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The Experience of Teaching Philosophy to Adults

Noel Parker
Even in the least partisan formulation of its
objectives, Radical Philosophy believes in a philosophy
‘relevant to people’s wider lives and interests’.

Though many of us may find or hope to find guidance
for radical political or social activity in the
philosophy we study, the fact remains that most of our
success as radicals in philosophy will be though the
medium of teaching, persuading and helping the development of the ways of thinking of others. In such an
influence contact with adults must be a large part of
our brief. So I feel justified in analysing in public
my short experience of teaching adults. Many adult
students subscribe to an idea of a ‘philosophy of life’

to which philosophical study pertains, an idea which
philosophy schools would deprecate-but which we might
well arim to refurbish.

Not that adult classes in the London area display
any inherent radicalism. Firmly under the intellectual
thumb of the university the Workers Educational
Association, whose local groups request, publicise and
find accommodation for classes, looks quite unlike a
‘worker’s’ education association. The purpose of a
‘liberal’ education (the WEA’s actual brief) has
always been clear to the middle class, for whom selfimprovement and individualism could always make some

In the rather closed social world of the loc~l
association the tutor (sent by the tall Portland-stone
powerhouse in Bloomsbury) finds that there is,
intellectually, no resistance to whatever line he wants
to put. In this respect contact with adults differs
only too little from contact with undergraduates.

There is a large proportion of students (though this
may be diminishing with the influx of graduates – an
invaluable catalyst) who have brought with them from
their schooldays a very authoritarian attitude to
education. Not only do they hope to be lectured to
and not have to utter anything, but more subtly they
regard Knowledge, Learning, Intellectual technique and
Philosophy as substantial structures that may admit
them and judge them only as they concede to everything
that is asked of them. And the tutor is their prophet.

They thus understand only too well the structure of
our institutions of education. Authoritarianism, the
willinghness to bow to authority, expresses itself in
certain ideas that the students may put forward concerning the procedures of the class: that there is a total
field that is called ‘Philosophy’ which the class
should aim to cover in whatever depth time allows; that
the philosophically important is whatever is dubbed
such by the officianados of Philosophy; that the
method of dealing with the philosophically important is
as handed down by the officianados. Of the same type
but more directly inherited from school is the fear
that not being able to spell or write means not having
anything worth saying.

The department recognises that an unresponsive
and cowed class is a failure, but responds ambiguously
to the fact. Much sound advice is offered on the
psychology of encouraging unwilling students to
participate and especially to write. And yet the
official view of the function of a university in local
adult classes mirrors so neatly the conceptions by
which students express their pliancy to authority.

It is that the university can bring ‘high academic
standards’ to the classes. Now though consultation
is definitely encouraged with the non-diploma adult
class, the notion of high academic standards denies


the substance while the shadow is offered. For the
main force of that notion has always, and with good
reason, been aimed against demands for participation
in the design and assessment of courses. Its
abstractness entails that only those previously
recognised as measuring up to the high standard are
qualified to judge it. Learning has the structure
of what the authoritarian student all too readily
feels it to be, a self-perpetuating oligarchy. So
long as that notion permeates the teaching of adults,
that image will reach the student.

A corollary, for it reflects and covers the
vagueness of the idea of high standards, is the
assumption that philosophy needs no justification.

That view must surely be foreign to a Radical
Philosophy that seeks to relate philosophy to other
things and cannot therefore eschew comparison. But
it is common at least amongst those to be seen at
meetings of adult tutors. Dealing with younger
students it might be less surprising; but these
tutors Are teaching not young people who are
temporarily fully engaged in study, but adults who
have their own lives apart from the few hours a week
they spend in a philosophy class. But the tutors too
are predominantly middle-class and all too often
fasten their eyes upwards, as their students do, away
from the proper focus of their attention. Some
pretend to ‘contribute to Knowledge’ with the
assistance of ‘the good ones’ in the class. It could
not be otherwise when no criterion but the unhelpful
one of high academic standards is acknowledged. That
notion manifests and perpetuates the incestuous
circularity of the academic world.

In the actual class situation the main focus of
these contradictions in the thinking of the adult
teaching establishment is the requirement that the
students must produce regular written work. The
students feel exposed in the written medium, unable to
get the ‘right’ answer to the problem that confronts
them, liable to be called to book once their views are
on record, floundering in a philosophical technique
and a grammar that they h~ve little practice in. The
department offers good advice to the tutor on how to
soothe these fears. But there is no attack on the
conceptions that lie at their root, for they are the
conceptions of the institution itself: that there is
a right answer, a correct procedure and a proper medium
to reach it, and that the academic world is the
repository of these things. No encouragement is needed
from the tutor for the students to assimilate these
views from all their previous contacts with learning.

Rather he needs actively to work against them.

Without such an assault many students may get
little or nothing from the class. They will give up
before the monolith of knowledge, or ape the style and
conclusions of the lecturer without properly
assimilating anything of meaning. So the concern of
the teacher meets the inclination of the radical
philosopher: both must commit themselves to ponder
the nature of learning and learning philosophy itself
in order to substitute something meaningful for the
vanity of ‘high academic standards’.

