Is a liberal dose of philosophy an appropriate prescription for the class?

The War for Children's Minds
November 24, 2006

A cultural war is raging in the media and, according to Stephen Law, nothing less than the future of our children's minds is at stake.

Public opinion is split between a liberal ideology that grew out of the Enlightenment and an older "authority-based" approach to moral and religious education.

The current phase began with a backlash against the liberal attitudes that gained ascendancy in the 1960s. Critics blamed liberal aspirations on individualism and autonomy for the "moral malaise" that they perceived was behind rising incidences of crime and of teenage pregnancies and called for the restoration of respect for external moral authority and tradition.

Law intends to defend the liberal approach and to discredit some enemy propaganda. (Targeted participants in the anti-liberal movement include Melanie Phillips and Jonathan Sacks in the UK, and Gertrude Himmelfarb and Pat Buchanan in the US.) Contrary to the claims of traditionalists, a liberal education does not imply moral relativism, Law insists. Indeed, it can provide a defence against it.

Law uses the term "liberal" narrowly, to characterise an educational approach that places supreme value on our reasoning powers and ability to think for ourselves. Law, who is a philosophy lecturer and author of some bestselling introductions to the subject, sees untapped potential in training a wider public, including children, in critical thinking skills. A healthy democracy needs people who can spot flawed logic and flimsy evidence, and can challenge those who use these means.

So far, so good. Teaching children philosophy is an interesting idea, and the UK lags behind some other European countries in this respect.

Law cites promising results from pilot schemes tested in primary schools: children appear to benefit intellectually and emotionally. However, in relation to his military aims, in the contested territory of moral and religious education, I doubt that Law's campaign can win the war.

What can "critical thinking" achieve in relation to moral belief? It can, of course, expose inconsistency - including, as Law shows, in some crude statements of moral relativism. But reason alone is insufficient to establish which moral beliefs we should hold. And although Law writes as if it were indisputable that non-relative moral truth exists, philosophers are still arguing about it.

Even if traditionalists were to acknowledge that liberalism is not necessarily relativist, Law's recommendations are hardly likely to reassure them. The last thing they want is to encourage children to question whether stealing, say, is wrong, or how we could be in a position to know this.

What about religious belief? Here, Law underplays his hand. He emphasises that liberalism is less a matter of the content of one's beliefs than of one's readiness to subject them to rational scrutiny. But surely the point of this is to abandon beliefs revealed to be defective?

Law points to scientific inquiry as an example of liberal intellectual practice: anyone advancing a serious scientific hypothesis expects it to be criticised and tested.

This usefully illustrates the distinction between liberalism and relativism: independent thinking is crucial to scientific progress, but it does not follow that individuals can believe whatever they like. It is not reasonable today to believe that the Earth is flat.

It would be natural to infer that religious belief, or at least a great deal of it, is also ruled out. Shouldn't any liberal be an atheist? Yet Law suggests that liberalism and religious belief are compatible.

Perhaps strategic considerations - a wish to recruit the widest possible public - explain this puzzling compromise. If so, its price is too high. If critical thinking is as powerful a weapon as Law believes, it must be a mistake to limit it.

Sarah Richmond is senior lecturer in philosophy, University College London.

The War for Children's Minds

Author - Stephen Law
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 208
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 415 37855 9

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