Schools in Britain, and indeed the world over, are being subordinated to a central diktat, which values the passing of exams above any other benefit. International studies which rank schools, such as PISA, encourage governments to subordinate everything to the optimisation of performance in these international tests. Learning becomes a sequence of “teaching for the test”, with rote-learning replacing genuine open-ended learning. The schools become like factories, and teachers become operatives, encouraging their students along a conveyor belt. The “Philosophy Shop” is a much needed corrective, because at its heart it is encouraging young people to think, and to think independently of exams. The book wants to see thinking for thinking's sake, the development of the intellect for the sheer love of learning, and the formation of enquiring minds which want to probe and are unwilling to accept authority unless grounded on good argument. This is dangerous stuff, and is likely to get the purveyors of the material locked up by the Department for Education. The book is conceived by the Philosophy Foundation, whose aim is to bring the study of philosophy to communities beyond universities, and in particular to introduce it to disadvantaged school students. It believes that the teaching of philosophy at early ages helps develop autonomy and creative thinking, rational reasoning skills amongst children and adults, and will help them to become better thinkers and contributors for the rest of their lives.
The book eschews the traditional approach of philosophy, which is to be instructive, and to lay out in great swathes of text received views on a whole range of philosophical problems. Rather, the inspiration is the philosophical approach of Plato as mediated through Socrates. The book is full of questions, which uses the prompts of a story, or occasionally a poem or activity. The book is divided into four sections, following a methodology that the book's editor, Peter Worley, first heard used by A C Grayling: “Metaphysics or What There Is”, “Epistemology or What Can Be Known About What There Is”, “Value or What Matters in What There Is” and “Language and Meaning or What Can be Said About What There Is”. A typical story, and one of my favourites, is “The Butterfly Dream”, which comes in section two on epistemology, and is inspired by Chuang Tsu's dreaming he was a butterfly, but when awaking asking himself whether he was in reality a butterfly dreaming now that he was a man. The guided questions begin with “How would he [Chuang Tsu] be able to tell?”, and finishes with a more abstract “Is a butterfly free when it is blown about by the wind?”
As a head of a secondary school, I welcome this book, and would hope that it will be used widely in schools, families and elsewhere. It is so much more conducive to stimulating thought than the pedestrian philosophical training I received at Oxford in the 1970s as part of “PPE”. I went up to university with my head buzzing with the kind of questions which fill the pages of “The Philosophy Shop”. Within four or five weeks, my enthusiasm for the subject had been drummed out of me by dull teachers teaching philosophy in a dull way. The philosophy component of the first year consisted merely of reading Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy and J S Mill's Utilitarianism. After a year of my philosophical interests being sucked dry, I gave up the subject, to my enduring regret. “The Philosophy Shop” will have the opposite effect on young people, and I applaud the thinking behind encouraging young people as early as possible to think philosophically. My worry is that the education system in Britain is so fixated on exams that there will be little time available, money or indeed incentive to give the approach of this book, and others championing the teaching of philosophy in schools, the fair wind that they merit.