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A’ Level Philosophy; The Church Is In Danger


Dear RP,
Steve Brigley (RP 35) was pessimistic about the ‘A’ level
Philosophy syllabus proposed by the AEB. His main concern
was its failure to provide opportunities for the development of
students’ own ideas and arguments, suggesting that the syllabus was likely to reproduce the elitism and obscurity which
graces the subject in higher education. The comments below the result of a collaboration between students and the tutor of
the course at South Trafford College of Further Education and
interspersed with individual views – suggest that this has
more to do with the problems of ‘A’ levels in general than
Philosophy itself.

As a result of the enthusiasm of the late Dr. Don Henry, a
course was established at the college in 1985 which has been
successful both in terms of the enthusiasm of the students and
their academic results. Moreover, early fears about the constraining nature of the syllabus have proved unfounded at this
college, where the main problems are the results of poor
resources – the course runs for one year, one evening (3
hours) a week, and the library facilities offer little of relevance. The philosophy class is therefore sustained by wads of
photocopied notes and articles and the interest and determination of its members, most of whom juggle jobs, children, babysitters or other part-time studies to make room for their
philosophical interests. Students are of mixed ages and abilities; some already have or are studying other’ A’ levels, and
the occasional graduate turns up, but backgrounds are generally more varied. The present group includes a nurse, an artist,
a businessman and the mystical author of a slimming book.

Their willingness to share experiences and particular interests, unselfconsciously testing new ideas with colleagues
(‘Existentialism is really useless, but it does contain motives
to a future where all people will be judged solely by their actions’) and encouraging each others’ understanding, is a refreshing change from the responses of many undergraduates
to the subject, and their commitment to both written work and
the debates which invariably erupt in the classroom is remarkable. More to the point, people enjoy the subject. Visitors to
the class have been impressed by the high levels of know ledge
and understanding gained by the students in a remarkably
short time.

Of course there are problems with the syllabus. It is predictably akin to many introductory undergraduate courses,
and the subject is unnecessarily compartmentalised. At South
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

Trafford, however, time permits the study of only the barest
essentials of the syllabus if the subject is to be a pleasure as
well as an academic commitment, and this provides an even
greater imperative to broad discussion. For example, Aristotle, Plato, Russell and Sartre complete our official romp
through Western Philosophy, but the Presocratics, Feyerabend, and Foucault are amongst those who provide a critical
perspective from which they are considered. In the course of
a year, and in a tolerant atmosphere conducive to debate,
students will raise issues which can be used to introduce and
develop a wealth of philqsophical ideas (‘as the tutor, I can
testify to the extraordinary breadth of interests, questions, and
responses students bring to the class – only a sage could be
truly prepared’), and there are few difficultiesjn relating the
texts and issues to everyday experience (‘I can annoy people
more and irritate them with a finer degree of precision – and
I’ve got the names to back me up! ‘). Indeed, the popularity of
the subject is undoubtedly due to its applicability to every
area of life. (‘I was struck by the comparison between a
fundamentalist Christian, who could show a brave, positive
attitude because he felt the comforting arms of his God around
him, and the atheistic existentialist who stands alone. Secure
in the knowledge that there is no grand design, and no prescribed slot in which to drop, he chooses to create a meaningful existence for himself which reflects his aspirations for our
species as one family.’)
At South Trafford where, as is the case with the majority
of institutions of further education, courses must be defined
as vocational before they can be staged, the introduction of
the ‘A’ level has facilitated the discussion of issues and ideas
which were formerly marginalised or ignored. The failings of
the syllabus are irrelevant to students’ appreciation of the
subject itself, and we doubt that they are peculiar to ‘A’ level
Philosophy. Taken literally, the syllabus could put someone
off a subject for life, and many ‘A’ levels seem to have this
effect. But, like any framework, the ‘A’ level Philosophy
syllabus can be used to provide the incentive, opportunity,
and official backing for the study of a subject hitherto inaccessible to the majority (‘Think for yourself – balls to media
indoctrination! ‘).

