Philosophy: The art of rhetoric

Written by: James McCormack | Published:
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Further integration of philosophical questioning into the national curriculum is essential if we are to stand our students in good stead. James McCormack discusses

One of the most famous quotes of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein says that a philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.

This model of philosopher incorporates in an almost cynical manner the obligation to fight fiercely for the solution to social problems.
Philosophy is largely an attempt to get rid of a certain kind of human mystification, but it is itself trapped in many ways in its own environment of bewilderment, especially for younger generations.

More and more countries adopt curricular prescriptions increasing the emphasis on critical, creative thinking and collaborative problem-solving, following the learning approach that modern students should deal with unfamiliar situations in multiple knowledge contexts (Vasagar, 2014).

The generic view that critical-thinking courses help students to live better and solve their problems more effectively tends to be inadequate, since the detachment from the overall context of the curriculum diminishes the teaching as meaningless and finally ineffective (Hendrick, 2017).

Achieving this goal in secondary schools where students have already acquired a sufficient knowledge in numerous subjects is even more challenging, requiring critical and complex thinking also by teachers.

High school philosophy is historically overlooked in most English-speaking countries. Educational methods, like Lipman’s Philosophy for Children (P4C) concept, are limited specifically to younger children. Consequently, the interest of school and university students remains particularly vague, with a lack of motivation to develop “soft skills” (Morse, 2012).

However, positive opinions for the idea of critical thinking, practical communication and collaboration in secondary school are expressed more readily (SecEd, 2018).

More practical steps towards the routinisation of a classroom philosophical enquiry have been gradually taken, with emphasis on discussion, critical dialogue and counter-argument between students. The value of debate and rhetoric is arising, beyond the narrow scope of traditional curriculum, as a practical exercise of logical persuasion to improve public speaking capabilities.

The real liberation of philosophical learning and dialogue ultimately lies in the interconnection and overlapping of the lesson itself with specific themes. Philosophical debates are often analysed in the light of theological faith (SecEd, 2014) and philosophical and theological education is largely unified.

There is no philosophy examination at GCSE level, although AQA does offer A level examination in philosophy since 2001 (MacDonald Ross, 2009) with limited participation.

The opportunity of encouraging philosophical questioning in the high school classroom is really in the hands of independent school teachers, who have the freedom to implement such activities and supportive projects.

This opportunity, though, includes the major inherent risk of constructing an activity that would nurture such an array of skills in a time-constrained environment. This is where the school community must call upon its imaginative powers and have recourse to alternative means of teaching.

The magic of narrative fiction, truth and friendship, personal youth identity in the modern European Union were inspirations for the philosophical seminar Physiognomy at School, an educational project launched in Balkan and South European countries recently.

Based on the Greek mystery, debut novel of Nikos Toumaras – Physiognomy: Distorted truth (2017) – the programme took place over half a school year and incorporated issues of multicultural identification in the EU into classroom discussions. Launched on the occasion of the European elections of 2019, this seminar was adaptive, emphasising either the local culture (Palomar, 2019) or the multicultural nature (Popi, 2019) of modern education.

This adaptability should be at the core of philosophy projects in the UK. In that context and with this purpose, each student should learn to think independently, but the main problem of the instructor is to transform the energy of this youth impulse into conversation, discussion and constructive dialogue.

This is accomplished by enabling the participants to communicate using the rules of logic as criteria of assessment, distinguishing the structure between good and poor thinking. But that this is a demanding educational process perhaps explains the widespread concern that schools will continue to fail to instill these cognitive skills and dispositions.

The various steps of reasoning taking place as the debate proceeds require not only the ability to think critically, but also a high degree of social understanding in order to make intelligent judgements about public topics. Teachers, along with the students will get involved in this discussion, to self-regulate these judgements and the results, to interpret, analyse, evaluate, infer and explain the wide spectrum of different considerations.

It is difficult to say exactly how an approach like this would be translated into a conventional, teaching practice or a standardised school routine that can be assessed and contextualised in a national curriculum. The choice of a common, reliable and valid measurement instrument is crucial, but at the same time really challenging. How could you measure with formal tests the level of thinking skills and create a framework in the long term?

The answer lies in the features which teachers agree are most important and a subjective assessment by the students and cannot be quantified for comparison between groups. High school students are at the right age to start evaluating thoughts and actions as they pass through a natural process of seeking and shaping their own identity.

We must overcome the formalistic, traditional instruction without activities, methods and interpersonal communication. Knowledge-learning surpasses mechanically memorising formulas and theories, understanding the mental and practical knowledge ability of the human beings behind the learning activity.

  • James McCormack is a PhD high school English teacher from Manchester.

Further information

  • Countries that excel at problem-solving encourage critical thinking, Vasagar, Financial Times, May 2014: https://on.ft.com/2OE7eL9
  • Why students should not be taught general critical thinking skills, Hendrick, LSE Impact Blog, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2Vxb75Q
  • Why critical thinking is overlooked by schools and shunned by students, Morse, Guardian, September 2012: http://bit.ly/2Mw5XmJ
  • Ideas to teach critical thinking, SecEd, February 2018: http://bit.ly/2EXUbLQ
  • Study reveals teens’ views on faith and RE, SecEd, January 2014: http://bit.ly/1bxH3YR
  • The teaching of philosophy in the UK, MacDonald Ross, White Rose Research, Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York (Revue
  • internationale de didactique de la philosophie), 2009: http://bit.ly/2OFvkoU
  • Conocimiento humanístico con dimensión práctica, Palomar, September 2019: http://bit.ly/35jY6B8
  • Le dinamiche e le prospettive dell’educazione interculturale, Popi, August 2019: http://bit.ly/2B6jhZM


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