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Teaching ‘A’ Level Philosophy; Ecology: The Subversive Science; American Philosophy


Teaching ‘A’

Level Philosophy
l)ur ing the last academic year I co-taught the new Philosophy ‘A’ level to a group of students at Hackney College in
London whose ages ranged from 18 to 35, though the majority were concentrated at the younger end of this age range.

It was a one-year course – not an ideal arrangement, but the
usual structure within my department for trying out new ‘A’

level subjects with a minimum resource risk.

The department was first approached about Philosophy
‘A’ level about three years ago and the response of the
decision makers within the department was to dismiss it as
irrelevant to our students (entirely working class, mostly
black). It is a heartening sign of the rising tide of anxiety
and alarm about undiluted voca tionalism and instrumentalism
in education (trends which threaten further education in
Hackney more than in many other areas) that when we were
next approached about Philosophy ‘A’ level, by now in an
advanced state of preparation, some eighteen months later,
the colleague and I who wished to organise and teach the
course gained acceptance of our plan with the minimum of

I would like to make a few points arising from my exper ience of this teaching that relate, in part, to Stephen
Brigley’s earlier contribution and the response by Maurice
Roche (RP 35, 38).

1. The debate about relevance
‘Relevance’ is increasingly used as a yardstick for measuring
the value of a curriculum, but in such a simplified way that
it has ceased to be understood in any careful and precise
relationship to the complex and subtle needs of the learners.

The debate has been largely concerned with the content of
what is learned, neglecting to analyse the significance of
the process of learning and its relationship to the endeavours of the students. At its best the process of learning
e:lCourages the development of a combative, inquisitive, skilful, confident and well harnessed approach to ideas and bodies of knowledge. None of us within the education system
who wish to enhance the quality of people’s Ilves (rather
than be agents in the r igidlfica tion of existing class, ethnic
and gender divisions) would doubt the relevance of this. I’m
not suggesting that teachers work in an ideological vacuum but the space between the contradictions remains even in
the present political climate. I can hear the response of the
undiluted ‘relevance’ supporters – yes, but that is likely to
be far more effective when articulated with a content which
is relevant to students’ lives, which works from the frameworks they already possess. I am not in a polar opposite
relation to that position, but I think there are more subtleties involved in discerning relevance than are commonly portrayed. One consideration is that, if learning is to advance

and curiosity to be nurtured, those frameworks themselves
will need to come under scrutiny. The second consideration
is that it is simply patronising to assume that teachers can
identify, other than in very broad terms (particularly prior
to working with a specific group of students) what content
is relevant to students. Stephen Br igley, for instance, clearly considers the issue of the existence of God as having
little, if any, relation to present-day concerns. Let me
assure him that the debate is alive and thriving amongst
black, working class people in Hackney. The third point is
that students like to broach new frontiers; they enjoy pushing beyond their experience and taking on the unknown. It
augments their confidence, acts as a marker of progress.

That’s not to deny that they don’t want to wrestle with the
familiar too, perhaps in unfamiliar ways. They do – but they
like a blend. One of the most attractive aspects of teaching
‘A’ level Philosophy this year has been that it facilitated
such a blend of contents and process in a context which
aimed to nurture both imagination and disciplined argument.

For instance I found that coming to terms with Bishop
Berkeley (part of the topic entitled ‘Perception of the
External World’) Ilmbered the students up for suspending the
taken for granted and gave them practice in examining their
own assumptions. This worked precisely because the content
was emotionally remote and non-threatening, and yet it
enabled us to set an ethos which paved the way for self
questioning on a variety of issues on which their taken-forgranted ideas were more emotionally loaded – e.g., in the
context of morality, suiCIde, abortion, and homosexuality. I
used idealism to concentrate on the process of learning the intention being that it would then be easier to hold on
to during other topics. Another example arises from our
reading of The German Ideology (one of our set texts). Most
of the students arrived at the course with nebulous, blurred,
generalised ideas about larx and Marxism. Something like
“Russia – communism – terrorism – uniforms – and all rather
grim”. They hadn’t necessarily bought this image, it was
often held at arm’s length. But by and large it was all they
had. Firstly students simply appreciate the luxury of studying a text closely, laying the foundations of a solid and well
rooted understanding, and enjoying some liberation from
what many of them experience as an intimidating lack of
knowledge. Secondly, thety were struck (needing no nudge
from me) by the relationship between what they read, and
their own earlier preconceptions. The bones of the debate
about the construction of consciousness were there in front
of their eyes – very relevantly. And with a spin off way
beyond this particular experience. The students that I teach
often harbour a justified suspicion that they are somehow
excluded from the benefits of education (and I don’t in this
case mean the instrumental benefits). To apply an over simplified criterion of relevance is to collaborate in that exclusion.

2. Philosophy as an elite subject
The second point I would like to raise is that the image of
Philosophy as the preserve of the elite, even as “ideologically antithetical to the comprehensive ideal” (Stephen

Brlgley) belles Its potentIal as a relatIvely democratic subject. My IntuitIon told me thIs prior to teachIng the group
but was confIrmed and focused by my experIence wIth them.

