MacIntyre on Education

I exhumed this snippet the other day, after someone mentioned the role of education in preparing people for “the job market”. It’s from a 1991 interview with everybody’s favourite neo-Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, which was published in the philosophy journal Cogito. It’s useful to bear in mind that each issue of the journal carries an extended interview with a leading philosopher, and since the journal advocates the teaching of philosophy in schools in this country, it often asks its interviewees for their opinions on the matter. Pleasingly, they are often quite opposed.

Q: Do you think there is a strong case to be made for teaching philosophy in schools? How would you state it?

A: Introducing philosophy into schools will certainly do no more harm than has been done by introducing sociology or economics or other subjects with which the curriculum has been burdened. But what we need in schools are fewer subjects, not more, so that far greater depth can be acquired. And philosophical depth depends in key part on having learned a great deal in other disciplines. What every child needs is a lot of history and a lot of mathematics, including both the calculus and statistics, some experimental physics and observational astronomy, a reading knowledge of Greek sufficient to read Homer or the New Testament, and if English-speaking, a speaking knowledge of a modern language other than English, and great quantities of English literature, especially Shakespeare. Time also has to be there for music and art. Philosophy should only be introduced at the undergraduate level. And then at least one philosophy course, and more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims.”

“To unfit our students for the contemporary world…” It is a marvellous ambition – a splendid mission statement, to drop into the language of those most comfortably fitted for the contemporary world – and an excellent guiding principle to inform the work of those of us who teach in the modern university.

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