaggeration) there may be some understandable reasons related to the subject itself. I’ve recently began a philosophy café in Grangetown and one sceptical response I met with referred to ‘trees falling in the wood’ and the image of the philosopher in his comfy chair wondering about all sorts of irrelevances to daily life. It only then dawned on me that there might be an image problem.
There may be a kernel of truth to this attitude – some academic philosophers are very comfortable with the idea that their activities have no bearing on real life. This is an entirely legitimate attitude and in some way resembles other academics who by the nature of their work are involved in speculative endeavours. Yet it is concerning that people should think that this is what philosophy is all, or mostly about.
It is gratifying therefore to be able to refer to a couple of upcoming public events that show a different side to philosophy – all the more so because they relate to the work of two Welsh philosophers. In Swansea there will be a conference on the former head of the University’s once world-renowned School of Philosophy – JR Jones. Originally from Pwllheli, Jones was admired by his peers and colleagues alike, but he is better remembered for his contribution to the cultural debates of the 60s as a mature public intellectual. In particular, he was a fierce critic of the declining non-conformist movement in Wales and wrote on the need for renewal and reconnection with faith, but he is perhaps most famous for his critique of ‘Britishness’, his concept of a nation, and his arguments in support of the Welsh language. His thorough and often inspired conceptual work, combined with his soaring rhetoric, represent some the most totemic Welsh texts of the 20th century in either language. More generally, his papers speak to the way in which a philosophically trained mind has the capacity for creativity and clarity in expressing new ideas, or the deeply held beliefs that we take for granted but often find difficult to articulate.
The other event is a public lecture in Cardiff from the most well known Welsh philosopher of our time – indeed, one of the most well known philosophers in general. Mark Rowlands, originally from Cwmbran, has a long and distinguished career in philosophy, in particular in the philosophy of mind and animal ethics, and he has more recently become famous as the author of the international bestseller, The Philosopher and the Wolf. This book is a memoir of his life with a wolf, which is used as a vehicle for philosophical discussion of various issues such as the relation between people and animals. It is one of a number of popular publications from Rowlands that seeks to engage a wider audience beyond academia, and his success speaks to the ability of people to relate to and enjoy philosophy as a subject without any formal training.
The example of these two philosophers and their work demonstrate the utility of philosophy and its potential appeal across various subjects, whilst discouraging the idea that there is some congenital incompatibility between our culture and the subject. Sir Henry Jones, R.I. Aaron and Dewi Z Phillips are other relevant names, and they too discussed matters pertinent to Welsh public life in original and revealing ways. Despite, therefore, what be might considered as a rather unpromising foundation for philosophy in our schools’ curriculum, there are reasons to view the subject from a more positive perspective.
Moreover, in terms of our children’s education, it is worth noting that philosophy is not simply a subject that can provide a convivial basis for broaching engaging but sometimes challenging issues around faith, values and culture. As the growing popularity of philosophy for children attests to, the subjects’ techniques and practices are beneficial for learners of all ages. The advanced study of most university subjects also requires some level of conceptual and theoretical knowledge which philosophy can provide a basis for. Lastly, in recent years philosophy graduates on both sides of the Atlantic have been the most well paid in the arts and humanities.
For all these reasons it seems pertinent to me that philosophy should be considered as a subject in of itself (especially at A-level), rather than only a subject within a subject. Of course, as a philosophy teacher I would say that, but I would make the same argument for the integrity of religious studies: it is worth recognising that mutual understanding requires more, not less religious education. This should include a more thoroughgoing study of our own unique Christian heritage, that of Welsh non-conformism. After all, in reforming our curriculum, we might do well to remember Socrates’ most famous injunction – know thyself.