Philosophy in Schools: Report from Sydney
Matthew Del Nevo
Philosophy has been brought into schools in the states of Victoria and Queensland as a High School Certificate (A level) subject. The Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools (VAPS) is a strong network of educators and academic support. New South Wales, where I live, has the Philosophy for Children Association of New South Wales which is like the concept of 'nature' of Heraclitus, in that it seems to hide.
I introduced Philosophy into Catherine McAuley, a Catholic Girl's High school in the West of Sydney with a population of over 1000. This is a working class school catering mainly to children of first and second generation migrants with a good academic reputation. Philosophy is part of the Gifted and Talented program, or Extension program, as it is otherwise called. It was a vertical class of Year 8 and 9s (3rd and 4th Years in UK).
The Community of Inquiry is the way I run classes. This is method rather than content based. I find it hugely successful for philosophy purposes. In Australia, there is a peak body, the Federation of Australasian Philosophy for Children Associations (FAPCA). They have links with Montclair where Mathew Lipman's central institute for Philosophy in Schools is situated. FAPCA have teacher training courses available. I am certified by them to train teachers in philosophy in schools. FAPCA use the Community of Inquiry method. I assume you know it, so I won't go into it.
Because of my own background in philosophy of religion and particularly in continental philosophy and literature, I developed the idea of the Continental Community of Inquiry. Students would have a text, like Kafka's 'Before the Law', for example, as the starter. The text is interesting, because it is not purpose written for children or philosophy in schools. It doesn't contain deliberately buried treasure. The kids recognise that this is the real deal. This is the stuff that gets real Philosophers talking, and here they are, doing it too.
No-one understands this text by Kafka, I don't; Derrida wrote a huge essay on it, he doesn't either. Kafka wrote it, and he didn't either. It is one of those texts that defies totalisation (being summed up in other words). These are the kinds of texts I use. Pedagogically it is a great experience for the students to raise questions out of such a text, to catalogue or group their questions, to pick the more philosophical questions from the bunch and make themselves the criteria by which one question will be picked as the best, to be answered in the Community of Inquiry. There will always be a couple of students who go away and read The Trial, or de Beauvoir, Dostoyevsky, or Marguerite Duras. Yes, this has happened with14 and 15 year olds!
I network widely and use material from other teachers. Clinton Golding's book The Spirit of Socrates is my favourite, and my students'. It is a rich resource, which I highly recommend. Clinton teaches in NZ.
I am presently in an academic position, but have a consultancy role at my old school, and increasingly, elsewhere. Most recently I have involved my philosophy students with a High School in Finland which was piloting BSCW softwear developed by the German National Research Centre for IT.
BSCW is an online collaborative work space. The school project was to use philosophy to discuss the movie The Matrix. The work space is designed so that discussion fitted into a category relevant to TheMatrix: epistemology, reality, religion and myth, power. Under each category, your comment needed to come under one of a number of sub-categories: problem statement, working theory, general comment, deepening knowledge, reflection on process, and so on. The definitions of these categories were given with some general introductory information, film reviews and that sort of thing. It was only a pilot program but a great chance for my Sydney students to work collaboratively with students their age from across the world.
There is a lot of philosophy going on now in Australian schools, especially in Victoria. There is a lot of negotiating going on, as to the place of philosophy in the curriculum. My worry is that philosophy doesn't just become another subject alongside the others and on a par with them. Education itself operates on the basis of some philosophy or other or more likely some fad ideology passing itself off as philosophy. Philosophy in the broad sense of good ideas and values, texts and traditions needs to infiltrate the governing system.
It is no good having philosophy domesticated by educational norms that are sub-philosophical. Philosophy needs to enter education, not just schools, not just curricula. Philosophy has been sidelined or academicised in our time. If philosophy wants to make a push for itself, it is in the broad direction of education as a whole, at its conception and inception, that I think it should head; not toward some educational niche where the whole point of it is lost. Philosophers may specialise, but philosophy is not a specialisation; this is what we've got to keep in mind.
© Matthew Del Nevo 2002