The adult teacher today, then, finds himself in
a sense at the very beginning of philosophy, confronted by the question What is knowledge? This is
not a question to be glibly set aside, but the manner
in which it arises for the teacher and the formulation

of it here already discloses an invaluable reorientation of the conventional epistemology, which
makes me hopeful of practical success. Whereas
epistemology comes to us normally divided into
questions What is truth? What is meaning? What is
belief? and so on – divisions which predispose it, as
Habermas has pointed out, to produce theories of
science as theories of knowledge – the starting point
of the teacher’s enquiry is knowledge in its relation
to people pursuing, claiming and using it. For the
teacher the problem is not that of describing ideal
schema of investigation, but of understanding the
place of knowledge within the lives and interests of
his students and, by implication, the whole social



That orientatibn of the question already makes
sense of a new attitude to the ‘knowledge’ that the
adult group produces. If knowledge is seen as part
of wider human pursuits, then it is sensible to
derive the starting point, the procedures and the
criteria of success from the aims and objectives of
the people in the class. Against this the abstract
notion of high academic standards appears either as
meaningless or as the ways of a heady intellectual
elite, far away from the attitudes and the lives of
the people we are teaching. This is not to say that
the techniques and positions of living acaqemic
philosophers and of great philosophers of the past do
not have their place in the activity of the class;
but their value must be proved – it is not to be
insinuated by words like ‘high’ or, for that matter,
‘great’ .

What aims and objectives are there likely to be
amongst class-members, for which a philosophy tutor’s
encouragement and guidance can be of value? The field
sounds horrifyingly restricted but in fact embraces
all the general fields of philosophy; but with a
different attitude to each. Even allowing for the
individual character of the class and the area from
which it is drawn, it is safe to list a number of
questions that are obviously apposite. As they have
all joined a study group they must already have some
beliefs and attitudes about the very question that I
am considering here, the character and role of knowledge. And that question has, of course, been a
fundamental problem to any philosopher seriously
engaged in the trade of knowledge. As they daily
decide what they ought and ought not to do, and
frequently suffer from doubts as to whether this moral
framework makes any sense, the problem of the nature
of moral rightness and moral undertakings is a burning
issue – more so that it often seems to the cool
analysts of moral language. As their lives are so
much planned by the lights of an all-pervasive
technical rationality, they readily wonder what is the
basis of scientific enquiry and social engineering.

As they are bombarded by established assumptions about
politics, the validity of these is willingly questioned.

As they have and are aware of a place in society, the
character of society’s groupings puzzles them.


This list is hardly restrictive. But an important
general aspect of the adult student’s starting point
is fundamental. He is a full-time agent of one sort
or another, and knowledge as an activity in itself is
not something he readily understands. This may be the
cause of his greatest difficulties in understanding
philosophical language, and a revealing lesson to
philosophers. For the much-vaunted clarity of modern
British philosophical writing is the technique of
saying nothing that might admit of more than one
interpretation by other philosophers. That from which
the philosopher – with his communal frame of reference
– may construe so many meanings, may to the student with his different frame of reference – mean nothing.

The failure of modern British philosophers to achieve
clarity in any generally recognisable sense has emerged
for me in the intense difficulty that so many students
find in reading them as distinct from their allegedly
obscure precedessors and continental colleagues.

And what is this new attitude to each of the


fruitful fields that an adult class can go into, which
makes it possible to give meaning and purpose to
philosophy through the assumptions and points of view
of the people in the cl~ss? It is simply that the value,
meaning and approach of the investigations of philosophers make sense, just as the intellectual endeavours
of the class, only against the background of the
situation in which they exist, the environment that
moves them to philosophise as they do. In this
respect philosopher and student are alike, for all the
greater effort and skill that the good philosopher
brings to the task. The student can seek guidance
from the philosopher by virtue of their common enterprise, without simply abandoning everything that he
is besides a student. Books will come into the course
as aids to an understanding that belongs fundamentally
to the students. Writing may be helpful. Success will
be the resolution or sharpening of ideas that concern
the student. This the study of philosophers and what
the jargon calls ‘student-centred’ enquiry concur.

When I put forward this view of philosophy to
academics it is often greated with thunderstruck incredulity. So it is worth pointing out that far from
being original it is in fact the merest commonplace.

Where, outside academia and some notions of Liberalism,
could one find people to dispute that a man’s opinions
were related to the kind of man he was, the kind of
actions he performed, or the environment in which he
lived? It is a view that the students in my classes
readily take to, responding more easily to a philosopher
who comes across to them as a complete personality Gr
whose confrontation with pressing contemporary problems
excites them. Its obviousness has been obscured on the
one hand by the abstractness of academic philosophy, and
on the other by difficult debates about whether ideas
are related to social or individual character, base,
superstructure, totality and so on. For my part I
take the social character to be important and the
history of philosophy to be the medium to reach it.

But for the present I am simply emphasising that the
point of thinking, investigating and believing is that
ideas are related to what we are and what we need to do.

This article itself is a case in point. That view of
knowledge, which is only the presupposition of Radical
Philosophy, is an idea that I have needed to teach; and
what Radical Philosophy may do for teaching


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