What’s the point of children?

Boy writingTeaching philosophy to primary school children can improve their English and maths skills, according to a pilot study highlighting the value of training pupils to have inquiring minds.

So writes Sarah Cassidy in The Independent . Apparently,

Children from deprived backgrounds benefited the most from philosophical debates about topics such as truth, fairness and knowledge.

No doubt this is true, but it’s a superb illustration of the topsy-turvy nature of our society. It means that English and maths are the objectives: truth, fairness and knowledge are the means.

I have occasionally heard children saying ‘The sums don’t add up’, but nowhere near as often as I have heard them saying ‘It’s not fair’.

Truth, fairness and knowledge are features of life which every child instinctively understands. And needs to. The adults around them are able to encourage their understanding of these things, or alternatively suppress it.

By contrast learning to write, spell and add up are more artificial. So why are English and maths the objectives, and truth, fairness and knowledge only the means?

We know the publicly stated reasons of the educational establishment. Children and their schools are being tested at every stage of their development. They are being prepared for the world of ‘work’. To be in ‘work’ means to do anything that somebody else will pay you to do. This is deemed essential because the nation’s well-being is measured by how much money changes hands. All this is totally crazy but most of us have been persuaded to accept it.

So the emphasis on learning skills essential for ‘work’ is society’s way of saying what children are for. They are to be prepared for an adult life as a wage slave. The preparation requires English and maths.

Truth, fairness and knowledge are a different matter. It is most obvious in the case of fairness. Nobody could describe the current distribution of work and wealth as fair. Somebody who is sensitive to issues of fairness is more likely to rebel against the system. Those in control of the educational system have no wish to encourage that.

To some extent the same is true of truth and knowledge. If you are to spend your adult life as a cog in a machine, which itself is designed to produce things of no interest to you, the ability to think outside the box will make you unhappy. You will probably end up as a troublemaker. Better to simply accept their versions of truth and knowledge.

The difference could not be more stark. Learning about English and maths are tools. They will be useful for a lot of purposes, but they are means, not ends in themselves. They are promoted because they are measurable indices of preparation for adult ‘work’.

Learning the nature of truth, fairness and knowledge, on the other hand, are skills for making the most of your life. Whatever you spend your adult life doing, they will help you reflect more deeply. They will enable you to be your own person.

I look forward to reading the article that says teaching English and maths to primary school children can improve their philosophical skills. That would show that the educational system has got its priorities right.

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1 Response to What’s the point of children?

  1. Rob says:

    Jon, I agree with so much of what you say here. For much of my life, I’ve been the sort of trouble maker you speak of. It’s been costly in so many ways from my time in school and difficulties with authority in the army for six years (many punishments came my way) to problems in work life and a growing sense of social isolation. It is an on-going daily battle. I’m thankful in many ways for having been exposed to ideas and questions that challenged me, challenged the way the world was being made sense of for me and around me. However, I’m also thankful that I’m running out of steam, slowing down a bit and not so energised. I live in hope that younger blood takes over and it seems to be so. Being a trouble maker is a young man’s game or a young woman’s game. I’m able to keep chipping in from the sidelines but others with more energy and stamina have to lead the assault against a system structured for perpetual enslavement. Under our current conditions ‘real’ humanising education comes with a cost just as instrumental education does. We need to be prepared to find ways to support those who go on to bear such costs and offer fairly detailed arguments as to why one form of cost is more worthwhile in the short, medium and long term.

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