10 May 2009

Scottish pupils increasingly philosophical...

If I was required to identify what the most important course of study I undertook during my school years, the choice would be easy: my Higher in Philosophy.

The curriculum gave me an excellent grounding in thinkers from Plato to the present, from Hume’s theories on causation to Descartes’ famous (but flawed) idea that scepticism could be ended by the proposition most familiarly rendered cogito ergo sum. Although there were, on reflection, some obvious gaps in our studies, nowhere else could I have gleaned equivalent knowledge. Neither history, nor geography or English literature could possibly compare. In its absence, the history of ideas would be wholly unknown to me, or seen in half-illuminating flashes, like the sun through heavy cloud. Philosophy awakens the mind to the possibilities and implications of thinking. In short, it is a call to consciousness, surely the essence of a critical and academic mind.

Imagine my glee to see that, according to the Sunday Herald, the number of pupils sitting the Higher in Scotland continues to expand, increasing by 25% over five years. Privately, I would advocate making this element of our children’s education far more general. One cannot dodge philosophy, whatever subject one throws oneself into. Epistemology – the study of the conditions of knowledge – and judgements about what counts as knowing – are woven the whole world through. Philosophy and thinking about thinking is the connecting thread.

I’m glad to see, however, that the egregious Rhona Brankin MSP seems to disagree. Treating the decline in the number of students addressing themselves to the dismal social science of economics – or its intellectually pigmified accomplice – accountancy – the watery-eyed Labouring soul, confided:
“These are the very subjects that should be important just now. But these are some of the first subjects to go at the time of education cutbacks. It is extremely worrying. In just one year, the SNP government has cut teacher numbers by 1000. This does not bode well for maintaining subject choice in secondary schools.”

Er … what? Important right now? Surely Ms Brankin isn’t proposing that these heavy pated business-studying students should be relied upon to excise the world from its present difficulties? I thought we’d be out of recession come 2011. I call that fast tracking. And hell mend us if we’ve got to rely on this swelling crop of juveniles to achieve it. Or perhaps Ms Brankin is just talking tosh. Economics isn’t my strong suit – indeed, save for a card or two in more modern microeconomics, the gusty acronym-coining atmosphere of economic consideration is an alien calculation to me. At least post-Adam Smith with a little Friedrich von Hayek on the side. However, philosophy might be able to assist us here also – with its cautions to modesty about how much we know, and how certain we are about what we think we understand.

If increasing numbers of young people are equipped with the rudiments of philosophical consciousness, Scotland is primed to prove a more interesting place. Perhaps the moment has not yet come when we could reopen Edinburgh’s Poker Club of the 1700s – and turn out a new generation of Adam Smiths, David Humes, Joseph Blacks, Adam Fergusons – and scholar-lawyers like Lord Monboddo or Lord Kames. It is a start however. Great oaks from little acorns grow, and all that.

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