Teaching Philosophy in Schools

Filed in Latest News by on November 20, 2017

Why should Catholic schools teach philosophy? Surely what matters is catchesis and forming young people in the Faith? This is a view taken by many today but it is profoundly mistaken and represents a denial of the Catholic tradition, a rejection of Catholic heritage and a wasted opportunity. In the Catholic tradition philosophy and theology have always been handmaids – it is not possible to train to be a Catholic priest without studying both disciplines. Arguably philosophy thinking in Catholicism has been deeper, more rigorous and more profound that that found in any other religious grouping anywhere in the world.

The Church faces an existential crisis in the modern Western world (the less developed world is a different story). Church attendances are declining and for many young people Faith is simply irrelevant. This is not an accident – it is a product of a trend in the modern world to deny the search for any Absolute Truth and to see truth as, at least, a construct. The movement can be seen most clearly in art with a gradual slide from representational art which sought to capture ‘Truth’ on canvas, through Dadaism in the First World War and so on through surrealism and many other movements to culminate in postmodern art. Indeed we live in a post modern, relativistic and nihilistic world where concern for ultimate Truth is seen as a relic of a bygone age. In case this seems a questionable or challenging view, then it is represented nowhere more clearly nor argued anywhere more forcibly then in ‘Fides et Ratio’, the wonderful 1998 encyclical by Pope John Paul 11th who, in an impassioned and carefully argued letter, argued for the absolute centrality of philosophy. The Pope did not even give supremacy to Catholic philosophy – instead he called on the discipline to recapture its old calling by focussing on the great questions about meaning, purpose, God and evil. His call has largely been ignored outside the Church and, what is more disappointing and surprising, inside the Church as well.

Truth is not something that is relative to any individual subject in schools – it affects, or should do, every area of the curriculum. Over the door of Plato’s Academy of Philosophy in Athens were the words ‘Let no-one unskilled in Mathematics enter here’; History is concerned with the very nature of truth both as a vehicle of power as well as a discipline in its own right; all the sciences have a profound interest in truth as well as the extent to which, as Thomas Kuhn argued, any scientific view is simply a paradigm to be replaced by another when the old one breaks down; geography raises issues of truth (for instance in the case of projections) but also in other areas as well; art and music both also raise issues of truth. Catholic education at its best should have a profound, inter-disciplinary approach to Truth yet, sadly, this is all too often lacking and this is sometimes because many teachers in Catholic schools do not recognise the depth and relevance of the tradition.

This session will explore these issues and suggest a way forward which can enable schools to engage with contemporary culture and which can kindle anew the relevance of the Tradition to the modern world.

Dr. Peter Vardy

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