On Philosophy in the Curriculum

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.

Huw is Philosophy Lecturer for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol [www.colegcymraeg.ac.uk] and is based at Cardiff University. He is the author of two upcoming books, Global Justice: The Basics (Routledge) with Carl Death, and Credoau’r Cymry (University of Wales Press). Mark Rowlands will be addressing the subject ‘Can Animals Be Moral’ at Cardiff University on the 12th of April – register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/annual-royal-institute-of-philosophy-public-lecture-can-animals-be-moral-tickets-23895953440 Celebrating JR Jones is a multi-disciplinary conference including contributions from Daniel G Williams, Eddie Ladd and JR Jones’ former student, Walford Gealy – register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cynhadledd-ddathlu-jr-jones-celebrating-jr-jones-conference-tickets-23091239519

5 thoughts on “On Philosophy in the Curriculum

  1. Interesting piece which I much enjoyed. I was taught (part one only) by J. R. Jones (logic) and DZ (moral philosophy) but in Gwyn Alf’s phrase ‘I withered into a historian.’ Obviously you can’t mention everyone but i wondered about D James Jones who taught at Coleg Harlech before being appointed to the chair of philosophy in Bangor. he wrote a volume on philosophy in the ‘Prifysgol a’r Werin’ series in the 30s. But I’m sure you’ll know that.

  2. Taught by the masters! I have a copy of D. James Jones’ volume on the shelf but have only browsed so far. One of a number that will be available online: http://www.uwp.co.uk/cy/news/2015/01/digitising-the-classics-from-the-university-of-wales-press?language=cy.
    You can also find JR Jones’ texts in the CCC online library – there are links on http://www.meddwl.cymru for these and others. One future aim is a volume on Welsh philosophers, with a little help from others. It will be an education in itself for me – DJJ and others should feature. I hope you can make it on Tuesday or down to Swansea – it may bring back some philosophical memories…!

  3. Philosophy is an integral part of the French baccalaureate. It should be the unifying element in the teaching of civics and religous studies so it should be in the Welsh bacc too.
    Wales has a longer tradition in philosophy than the article acknowledges. Richard Price was one of the leading political philosophers of the 18th century and is more celebrated in France and the United States – whose revolutions he supported – than he is in the UK. He was offered honorary US citizenship and I notice that his native village of Llangeinor has a sign in French advertising that it is ” le village natal de Richard Price”. Price also published the first actuarial tables and the first account of Bayes Law, the foundation of much modern statistics. Like so many distinguished Welshmen he did his main work outside Wales, in his case at Stoke Newington, London.

  4. Some important issues here and I believe many pupils will enjoy the inclusion of philosophy in the Bacc as it gives them an opportunity to discuss issues – often issue of life and death. From my work experience, many year 11,12 and 13 pupils would enjoy the freedom to discuss the big issues. That for many, maybe in he previous age, was what a good Sunday School teacher would do as discussions lead into issues o life, morality and society.

    R. Tredwyn – you maybe interested to know that a portrait of Richard Price hangs outside the Council Chamber of the National Library in Aberystwyth. You’re right that he is little known in Wales, it’s also a pity he never grappled with issues of Weales in his work. That may partly explain why he isn’t more widely known, though it’s not a excuse for it either.

    For those interested, many out of print Welsh language philosophical publications are on the Coleg Cymraeg website and free to download https://llyfrgell.porth.ac.uk/library?tag=E-lyfrau They include works on Marx, Wiggenstein and others.

    JR Jones will be discussed at the Conference on Thursday and Friday 21-22 April at the Dylan Thomas Centre. It’s free, in Welsh but with simultaneous translation – a warm welcome to academics and public alike. http://www.colegcymraeg.ac.uk/cy/ycoleg/prosiectau/cynadleddau/cynhadledddathlujrjones/

    The recent debate in the Assembly on organ donation or banning e-cigs are just some issues which could be incorporated into a Welsh bacc module on philosophy and tie in with real life issues here in Wales. These, and, of course, more general issues of life, governance, morality and death.

  5. I’m not a student of philosophy, but I have come close to tripping over it a few times and I’m curiously wondering about delivery in schools; would teachers understand what they were trying to deliver.

    Also what could be the potential negative effects of poor execution or age inappropriate over-thinking on a naturally exuberant teenage mind. Don’t the young need to go headlong into the experience of life, perhaps making plenty of naturally false assumptions about the world and revising and fine tuning their ideas first. Should they do this, before contemplating and thinking too deeply about life, the universe and everything else, through a very grown-up philosophical lens.

    I might sound anti the idea – I’m not in principle (admittedly, not really knowing what philosphy education actually entails), but I am wondering about where it’s placed and how it’s delivered, in an age appropriate fashion.

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