I tend to hold Jews to a higher standard than Christians, probably because of my quasi-Jewish upbringing and the general impression that Jews are on average smarter than members of other faiths (I don’t know that for sure, but they are certainly overrepresented in academic and among Nobel Laureates). And thus I get especially upset when a religious Jew does something really stupid, which is not uncommon.
Likewise, I tend to hold Brits to a higher standard than Americans, perhaps because they’re not as religious and their accent makes them sound smart. But then that feeling is weakened when the Brits do something so boneheaded that you wouldn’t see it even in America. And they’ve just pulled such a stunt, as reported in new piece by Charlie Duncan Saffrey at the Guardian‘s “Comment is free” section: “Philosophy is not religion. It must not be taught that way.” (The Guardian notes that Saffrey, a writer and teacher, “is also the founder and host of Stand-up Philosophy, a regular live philosophy show in London”.)
Saffrey reports some proposed changes in the A-level philosophy course beginning in 2015. (“A levels” represent courses of study taken in Wales and England during a student’s last two years of secondary school, before university. Students are about 17 and 18 years old, and have to take three A-level curricula.)
The revisions in the philosophy requirements are completely idiotic: they’re dumping many classical topics in philosophy in favor of—”wait for it,” as the Brits say—philosophy of religion. Note that philosophy of religion is not the history of religion, but apologetics and various arguments for God’s existence and nature.
Saffrey begins his piece with a bunch of acronyms that mystify non-Brits, but the meaning is clear:
For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.
The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.
The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.
Well, maybe they had no choice to dump the “free will” part. And, to be sure, there are really two sections in the new curriculum: epistemology and philosophy of religion. I presume the latter is replacing all the things mentioned in Saffrey’s second paragraph.
You can download a pdf of the proposed philosophy specifications here; the relevant part is on page 7:
Surveys have shown (I’m not sure if they’re limited to the U.S) that while philosophers in general are overwhelmingly nonbelievers, philosophers of religion are predominantly religious. That means, of course, that students are going to get exposed to a lot more religious belief, apologetics, and other useless stuff. Saffrey, correctly, finds this unconscionable:
Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.
A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.
(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)
As Saffrey notes, this is going to make it harder for secular philosophy to disentangle itself from religious philosophy—a struggle that’s been going on for years. And I think it will certainly devalue philosophy degrees in the UK. Imagine having to study Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne rather than Plato, Mill, Rawls, or Singer! Instead of pondering what makes a good life, or how can one construct a good ethical system, students will be reading justifications of the nonexistent.
I bet Anthony Grayling is FURIOUS about this. In fact, I think I’ll ask him what he thinks; his reaction should be amusing.
h/t: Matthew Cobb