This post is devoted to a single quote from Alan Bullock (1914-2004)*.
It is taken from his book, The Humanist Tradition in the West (Thames and Hudson, 1985, pp 186-7). It illustrates, I think, the spirit of philosophy for children. In these dichotomous times, I should stress that I don’t think Bullock’s recommendations would necessarily lead to a lack of focus in teaching or learning. Nor would they deprive pupils of a healthy acquaintance with Shakespeare or other great writers. If you are one of the subject-knowledge-is-everything crusaders, try to apply the principle of charity* to your reading of Bullock. If you can accept that there should be at least some time in the curriculum for the sort of thing he proposes, then Philosophy for Children has much to contribute. If you like to see children pondering science-fiction-type thought experiments and paradoxes and you call that kind of thing ‘proper philosophy’, consider Bullock’s vision as an alternative that connects life, learning and philosophising together.
…I have learned, in a world in which older people are continually deploring the disappearance of values, the extent to which young people are trying to work out for themselves new values to live by, their own codes of behaviour, their own concepts of conscience and of the qualities they prize. They are not the same as those of their grandparents, but neither were ours the same as the values of the Victorian age, nor the Victorians’ as those of the eighteenth century.
I suspect that this is the only way in which values can be re-created in the modern world, no longer by direct transmission but by encouraging young people to discover, or rediscover, them for themselves, out of their own experience and insights, often in discussion with their peers, not taken on authority but deeply influenced by the sympathy and above all the example (practice not precept) of older people.
At a time when the place of the humanities in education is under question, young people’s search for values by which to live seems to me to define the role the humanities can play. It will require something of a revolution in the presentation of history, literature and the arts, to start not from the achievements of the past, but from the human needs of young people today. But it is the same role which the rediscovery of the ancient world played for the Renaissance, providing those who were young then with a strange and exciting world which they could explore and on which they could draw to work out their own answers to the questions and conflicts presented by their own experience. Today the material on which to draw on is no longer limited to the ancient world, but includes the whole range of human experience, contemporary as well as historical, that of other cultures as well as our own Western tradition. This material, thanks to film, television and videos, is now accessible as never before.
Here is a great opportunity to make available to young people in schools and colleges, not a traditional course in the humanities, but a direct encounter, taking advantage of these new media, with human experience of the questions that bother and fascinate them. It could focus in turn on such questions as conscience, conflicts of loyalty, rebellion and authority, the ambivalence of feelings, the search for identity, the power of art and myth, passions and compassion, as these are reflected in literature, theatre, the arts, history and philosophical debate – with the same object, to prompt them, as the discovery of Greece and Rome prompted the young people of the Renaissance, to reach their own conclusions.
Any such encounter with the humanities is valuable not only for the results it can produce, but for the activity itself, engaging the imagination and the emotions in the penetration of other people’s worlds and ideas. In an education which is all too inclined to fill students with information and limit itself to teaching them techniques, here is a way of fostering the emotional, subjective side of human nature which is of so much importance for young people, and which needs to be developed as much as the intellectual if they are to acquire confidence and establish satisfying relationships with other human beings.
*Alan Bullock: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/feb/03/guardianobituaries.obituaries
*The Principle of Charity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity