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“There are more things in heaven and on earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophies.” Hamlet

I don’t know how many of you have idled long enough at the comments section of newsfeeds to read the contributions from readers? OK, maybe I am alone in this, but I suspect not so read on in the comfort that it’s just between us.

It is an interesting curation of the wildest speculation mixed with thoughtful considered observations; the latter being by far the less obvious, less numerous and less memorable. It seems that opinions are like heads, everyone has one. So much of what I notice is invective. Ad hominem arguments dwelling more on the personality or supposed proclivities of the individual than with what they are saying. This is not new, it is not a fad of the modern world and I am not writing this to rail against a new contagion.

That said, the extent of it and the degree to which this ad hominem is becoming commonplace is worrying, especially as it is habit forming and therefore limiting the intellectual growth of those more easily taken in. The other and most serious problem is the conflation of what I think and articulate with my self worth. The worrying trend is where participants in discussion take a critique of their idea as a critique of themselves. We disagree with statements people make, we may do this with animation and vigour, but the focus is on the content of the argument not the content of the character espousing it however wrong we may think it to be.

This year we have introduced Philosophy into the Prep School, and launched a Philosophy element into PSHE in the Senior School. We are ramping up the role this subject plays in the life of the children. The reason is that it encourages deep scholarship, analytical thinking and encourages self-confidence.

Some months ago when I introduced this to staff, I underlined one common but critical misunderstanding. There seems to be an idea abroad that philosophising is a matter of opinion, that there are no right and wrong answers, but this is so very far off the mark. You and I may have any number of opinions, we will certainly have a variety of tastes and preferences. Fantastic, this is brilliant, woe to the world of homogeneous ‘yes’ men and all hail the world of diversity. But, and it is a big BUT: opinion can be irrelevant.  

At the risk of getting myself into some hot water, I think we need to curb a rampant relativism. It may be your opinion that two plus two is five, oh dear. You may have an opinion on the correct use of the decimal place, the angles in a triangle or the capital of Belgium, but they are only relevant if they pass the test of reason and verification. The philosophising that the children are concerned with is the application of rigorous reasoning to a matter of debate where there is no hard and fast way of determining a position.

Errors of logic are unlikely to lead to sound conclusions, that said logic itself is no guarantor of truth:

 “Socrates was a man

All men are pigs

Therefore Socrates was a pig”

The syllogism sets out a series of statements which cohere logically, if Socrates belongs to the set of ‘men’ and if that set ‘men’ are pigs, it follows that Socrates must be one. Why not? But is it true? The key test is not that an opinion is held, but that it survives the test of reason and verification.

There is little of this level of reasoning in newsfeeds. To their collective shame, there is little of it in the chambers responsible for running the country. I don’t usually sally forth into the political world, but the invectives levelled at the Prime Minister recently and the behaviour of parliamentarians in so called debate is a shameful example to our children of how thoughtful discussion proceeds. Much less the gamesmanship and sophistry of their media interviews.

Orwell coined the phrase ‘Doublethink’, to describe the possibility of holding two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time and believing both to be true. Orwell was writing a work of dystopian fiction, little did he know that ‘1984’ might more easily sit beside ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, as a work of journalism.

Maybe it is the limited space for reply or the immediacy of response that creates a culture of shocked outrage or ill-informed offence. Brando was once famously asked if he was looking for trouble, his reply was to ask what kind was available. I suspect today he would be the victim of a meme campaign for daring to open a debate.

Reasoned debate even among parties who disagree brings us closer as a community and makes us more not less responsible. It is the process of education. Sharing in that and leading the charge is our evening with Simon Blackburn on Monday 12th November (click here to book tickets). Simon is world famous, he is to the academic world what Johnny Sexton is to the Rugby one. His talk on the role of philosophy promises to be an inspiring and engaging one and I look forward to seeing many of you there, you may even want to comment on it afterwards?

Over the past week, I have been inundated with prospective parents, with children looking for a school that supports creative critical evaluation, that addresses the essence of powerful knowledge by deepening and widening the scope of what children are expected to achieve and make sense of. It is truly wonderful to have these conversations, to illustrate that we are a school that takes thinking seriously and where you can expect to be heard, challenged and valued as a cohesive experience not as disjointed curriculum bolt-ons.

It is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact and yes there are also more things in heaven and earth than Horatio dreamt of, and undoubtedly more than his allegiance to ‘natural philosophy’ or modern day Science could dream of. We approach them in school with a reasoning mind, compassionate character and an openness to discover. Do feel free to comment…

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)

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