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Philosophy in Hackney

Philosophy in Hackney
Nadine Cartner

Nadine Cartner, a member of the Radical Philosophy collective, teaches ‘A’ level Philosophy at Hackney
College in London. Below is an edited transcript of the ideas and comments of some of her students. The large
majority of these students are working class, many of them black; most of them have ‘failed’ at school and left
with few or no qualifications. This is true too of the small number of middle class students. Most of the students
are in their late teens or early twenties, although a minority of students are older, late twenties, thirties.

They started offby looking at how they came to be doing
A level Philosophy.

‘I knew that Plato, Socrates and Nietzsche were all philosophers
– and had perhaps read the odd paragraph. Not much more.’

, … always had an interest in philosophical questions, and wanted
to do the subject academically’

‘Some reading’

‘ … partly for the A level, mostly out of interest’

, … because it was the only subject available that didn’t clash with
the other subjects I was doing … ‘

‘No, I had a vague idea about the subject. Believed it to be studied
by intelligent, weird daydreamers’

‘From an early age I realised I was a natural philosopher’

‘A little’

‘I thought I’d try doing one A level (sociology) to see in enjoyed
(and would be capable of) intellectuaVacademic work – and got
talked into doing two … my tutor suggested Philosophy’

‘Virtually nothing’

‘I was interested in the subject’

How was philosophy different … ?

‘J ust needed an A level’

‘Less fact, and memorizing facts oriented … ‘

‘Why not? I needed an A level to do in a year. My choices were
philosophy, economics or law. Need I say more? Oh all right I
will: both law and economics are too dry, have no scope for
thinking … they are taught as this is the way it is, don’t question
it just learn it; i.e. they are mindless. Oh yes and I thought it would
be interesting.’

‘Not different really. The subject demands a slightly different
approach but then so does Art, Music etc. The actual work, i.e.

reading books, writing essays seemed ordinary enough.’

‘For no apparent reason’

‘ … less learning of facts, and the learning of other people’s ideas
is accompanied by the requirement to criticize those ideas … ‘

‘I was unemployed and decided to take A level Sociology.

Philosophy seemed like a subject which would complement it
well’

Did you have any knowledge of, background in,
Philosophy?

‘Bits and pieces of Marxism, existentialism, and the I think
therefore I am of Descartes; I’d read quite a lot of Nietzsche’

‘Barest of minimums. A little bit about Marxism’

, … scares you because it’s like pulling the rug from beneath you,
and all that’s under it is a big black hole’

‘ … well there were the texts and the syllabus, but … unlike any
academic subject I’d ever done. There were no set answers .. .’

‘Like other A levels … exam based and there was a set course. But
it was different … there was more debate, no set answers. Thus
there was scope for a bit of thinking, which isn’t normally found
in the education system’

‘Yes … it questions the very foundations of the other subjects, …

I used to think that what was written in science books was absolute
fact… ”

‘No’

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The appropriateness of learning Philosophy in areas
such as Hackney where there are very high rates of
unemployment
, … philosophy and other critical disciplines may not be what the
government wants taught in the inner cities but I think such
subjects are just what working class and ethnic minority students
should learn to help them understand their world. ‘

, … good reasons for teaching anything if people want to learn it.

(well unless it’s a destructive skill or something anti social). I’m
opposed to the idea that education should be vocational. It’s even
more important that courses should exist in areas of high unemployment to provide ‘positive’ leisure facilities to counteract all
the snooker halls etc. ‘

, … I feel philosophy broadens the mind, and in an area such as
Hackney, qualifications don’t pose as great a problem as basic
ignorance and narrow mindedness. But … philosophy is not
everyone’s cup of tea, and if one has a specific job in mind
philosophy may not be necessary for it.’

, … training schemes are often about being exploited without
really learning anything.’

‘Is a government training scheme going to get them a satisfying
job, or indeed any job at all? Although proper training for proper
work is, of course essential, I wonder how valid some training
schemes are?’

‘Government training schemes are likely to value only people’s
economic potential and not their individuality or their humanity.

A levels allow a greater choice of opportunities whereas training
schemes are somewhat limited in their possibilities. ‘

‘No friend of mine would consider a government training scheme
… life is too short to be bored shitless’

‘I would advise against a government training scheme as in my
experience they are an absolute con. At least A level studies philosophy – are intrinsically satisfying.’

What did you get out of it … ?

‘ … because there is a high rate of unemployment in Hackney,
alternative ways of making life interesting, stimulating etc. are
definitely worthwhile. There’s no guarantee of getting a job
anyway even with a BTEC or whatever. In a way the pursuit of
philosophy can make life on the dole a more fruitful enterprise.

You don’t need money to do it! And again as it sharpens critical
capacities, it does give people skills that can be applied almost
anywhere.’

