Questioning Time ; SCHOOLS More and More Young People Are Choosing to Study Philosophy at A-Level and University. Claire Smith Finds out Why - at a Time When Job Prospects Are So Important - Teenagers Are Turning to Plato, Kant and Hume

By Smith, Claire | The Independent (London, England), May 4, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Questioning Time ; SCHOOLS More and More Young People Are Choosing to Study Philosophy at A-Level and University. Claire Smith Finds out Why - at a Time When Job Prospects Are So Important - Teenagers Are Turning to Plato, Kant and Hume


Smith, Claire, The Independent (London, England)


"Philosophy is like thinking, only louder". The posters on the walls of Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire are working. With more than 200 students signed up for this year's AS and A- level philosophy, Farnborough is the UK's biggest philosophy centre. But it's not the only school where questions about life, the universe and everything are gaining momentum.

Over the past six years, the number of annual A-level philosophy candidates in England and Wales has doubled - up to 2,459 in 2005 - while in Scotland, where the philosophy Higher exam was only introduced in 2000, candidates have tripled - up to 800 across 87 centres.

It may have something to do with Alain de Botton's TV series on how to lead the good life. It is certainly ironic that philosophy is growing in popularity at a time when the Government is calling for vocational-style education, and the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Sir Digby Jones, says it's "employability" that must be at the heart of our studies, that the subject with probably the fewest job prospects is on the rise.

"I think the director-general of the CBI would be challenged by some of the thinking and discussions going on in our A-level philosophy classes. Probably humbled," says Dr John Guy, Farnborough Sixth Form College's principal. Perhaps. After all, if philosophy is thinking, only louder, it's probably the one subject that is useful for all professions, from driving buses to governing the country.

But isn't this the "dumbed down" generation? We frequently hear that all teenagers are interested in nowadays is text messaging, reality television and celebrity culture. What's causingthem to join Plato's army? Is the unexamined life not worth living after all?

"For a start, philosophy sounds sexy," says Jeanne Neal head of religious, moral and philosophical studies at Uddingston Grammar School in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where the philosophy students outnumber both the history and physics classes. "You're not saying this is the right answer, you have to learn this. We pick a philosopher and ask does it make sense? It's a less passive way of gaining knowledge, as opposed to just keeping them busy with a worksheet."

Plato would like that. "Nothing taught by force stays in the soul" he wrote in The Republic. And for 16-year-old Joanne McCue from Uddingston Grammar, it was precisely not being forced to do maths - philosophy is offered as an alternative - that made her give it a go. Now it's the classical texts that have got her hooked. "It allows you to see what other people saw and thought. And you have the freedom of being able to think for yourself. It's become my passion."

Not even Tony Blair with all his ambitions for education has dared to hope that a 16-year-old could become "passionate" about school-work. But McCue is not alone in her fervent enthusiasm. At Oban High School on the west coast of Scotland, the philosophy Higher, offered for the first time this year, was so popular -49 applied - they had to cherry pick students based on their English marks to create a class of 30. For next year they plan to double the size of the class and offer it at Standard grade (GCSE level). Even head teacher Linda Kirkwood jokes about wanting to sign up.

What made them decide to add it to the curriculum? "The old- style religious and moral education course had become tired and jaded. Only seven students signed up last year," says teacher John Carrey. "We thought that with the age we live in, philosophy would broaden their understanding of important issues within the world."

As part of moral philosophy, students discuss crime and punishment, euthanasia and with poignant relevance, just war. "They talk about George Bush. They ask, is this man sane? Is he a good president? And they link it in to the conflict in Iraq," says Carrey. "We don't have to raise the topics, the kids raise them.

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Questioning Time ; SCHOOLS More and More Young People Are Choosing to Study Philosophy at A-Level and University. Claire Smith Finds out Why - at a Time When Job Prospects Are So Important - Teenagers Are Turning to Plato, Kant and Hume
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