FIrst, the relatIve emphasIs on the process of learnIng and
thInkIng, rather than on the products of those actIvIties,
removes the focus from answers and the magical possessIon
of such by the teachers and authors of books. CorrespondIngly the subject lends Itself to a teachIng role which prImarIly Involves encouragIng, structurIng, guIdIng and systematIsIng thIs learnIng process – rather than beIng the keeper
of the truth. Secondly, thIs same emphasis encourages and
facilItates the participation of students – because reasoned
argument is the very substance of the course, in a way that
no end-of-class summary can substitute for. A third argument in support of the potentially democratic nature of the
subject relates to a point made by Maurice Roche in a previous contribution – morality, faith, reason – has as much
significance for my students (albeit with a different skew)
as for people from very different social backgrounds. One of
the major resources required is curiosity on the part of the
students – and this they bring in an abundance that at least
matches that of any other social grouping.

So rather – than collaborating in ensuring that Philosophy
remains largely in the province of the educationally privIleged (they are after all adept enough at holding on to those
prIvileges wIthout any help from me), I’d suggest that we
press for a movement in the opposite direction – an openIng
up of thesubject to those hitherto excluded.

3. TeachIng and learning strategies
I referred earlier to students’ curiosity as a major resource
in the Philosophy classroom. In order to harness that curiosity, to promote Imagination and intellectual discipline in an
optImum combination, other resources, additional to the students’ curIosity, need to be mobilized. The teaching strategies that would most effectively encourage such moblllzation would aim at:

(a) fostering enquiry, questioning and self questionIng;
(b) encouraging partIcipation in discussion and receptIvity to the ideas of others;
(c) establishing sound technical skills (such as skimming
for gist, blending material from a variety of sources, presenting reasoned arguments in essay form). Rich in curiosity
my students might be, but in certain areas of basic skills
often deeply impoverished;
(d) promoting a clear working structure which maximises
imagination within a framework that doesn’t squander it.

Let me cite one example where a cornbination of such
strategies can effectively advance the learning of the students. The need to contextualise the set texts appeared in
the contributions of both Stephen Brigley and Maurice
Roche, in different ways. (I defy anyone to teach the course
even half effectively without such a framework. The students
would have remained, for instance, baffled by the Meditations and the significance of that text had it not been well
woven into context. Nor would they have been slow to say
so!) This requirement – the need to contextualise philosophers – seems to me an instance of an opportunity for students
to do some extensive individual research – . supported and
guided, but not dictated to, and to come back and share and
compare their information with one another.

Few of our students wlll go on to study philosophy (unless as part of a joint degree) in higher education. In this
decision they will be guided, quite rightly, by a number of
criteria, of which an interest in philosophy is only one.

Vocational preparation in its best and honest sense has an
important role to play in the further education and school
curriculum. If what I have written seems to emphasise intellectual self development, that’s not because I see that as
standing in any simplistic opposition to other ingredients of
the curriculum. Curriculum design should take as its starting
point student needs – and intellectual development is just
one of those. My aim here has been to touch on some of the
potential benefits offered by the ‘A’ level Philosophy initiative. That the present syllabus and examination structure is

not perfect there is no doubt. I would not expect it to be
any more than I would expect my decisions about topics,
materials and strategies to be perfect (they weren’t). What
is important is that we – the A.E.B., the syllabus designers,
the examiners, the teachers – use these early experiences
positively and build upon them.

Nadine Cartner

Ecology: The Subversive
Readers of Richard Sylvan’s ‘Critique of Deep Ecology’

(RP40/4l) may be interested in placing the issues raised
there in a broad, historical context. There is no shortage of
published research on the rise of the environmental sciences,
but this generally adopts a highly technical and narrowlyfocused perspective. The publication of Robert P. McIntosh’ s
The Background to Ecology: concept and theory (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1985, xiii + 384pp, l30.00 hb)
may therefore be greeted as a welcome exception on both
counts. The study is accessible to the non-specialist, invitingly undogmatic, and broad in its ambitions. Here is the
best available survey of the origins and development of ecology in the USA, Britain and Western Europe. It would
appear, indeed, that only the large-scale study can hope to
follow the emergence of ecology, for it appeared as a selfconscious science in the nineteenth century from a profoundly complex interaction of such domains as physiology,
natural history, biogeography and biology. Fcom its modern
inception, ecology led a troubled, precarious llfe, knocking
for admission on the doors of official science then, once let
in, diffracting into a myriad of specialist sub-disciplines
each with its own method, materials and area of investigation.

This no doubt sustains the criticism that ecology lacks a
stable theoretical base (by which scientists mean a mathematical base). To this two things may be said. Firstly, as
McIntosh points out, a purely formal framework would be
too limiting to contain all the major llnes of ecological
research. But it does not necessarily follow, as McIntosh
supposes, that ecologists alone must place their house in
order, that only they can ‘effectively address ecological
questions’ (p. 323). It is notable that some of the greatest
advances in ecological thinking have occurred when the profound philosophical and political issues which always
smoulder beneath technical deliberations are permitted to
flare up into the open.