Angela Bowden, Alex Connell,
Shelley May, Alan McCaffrey, Sadie Plant, Andy
Ryan, John Ryder, and others.



Dear RP,
In the Victorian era the cry was ‘the church is in danger’.

Later, particularly amongst Stalinists, this was transformed to
‘the Party is in danger’. I am loathe to suggest that we might
murmur ‘Radical Philosophy is in danger’ but that is the
response provoked by Peter Dews’ editorial in No. 53.

The response is provoked by the question of postmodernism. Dews is quite obviously critical of the trend. But not
critical enough to make, as it were, a difference. I would
suggest that Radical Philosophers need to go somewhat further than talking in terms of ‘the one reliably persistent theme
is diversity itself … the problems which this attitude and this
mood generates’ .

Some of these problems, as Dews suggests, are brought up
in Margareta Halberg’s ‘Feminist Epistemology’ and Peter
Middleton’s ‘Socialism, Feminism and Men’. Halberg provides a defence of some kind of objective knowledge against
the diversities and relativities suggested by some feminists.

Fine. But the link is not made to a class standpoint. Marx
argued that really objective knowledge was only knowable by
the proletariat. If we do not go on to make this point, however
qualified, then we can quite easily end up defending a radical
version of the status quo on objectivity. Equally, Halberg
provides a most effective debunking of the raising of ‘experience’ to a key philosophical marker. Experience and the
knowledge it may provide can vary from person to person.

Once again though there is something missing. Edward Thompson, in The Poverty of Theory, has drawn a distinction
between Experience 1 and Experience 2. The first is our lived
everyday reality. The second is how we make sense of it.

Somewhere between the two some people still actually decide
that the world might need changing! The solution to variable
experience is, and yes that old stuff will have to be brought up
again, the workers’ party. The memory of the class, remember?

Dews seems uncertain if postmodernism can be attributed
to the political left or the political right. I would suggest that
whatever the design the political effect of postmodernism is
always on the right. In fact diversity is a code word for the
retreat from class. As Dews writes: ‘there is a recurrent
emphasis on epistemological and social fragmentation and
pluralism and a suspicion of any universal horizon of
emancipation’. Of course the failure of Stalinism has led to
pessimism in some sections of the left. But then the idea that
socialism could flow from the barrel of a T54 Tank never did
seem particularly optimistic.

~Iuch of the above suggests the fundamental question
‘What can we know?’ Can we understand the world enough to
change it? Radical Philosophy does not seem to be taking up
this kind of challenge, posed by postmodernism, in an effective manner. It is one thing to discuss the problems of postmodernism. But what is really required is an effective riposte!

And the riposte should be radical. To return to the point
about Halberg’s article, there is an effective debunking of
some postmodernist ideas. But what is posed against them?

Nothing very radical it would appear. That, of course, begs

another question. What, as we enter the 1990s, is radical?

Turning to Middleton’s article, once again it appears as if
we have jumped right into discussing the problems raised by
postmodernism and diversity on the left without considering
wider and more fundamental questions first. For example,
what is the class basis of modern feminism? Is there any
necessary connection between feminism and socialism? Is
there a difference between women’s liberation and feminist
ideas of change? Is there a class difference between middle
class and working class women’s views of what liberation
might mean? Additionally there is a lack of an historical
understanding of what the ideas of feminism have meant,
politically, and in practice in the last ten years. Again there
has been no necessary connection to the political left.

Middleton ‘s emphasis on oppression is fine if we just want
to describe the world, in the age old tradition of bourgeois
philosophy! But if we actually want to change matters we’ll
need to concentrate on questions of how things change and
why. Middleton might have done better to examine the factors

behind women, and men, fighting to change things for the
better. The whole question is discussed at length in a recent
debate between June Purvis, Meg Gomersall and myself in a
recent issue of History of Education Journal.

Raphael Samuel in the recent volume on the history of the
new left, Out of Apathy, notes that he sometimes took solace
in reversing Marx’s dictum that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it’ . Indeed,
I’d refer readers back to my letter in RP 50. Interpreting the
world is valuable but only if we then go on to try and change

Keith Flett
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

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