No credit where it's due, but students are philosophical

16:00, Oct 27 2012
THE THINKER: Sylvia Burgess prepares for philosophy lessons at Auckland Girls Grammar.

I think therefore I learn.

But whether secondary school students should be learning philosophy is causing consternation in the education sector.

René Descartes, the acclaimed 17th-century French mathematician who revolutionised philosophy and coined the phrase "I think therefore I am" is one of a panoply of great thinkers included in a new philosophy syllabus for secondary schools.

Teachers want more students taking the subject and students praise it, even business lobby groups back it.

But it sits outside the official curriculum, so students who take it do not qualify for NCEA credits.

That has caused doubts about the wisdom of teaching it - with some students ditching more traditional subjects such as maths to take philosophy.


And it has put the Education Ministry under pressure, scrambling to defend why it has been so slow to approve it for NCEA.

Year 12 student Sylvia Burgess cannot imagine life without philosophy.

Burgess has taken the subject at Auckland Girls Grammar School since she was in year 10 and hasn't looked back.

"Philosophy clears everything up, it's a way of organising your thoughts and thinking so everything can make sense," she said. "It's kind of like how religion works for some people where they use it to make sense of their world, I use philosophy to make sense of my world."

Burgess has "developed her thinking to a greater level" on theories and thought on ethics, egalitarianism and the categorical imperative.

Even talking with her friends is completely different now she can think critically and appreciate whether arguments are right or wrong.

"Normally you can't really think about it that way but in philosophy you are discussing things that affect your social life in the very most intrinsic way, things like freedom, ethics, logic, those are very core ways of thinking," she said. "Now I think about the other side as well. I used to be ‘I'm right they're wrong', whereas now it's ‘I'm probably right but why do they think they're right as well', which helps in gaining a greater understanding and questions my own thinking."

It may seem unlikely, but the Employers and Manufacturers Association is applauding the move to philosophy.

Chief executive Kim Campbell said if he found a job applicant with philosophy skills he would grab them.

"Finally I might have someone who probably has an interest in what is going on around them as a human being.

"We're hiring a living breathing person, not a qualification. Someone who is thinking about who and what they are, why they are justifying taking up space on earth - we're hiring people's values and attitudes."

Auckland Girls Grammar School philosophy teacher Libby Giles said: "It's really lovely to see students of that age getting that ‘aha' moment, and quite often it's because they are hearing thoughts that have bounced around their own heads articulated by philosophers."

However, despite support from students, schools and businesses, philosophy students cannot get specialised NCEA credits. "It's regarded now as an orphan subject," said Giles. She wants the ministry to get onboard with philosophy as a mainstream subject.

An Education Ministry spokeswoman said supporters of philosophy had to understand it was at the beginning of "a journey". She said "it's only got 20 or 30 teachers going to its national conference and it's got room to grow. There is a chicken and egg thing going on, where there is this tension that if only they had NCEA achievement standards they would be moving."

Sunday Star Times