Family & Education

Plato's comeback: philosophy enjoys a classroom revival

The subject has become a more popular A-level choice in Jewish schools


Perhaps more than any other 20th-century academic endeavour philosophy could be fairly considered a Jewish domain. Never mind Philo, Maimonides, Spinoza, Rosenzweig et al, it is in the modern period that the list of Jewish philosophers becomes almost embarrassingly long.

In no particular order: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, A J Ayer, Erich Fromme, Edmund Husserl, Robert Nozick, Herbert Marcuse, Peter Singer, Alain de Botton, Jacques Derrida and many others. Take them out of the picture and the story of intellectual life of the last century is not merely impoverished. It is pulverised

It is therefore supremely puzzling that philosophy became extinct as an academic discipline in Jewish schools not only in the UK but across the world during that very period that the discipline was being moulded by so many remarkable Jewish minds. That irony is compounded by the circumstances of its return to prominence in every Jewish secondary school in the country

In late 2013, Birmingham City Council received a copy of a letter, allegedly detailing a plan by local Islamists to take control of a school. The subsequent so-called Trojan Horse investigation triggered a profound change in secondary school curricula.

The government responded to the threat by ensuring any school teaching religion at A-level would have to temper the white heat of religious studies with the ice cool of philosophical thinking. Thus it was that in the summer of 2018 nearly 100 Jewish 18-year-olds in each mainstream Jewish secondary school sat examinations in both philosophy and ethics for the first time ever.

Serendipitously, that period from the first Trojan Horse letter until this year has seen a growth in undergraduate places for students wishing to study philosophy at university. In addition, average earnings of philosophy graduates also grew, overtaking social science and literature graduates and matching the salaries of business and history alumni.

With the mushrooming Artificial Intelligence industry generating new unthought-of ethical problems, employers are requiring more philosophers to take positions as chief ethics officers and deal with the complexities of our brave new digital world.

Against this vibrant background JFS, with help from Pajes, threw open the virtual doors on its annual philosophy day and welcomed A-level students from Yavneh, Immanuel, JCoSS and King Solomon. The students were treated to a deeply intellectual yet inspiring appeal from Professor Anthony Julius who opened the event asking the students to embrace a “life of thought”.

Through the miracle of Zoom, the students hurled their opinions at Professor Julius in a respectful but determined effort to disprove his thesis. As fast as the names were conjured from the dictionary of the names of the gods of philosophy, they were swatted back with new insights into each thinker.

Intellectually drained, the students settled down for the next session, which featured Drs Donald and Alexander Franklin, a father and son philosophical team, who examined the intellectual underpinnings of the government’s Covid- 19 policy. With 60 students present, there was a stream of questions and challenges but the Franklins were up to the task and patiently parried each thrust, showing how relevant philosophy is to understanding the world we live in.

Philosophy is back on the menu at Jewish schools and its rich combination of logic and ideas is inspiring a generation of Jewish students to reflect on the world around them while preparing them for workplaces where they will be highly valued and perhaps even highly rewarded.

Rabbi Pollak teaches philosophy at JFS and is a secondary schools projects co-ordinator for Pajes

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