This is dernonstrated when McIntosh turns to ecological
developments during the 1960s and 1970s, when ‘the subversive science’ (as it was dubbed) challenged many of the most
entrenched premisses of the Western political and econornic
consensus. To show that advanced technological soc.ieties
are neither above nor beyond natural laws had a decisive
impact on the socio-cultural consciousness, but also on the
status and character of ecology itself. As Sylvan’s work has
shown by example, ‘ecological philosophy’ is no misnomer,
but instead a way forward in the pursuit of what is useful in
contemporary environmental science.

This second point, that ecology’s search for a theoretical base may lead beyond its narrower boundaries, can be reinforced by examining the rise of that science in the Soviet
Union after the October Revolution. Disappointingly little
has been written in English on this subject; McIntosh nowhere refers to Soviet developments, though his bibliography
mentions the Handbook of Contemporary Developments in
World Ecology (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1981),
edited by E. J. Kormondy and J. F. McCormick. This volume
contains a brief chapter which surveys the progress of

Russian and Soviet biocenology (community ecology) to
which is appended a bibliography of more than 500 items.

This in itself reflects something of the richness and range of
Soviet ecological thinking. The vital and pioneering period
of research was during the 1920s and 1930s, when such figures as 1. K. Pachoskii, V. N. Beklemishev, S. A. Severtsov
and V. V. Stanchinskii were at the forefront of developments
in the study of ecological communities. Such research has
been sorely neglected by historians and scientists in the
West; McIntosh discusses Raymond Undeman’s ‘famous’,
‘landmark’ paper on the tropic-dynamic aspect of ecology
published in 1942, but neglects to recognise that Stanchinskii developed the paradigm a full decade earlier. Moreover, unlike Undeman whose paper was initially rejected by
Ecology, Stanchinskii’s work was widely praised in the USSR
and published immediately in Zhurnal ekologii i biotsenologii
in 1931.

Ecology in the Soviet Union during this period was intimately connected with wideer political concerns and informed by philosophical considerations. Dialectical materialism was neither a luxury nor an imposition: ecologists found
in Marxism a source of guidance, stimulation and methodological and moral principle. The claim of the ecologist G. A.

Kozhevnikov that ‘an understanding of nature forms the
basis for a proper understanding of the world’ would have
found few dissenters and many willing and able to further
the common ground between science and philosophy. What
happened to the budding science of ecology in the mid-1930s
is not yet completely clear, but the outlines tell a nowfamlllar story of the redefinition of science in accordance
with Stalinist economic and political practices. These practices, and the principles by which they were justified,
proved an insuperable barrier for holistic ecology.

Douglas Weiner, one of the few working on this subject, has
written: ‘Ecologist-conservationists, embracing the notions
of “the web of life” and “the balance of nature” could not
reconcile themselves to policies which they feared would
sunder that web and disrupt that balance.’ We stlll do not
know enough to follow with accuracy the fate of those ecologists who refused conciliation with Stalinism, but this historical investigation would appear to be as full of instruction as is the philosophical work of those like Richard

Bibliographical note
McIntosh’s volume contains an extensive bibliography, which
does not however include sources on Soviet ecology. In the
late 1930s, the British ecologist J. Richard Carpenter, assisted by Charles Elton and working from information supplied
by the Soviet ecologist V. A. Alpatov, compiled a detailed
review of Soviet developments in community ecology entitled
‘Recent Russian Work on Community Ecology’, Journal of
Animal Ecology, VIII, 1939, pp. 354-86. The study referred
to in the article above is by W. Carter Johnson and Norman
R. French, and appears as ‘SovIet Union’, on pages 343-83 of
Handbook of Contemporary Developments in World Ecology.

The information on Soviet ecology in the note above derives
from a paper by Douglas Weiner published in Isis 75, 1985,
pp. 668-83.


Mike Short land


American Philosophy
I was pleased to read David Watson’s ‘American Philosophy:

R.I.P.’, depicting the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s lecture
series on American Philosophy as an implicit search for the
essence or exceptionalist character of American philosophy.

The opposing approach, represented by Bruce Kuklick, David
Hollinger, Mary Furner, Dorothy Ross, Thomas Haskell and
David Noble, focuses on institutional factors such as professionalism’s influence on philosophic discourse, alternatives to
traditional ways of picturing American philosophy, identifying communities of discourse and careful theses on the relation of professional ideas and public discourse. Watson
applauds this con textualist/historicist approach that seeks to
interpret ideas within their cultural context.

The disparaging feature of both the R.1.P.’s search for
the ‘spirit of American philosophy’ and the opposing contextualist/historicist approach is thatboth are trapped in a
discourse structured in such a way astObe implicItly supportive of racial bias. Neither school takes account of the
second largest body of American philosophic literature works by Afro-Americans. What would be radical is if the
debate between essentialist and con textualist were not
strictured by both identifying philosophically interesting
works as works by whItes and about any issue other than

Leonard Harr is

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