Small children have great curiosity. The most common question asked by children the world over is “why”?
This search for answers to this most natural question must once again be a central focus of our education system. We must rediscover a way in which to apply this most natural question to the complexities of modern life. Why are so many homeless in a country of such abundant wealth? Why do we ignore the warnings of the scientific community as our planet bakes? Why do we line up at junk food outlets in the midst of an obesity epidemic? So many of our young spend their weekend consuming copious amounts of alcohol and engaging in violent behaviour – why? We need to return to the original purpose of education. Education is another victim of our surrender to the notion that we live in an economy, rather than a society. Where once we wanted our schools and universities to produce intelligent individuals capable of contributing to society in many diverse ways, we now consider education simply as a servant of the economy in the narrowest sense of the term. Contrary to popular belief, the most significant problems we face today are social rather than purely economic in nature – but even economic policy should be an expression of our values, and considered accordingly. Soaring levels of unemployment stand awkwardly next to economic growth that generates pockets of extreme wealth because we no longer wonder how such contradictions can be corrected. More than ever, we need to return to the original purpose of our learning institutions. If the abiding purpose of education in Australia is to develop intelligent young men and women capable of contributing to our society, then the role of philosophy should be reconsidered – not just in universities but also as a part of primary and secondary education. We now neglect the teaching of philosophy, so central to the education systems of all great civilisations, East and West. To remove philosophy as a core focus of a university – a tendency common to universities across Australia – is to remove its soul. It is commonly understood that in France – as well as in Italy, Portugal and Spain – all students study Philosophy in their last year of high school and the excellent documentary released in 2010, Ce n’est qu’un début, showed that children in kindergartens across France were also engaged in activities designed to develop their sense of interrogation, learning to apply reason and logic to problems. This is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it unique to France. Matthew Lipman founded Philosophy for Children in the United States in the 1970s following his experience as a professor at Columbia University, where he was concerned at his students’ inability to reason. He also recognised that children have the ability to think in an abstract fashion from an early age – something that should be maintained and encouraged. Teaching practical skills that can be used in the workplace is essential. It has always been considered an important part of education in all countries and at all times in human history. Secure, full-time, creative and satisfying work is a fundamental condition for human dignity, for the development of the individual and for the maintenance of harmonious relationships within society. Our growing obsession with the economic dimension of society, manifested in the current craze for standardised testing such as NAPLAN and basically utilitarian knowledge has obscured other important aspects of education. Young people should not be viewed simply as future workers, consumers and investors but as citizens with a responsibility to help solve myriad complex problems our society faces. Education demands a respect for truth, powers of analysis and critical thinking and acquire a broad, accurate and balanced knowledge of history. If we want our education system to serve our society and not just our economy, then we should align our focus accordingly. If the spirit of enquiry ceases to be a central purpose of education in Australia, our capacity to generate wealth through economic growth might continue unabated but Australian society will fall short of its great potential. @AndrewHunter__