Philosophy for children

RP 170 () / Article

A well-orchestrated public relations campaign led primarily by educational charity The Philosophy Shop has helped raise the profile of the philosophy for children movement in the UK significantly over the last few years. Whilst The Philosophy Shop has been promoting its ‘Four Rs’ campaign to make ‘Reasoning’ a central feature of the National Curriculum since 2009, the publication of founder Peter Worley’s teaching guide The If Machine this March and the ‘Roundtable on Philosophy for Children’ hosted by the Forum for European Philosophy in June suggest there is now confidence in the broad intellectual support of educational practitioners and philosophers alongside the political will necessary to achieve the aspirations of this project.1 An interview with Worley appears in the May/June issue of Philosophy Now magazine, alongside a special section on ‘doing philosophy with children’ dedicated to Matthew Lipman. Lipman, who pioneered the philosophy for children and communities (‘P4C’) movement in the USA during the 1970s, died at the end of last year. It was his work that inspired the foundation of the educational charity SAPERE (Society for Advancing Philosophy Enquiry and Reflection in Education) in 1992, which also held its own ‘Introduction to Philosophy for Children’ event in July.

It is significant that this joint push for basic philosophical teaching for children coincides with the growing popularity of philosophy at A-level. In contrast, applications to study the subject at degree level have dropped in the last year (along with less vocational humanities subjects in general, a trend we might expect to continue with the trebling of tuition fees), whilst philosophy programmes in higher education seem to have been bearing the particular brunt of hasty and often brutal attempts to rationalize resources and cut costs. Over the last year protests against the announced closures of philosophy at Liverpool and Keele have forced managerial reversals, whilst the purging of philosophy courses at Middlesex, Greenwich, London Met and, most recently, Northampton continues. It is the context of this broader crisis that demands our attention here, not least because a popular drive towards philosophy may be a symptom either of a revitalization that could spread into higher education or of its regression and eventual expiration.

The origins of the philosophy for children movement lie, like that of Radical Philosophy itself, in the social and political unrest of the late 1960s. Apparently dismayed by the lack of critical thought and poor quality of argumentation exhibited in debates around the Vietnam War, Lipman concluded that practice in philosophical and critical thinking skills should form an integral part of schooling beginning at the earliest stages. In 1969 he circulated his philosophical novel for 11–12 year olds, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, in 1974 founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), and by the late 1970s his ideas was beginning to have an influence on teachers working in the UK.

In contrast, Radical Philosophy’s interest in philosophy for children emerged not out of the USA but from the student uprising of May ’68; from a critical attentiveness to the ideological function of education demonstrated in the work of Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Jacques Rancière, and specifically the empirical research undertaken by the Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophiques (GREPH), established by Jacques Derrida in 1974. An early ‘Philosophy in Schools’ group was formed during a Radical Philosophy festival in Bristol in April 1977 and their inaugural meeting held at the Institute of Education in London on 29 October of that year.

This interest can be traced back to a critique of prevailing academic philosophy in Radical Philosophy’s founding statement from 1972, which expresses the aim not only of expanding the narrow content of the academic curriculum but also of challenging the institutional divisions that it saw contributing to the formal impoverishment of philosophical pedagogy (RP 1, Frontispiece). These divisions concerned (i) the disciplinary ones separating philosophy from other subjects and compartmentalizing it into distinct areas of inquiry (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, political theory, aesthetics, etc.); (ii) the hierarchical ones established between teachers and their students; and (iii) the social, economic and political ones isolating academic philosophy from the outside world. As student Nick Jenkins suggested, in a …