At the chalkface: Philosophy

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

It might not be allowed these days. It didn’t matter if we didn’t understand. If you’re not going to understand something it may as well be the world’s leading thinkers.

Two items of recent news are profoundly dispiriting. One, 37,500 teachers are on long-term sick leave with “an epidemic of stress”. And two, OffHead has suggested compulsory baseline tests for literacy and numeracy for Reception class tots – and probably embryos for all we know. They “need to be pushed harder”. Jesus.

I can’t help feeling the two are somehow connected. How can teachers be treated so badly? Can it get any worse? It doesn’t have to be like this. It wasn’t always like this. A school needs a great head, fiercely independent teachers, and a flexible, bespoke curriculum, just like I had.

My old head was an idealist, an intellectual and a socialist, who believed passionately in the comprehensive system: “Everyone should know everything!” he said.

He trusted his staff to do what they wanted, not what OffHead decreed. Teaching was consequently a thrilling adventure, not hamster wheel drudgery that drives anybody with imagination insane.

At the heart of his philosophy was, well, philosophy. The prince of all subjects. It underpinned everything. He encouraged us all to do it, formally or otherwise, in classroom and playground. His own 20-minute assemblies were magical.

He mesmerised the whole school with some pretty vertiginous speculations on Plato and his Cave, Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus or Nietzsche and the Death of God. It might not be allowed these days. It didn’t matter if we didn’t understand. If you’re not going to understand something it may as well be the world’s leading thinkers.

His best turn was a stunning rumination on Sartre’s “man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does”. Heavy! We continued to wrestle with these dizzying paradoxes long into our next lessons.

He never condescended or trespassed into modish mumbo-jumbo or fortune-cookie banalities of a later vacuous head. Things like “altitude is attitude” or is it vice-versa? Or “angels aspire to heaven because they have wings”. Dear me. The nouns in this sentence are at best lies, illusions. The verb is tacky. You never lie to pupils. And children, especially the tinies, are natural philosophers. Perpetually curious. Seriously ludic. Why is the sky blue? What came before nothing? Where does time go? Where’s my mind? And so on.

Philosophy also has the advantage of making you deep, distracted, unemployable and attractive to all genders. Perhaps OffHead could be persuaded to have a philosophy module. Those tinies in Reception would love it. Mind you, they’d probably get it wrong: “Is god dead? Yes or No?”

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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