Should philosophy influence educational policy?

You might think that philosophy has little to do with education in general or Computing in particular, but the concept of “smart thinking” espoused in the following article by Mel Thompson certainly has resonance with “computational thinking”.

Go into many bookshops these days and the section that used to be called ‘Philosophy’ is now labelled ‘smart thinking’, and so it should be, because philosophy is not just a matter of studying the great thinkers of the past but is a skill to be acquired, honed and put into practice. It’s about thinking clearly and carefully, of sorting priorities, of cutting out the irrelevant and inessential, of getting a grip on the key features of the matter in hand.

So should we ‘think smart’ when it comes to educational policy? Of course. Educational policy needs to return regularly to the basic questions upon which it is founded: What is education for? Who is best qualified to decide what should be taught and how? How should we judge success or failure? How important is it within our society, and therefore how much of our common resources should be given to it?

You can see the value of smart thinking most clearly when it is absent: when education is run as though it were a retail business; when content is determined by politicians who have seldom been near a classroom; when schools are judged by carefully measured deliverables, rather than by what they actually achieve for students; when creativity is stifled in order to teach to a nationally-imposed test upon whose results both school and teacher are going to be judged.

Education is a process, not a commodity

Even a brief spell of philosophising is enough to establish that education is not a commodity but a process. One on my favourite quotes on education comes from Plutarch (and I know we’re venturing into the territory of dead, white males, but historically that can’t be helped), who said ‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’ Not a bad bit of advice as a starting point for education, coming from a thinker born in the first century CE.

As smart thinking, philosophy is a skill that has always been included in good education, even if it has not appeared as a separate subject on the curriculum – for it is the very essence of what education is about. But the other aspect of philosophy is critical reflection upon the history of thought – taking and examining the arguments of great thinkers of the past. Here there is a wealth of material worth pondering; let’s just take a few examples.

What some philosophers said

Plato promotes the dialogue form – not lecturing facts, but gently teasing out what students already know and helping them to clarify and enlarge their knowledge. Naturally enough, this is not applicable to all situations – there is plenty of new information to be conveyed, but it’s still an essential tool for checking whether new ideas have been correctly grasped. Even earlier, the Buddha helped students by providing easily memorised lists, and then challenged them not to take his word for it, but only believe what they could accept with conviction after personal reflection. John Locke thought that the mind started as a blank slate (a tabula rasa) waiting to receive experience, and published Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), in which he opposed learning by rote and argued that students should develop language skills by practice rather studying books of grammar. In the early 20th century the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey promoted child-centred learning and open enquiry, and was to have a huge influence on liberal education.

But philosophers have often differed widely in their approach. Confucius saw education as a matter of instilling good social manners and habits, in order that the young should conform to the norms of the day, while Rousseau saw individuals as corrupted by society and education as a liberal path to a natural state of freedom. The worst way to study philosophy, and a disservice to philosophers of the past, is to take and apply their thought uncritically. By all means benefit from the wisdom of the past, but your study is only philosophy if you scrutinize it, challenge it and test it out.

To return to Plutarch for a moment; one of the must unphilosophical of modern educational assumptions is that education is about filling the mind with content. In an age where computers, once suitably programmed, can perform tasks far more efficiently than human beings, and where the internet provides instant information on anything and everything, there really is no point in regarding the intellectual shovel as a relevant tool. It is increasingly obvious that, looking to the future, all education needs to be centred on the cultivation of smart thinking. Of course we all need basic skills in order to use the technology available to us, and perhaps to enhance and develop that technology, but the real challenge is to give students a critical appreciation of what technology can do and how it can contribute to human wellbeing. Education is about values, direction and an imaginative grasp of possibilities.

Of course, if you are about to have an OFSTED inspection, or are in the process of drilling pupils for their SATS, all this may seem desperately irrelevant to the task in hand. And, sadly, so it is; and so it will remain unless we instil into education policy a bit more smart thinking.

November came around, and with it ‘World Philosophy Day’ on 20th November this year – the day when UNESCO promoted its ‘collective exercise in free, reasoned and informed thinking on the major challenges of our time.’ (According to the UNESCO website, World Philosophy Day is annually observed on the third Thursday of November to honour philosophical reflections around the world.) But just as the animal welfare poster used to proclaim that a dog was for life and not just for Christmas, so I would plead that the smart thinking and history of thought, which are of the essence of Philosophy, should not be just for this day, nor treated as an optional subject to be inserted into the curriculum if time, energy and inclination permit, but should inform all we do in the classroom.

About Mel Thompson

Formerly a teacher, editor and A-level examiner, Mel Thompson is now a freelance writer, with a particular interest in Philosophy and Ethics. His many publications include 8 books in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series, Philosopher’s Behaving Badly, about the behaviour of some well-known thinkers, and, most recently The Philosopher’s Beach Book, which invites you to wiggle your toes in the sand and think!

For further information about his publications, and links to many other items of philosophical and ethical interest, see his website: .


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