, … by helping people to question philosophy may provide an
invaluable service in an area like Hackney: firstly by showing
people that they have more intellectual potential than they think
they realized; secondly by criticizing the pernicious notion that
unemployment equals human redundancy’

, … to study philosophy for pleasure is enough within itself …

however for someone seriously looking for helpful qualifications
it is not very helpful or advantageous’

, … most people do A levels to go on to higher education … if that
is the case then as long as A level philosophy fits in with the course
they wish to follow, then the area becomes irrelevant, whether it
be Hackney or an area of high employment. Otherwise I’d agree
that philosophy isn’t the most obvious route to a job. In fact if you
went to the job centre and said you were a philosopher they’d
probably cut your dole money off, claiming that you weren’t
available for work. Yet there are good reasons for teaching the
subject; firstly education should be about more than catering for
industry and should teach people how to think, not learn. As there
is a high level of unemployment in Hackney a number of students
will be on the dole and thus will have a lot of time to think …

philosophy caters for this. ‘

‘ … beneficial for people to understand themsevles and their world
to a fuller extent. Perhaps a way of coping with mass unemployment is to give individuals at least the opportunity to learn and
discover. It seems far more pointless to inundate people with
meaningless training courses which lead nowhere. ‘

, … government training schemes are about specialising people to
fulfil roles in a system which the academic route such as A level
philosophy helps you to criticise and understand.’

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, … sharpens your critical faculties, teaches you how to dissect a
question, question the validity of the question, question some
basic assumptions about our relation to the world around us and
to others, the ability to assess whether an argument is valid/logically consistent or not, developing a sceptical approach to “facts”
scientific, sociological or moral etc.’

‘It makes a surprisingly good A level subject … should be more
widely available’

‘A completely new insight in the way I see things, an enjoyable
A level. Learned to judge things differently, perhaps be more
tolerant in my outlook on things’

‘brought me nearer to a balance between intuition and rationality’

, … need to fight the destruction of education by “realists” in the
name of market need. The working class and minority groups
should have as much access to ways of educating themselves so
they can respond intelligently to the experts this society produces
who continually mystify and cloud the issues of everyday life.

Philosophy, political discourse, sociology etc. must not be left to
the ruling class and its middle class cadre.’

, … all A levels have in common an over emphasis on rote learning
and cramming of information. Philosophy A level was no exception. In terms of the actual structure of classes more depends on
the teacher than on the subject. Some teachers are keen to foster
discussion, others merely to present the relevant information.’

‘The vocational education idea is one I find abhorrent. Schools
and colleges should not be about preparing people for work; basic
education is vital but that doesn’t mean that other things shouldn’t
be available. ‘

‘Qualifications do not need to be linked to a vocation from the
point of view that a diversity of qualifications illustrates not only
an enquring mind but one that can get to grips with many different
ideas.’

‘Shouldn’t put too much importance on philosophy or the power
of education to overcome economic and social differences.’

‘Philosophy encourages a critical approach to the syllabus t and …

the subject matter is more fundamental and carries questions that
apply to all other academic questions. t
‘Philosophy ought to be included in basic education – it teaches
critical t logical skills that would benefit students in all other
fields. People have as much right to intellectual development as
they do to a job. Philosophy might help people to question the
logic of the market place etc … t
‘Of course the intellectual tools which philosophy hones and
refines are vital to people commonly denied access to them. If the
pen is mightier than the sword the pen needs to be capable of clear
logical argument. Political and moral philosophy provide some of
the conceptual tools necessary to challenge the status quo. Anyway black people t working class people have as much interest in
fundamental questions as anyone else … in a sense everybody
does philosophy anyway. t
‘Philosophy is less limited than many other A levels because of
the emphasis on thinking for oneself. t
, … vocational subjects have their placet but are not the final end
of education. I feel most strongly thatr the purpose of education
is not to chum out economic units t shrunken in humanity and
swollen in ambition; … purpose is to help people to become individuals. t

THESIS

‘In the present political climate some people like Baker would
argue that philosophy is a lUXury. This view comes from his belief
that people are merely units of production t as such t he would
argue that education is about producing people to cater for the
needs of industry etc. But the underlying point is that the government do not want people to think t and this is reflected in their
concerted attack on the press etc. Restrict information and free
thinking at all costs! Therefore whether philosophy is a lUXury or
not it should still be taught as the government clearly wants to
make people into automatons. t
‘Philosophy doesntt have to be a luxury. There is no reason why
history should be more academic than philosophy. I think it still
has the image of being studied by weird eccentrics. t
‘If we take philosophy to be a subject that is about learning to
thinkt and one that makes people question the information that
they are fed t then it is important to teach it to everyone. Therefore
A level philosophy is of use because it gives black and working
class people access to the subject at pre degree level. This is
needed due to the social composition of university students and
the fact that a degree of philosophy is relatively useless in the
present economic environment. Thus if it is taught at A level it
isntt detrimental to the personts long term position. t

‘Life isntt just about advancing materially at the expense of
everything else. t

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