Repurposing Philosophy for democratising education

50th Anniversary Conference of PESGBIMG_7903

This weekend 28th March 2015, the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain celebrated its 50th Anniversary, with conference bathed in exuberance at New College, Oxford. The stars were shining, the wine was sparkling and philosophers were buzzing in the gothic halls… a proliferation of famous white beards, but also a range of international scholars and encouragingly more vocal women philosophers!

A competitive range of eighty-three topics were presented over four days, covering themes of the humanities, equality, citizenship, justice, sustainability, cosmopolitanism, ethics, religion, aims of education, philosophy for children and more.

While the Society’s membership has grown since 1964, with 24 branches across the UK and in continental Europe, this significant Anniversary seems to be a milestone only for this insider group of scholars, whose impact on education might be overlooked by media and policy circles.

That is why this milestone should call for a greater reflection of the past fifty years and a meditation over the future progress of the society and its impact on education progress as a whole. It is important as scholars and citizens to consider the evolution of philosophy of education and where we want it to lead us, or rather, where we would like to take it. We need the younger members to see that philosophy of education is an end unto itself but it could also be a means to achieving a greater social end.

As part of the Education Festival section of the conference, Dr Steve Bramall (P4C Lead Trainer, Practitioner) and I were pleased to convene a ‘radical’ session on the theme: “Philosophy for Children: Repurposing philosophy for democratising education,” through which we supported a particular notion of philosophical inquiry and aimed to challenge an old paradigm of philosophy as a specialised discipline.

As someone with a policy and research background, I currently consider myself an apprentice in philosophy, and so my ambition for the session was to convey how I see philosophy at a systemic level rather than at an academic discipline level. With a rather pragmatic outlook, I called for philosophy to change the world rather than interpret it. As Karl Marx argued: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

This anniversary presents the perfect time to mobilise and rethink the role of philosophy, and so here I outline a vision for the future and where philosophy could take us a society:


Philosophy should return to the Agora: We need to rethink the importance of democratising philosophy.

Philosophy should aim to return to an earlier practical and political purpose, as it is needed to mobilise a more holistic society.Plato_and_Aristotle_in_The_School_of_Athens,_by_italian_Rafael

Language has evolved through a socio-cultural process, and evolutionary as part of a collaborative process. Our ability to question our own existence (to philosophise) is thus unique to the human species, but I fear that it has increasingly become a specialised practice and ability of the few “philosopher-kings”. The ability to question has become a compartmentalised process, learned as a skill and culture within the ivory towers of academic circles, and in particular within philosophy seminars.

True, philosophy as an academic discipline requires a lot of depth, attention and perseverance, but that doesn’t mean we should isolate the definition of philosophy in the sense of academic discipline. Instead, philosophy was born from the collective human consciousness and we should emphasize this unique evolutionary ability in our progress as a species and as the core of future social progress.

While philosophy has significantly shrunk as a discipline since the Enlightenment – many questions have been overtaken by the “omniscient” sciences – the practice of philosophical inquiry remains as a fundamental and ultimately human activity. Rebecca Goldstein argues that “philosophy maximises coherence,” and this cannot be more adequately said, at a time when philosophical inquiry has the unique ability to assess the implications of the growing scientific and technical advances. I argue that with the current trend of specialisation and compartmentalisation of professional expertise in professional education, we need philosophical thinking at the epicentre and not at the fringes (or the academic bubbles). We need philosophical inquiry to be at the core of education and foster the fundamental skill and practice in society at large, in order to make this world more coherent and reasonable.


Philosophy could inspire a new paradigm:

(what John Dewey called paradigm of inquiry)

In the past year, we have seen an interesting trend, a rising interest in the role of philosophy within the highly specialised fields of finance and economics. Philosophy has surprisingly emerged as a special potion or a cure to professions, which have struggled with ethical scandals and increasingly automatised/routinized patterns of work. With an increasingly complex society and economy, people see the need to think deeper and systemically, and to tackle the idea of complexity even within arguably process-oriented professions, such as accountancy. Many successful CEOs are now making a point of preserving time for reflection and mindfulness, and consider the purpose and values of their businesses. Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley investor, holds conferences of leading thinkers to try to improve the world, and Damon Horowitz, interrupted a career in technology to get a PhD in philosophy, (currently has two jobs at Google: director of Engineering and in-house philosopher).

We also see leading universities such as the LSE, Cambridge, Harvard Business and Stern Business School, poking the philosophy bubble and trying to re-engage the liberal arts notion of education, hoping to get tackle complexity or to just get their name higher up on the rankings lists…Could philosophy re-enchant professional education?

We have forgotten that the best ideas were born as part the agora, such as democracy and scientific theory. The best ideas of our modern world are happening as a process of collaborative and cross-disciplinary inquiry… and these inquiries could be stronger and more meaningful if invigorated with a philosophical framework. Ultimately, to progress as a society and as humans, we need to ask the question Why, not just What and How we do things. We need to ask ourselves bigger questions about our world, our society and what style of thinking will help us achieve a more wise, reflective world. When I say ‘We’, I mean not the people at the PESGB conference or the philosophy seminars but the teachers, the bankers, the teenagers undertaking vocational apprenticeship – society at large. Unfortunately, this beautiful conference is at the fringes, unable to reach these parts of society.

I believe that Philosophy could help us become more critical, reflective and wise professionals; to help us move toward an integral society (term coined by Frederic Laloux in his book ‘Rethinking Organisations”). Philosophy could re-enchant the world, but needs to be democratised through interdisciplinary practice.


Philosophy for Children (P4C) could bring back the Agora in the classroom


This movement for democratic education through philosophical inquiry, started by John Dewey and then Matthew Lipman since the 1930’s, has become an international movement practised now in approximately 60 countries. Supported by The Society for Advancement of Philosophy in the UK (SAPERE), this initiative presents a proactive, grassroots approach to embedding philosophical inquiry as part of teaching, learning and internalising inquiry as a way of life. P4C sees philosophy as an integrated culture and holistic practice in education rather than as a subject, discipline or skill set, which gently plants the seeds for change.

Thus, we present P4C as a potential to influence the basis of a new social and economic paradigm, as it retrieves the roots of the fundamental human consciousness rather than merely trains for a distilled activity for academic philosophy. The ‘P’ in P4C argues for the development of generalist critical thinking skills and it indirectly supports the liberal arts way of interdisciplinary thinking. Critical, collaborative, caring and creative thinking are the 4C’s that could be the basis of more holistic professional and technical knowledge. These self-sustainable skills that P4C develops in young children and adult communities, are fundamental for constructive social discourse, conflict resolution, and genuine cosmopolitanism beyond the academic specialty.

We need to spread the power of philosophical inquiry that fosters a culture, an attitude and a global vision for wisdom through a grassroots, bottom-up approaches to influencing policy rather than relying on the passive written form of argumentation. We need teachers in schools and philosophers in universities to plant the seeds of active democracy as Dewey saw it and as Martha Nussbaum defends through the liberal arts.

At this 50th Anniversary, I raise the importance to repurpose philosophy, to go back to its roots, as an active part of society, because philosophising is what it is to be human.