What is the appropriate punishment for murder? “It depends on what type of murder it is,” says a 12-year-old school kid. “You could have murder where you go out and shoot someone or you could have a crime of passion.”
I’m in Sheffield, and the discussion is taking place in a class which is part the university’s Philosophy in the City project. We’ve heard a lot about philosophy in schools over recent years, but this scheme is different, in that it is run entirely by students.
Philosophy in the City is the brainchild of undergraduate Alexis Artaud de la Ferriere. Artaud de la Ferriere is clearly something of a renaissance man, who has contributed to the British Journal of Undergraduate Philosophy (an intriguing sounding paper called “How to be David Copperfield: a critique of Locke’s personal identity model”) and is also one of the poetry editors of Route 57, the School of English’s online writing magazine.
However, Artaud de la Ferriere is not one to take advantage of the opportunities he has been given without worrying about the justice of it all. He realises that he is privileged to be able to do all of these things, “especially when you’re doing philosophy,” he says, “which isn’t something which is obviously contributing to society.” He talks of the responsibilities students have “through brute facts and brute numbers, that we get this subsidised degree that’s probably going to get us good jobs, and it’s not obvious how we’re giving back to society.”
Philosophy classes may not appear to be the most obvious way to contribute to the common good, but Artaud de la Ferriere makes a convincing case that philosophy for all is a matter of social justice. “In Britain or America, you have a system where abstract knowledge is reserved for a certain community: you have to go to certain schools to get it and live in certain neighbourhoods, and it’s assumed that lower-income communities only need to learn skills.” Not sharing that assumption, he set out to organise some of his fellow students to spread the word.
It helped that Sheffield University has one of the most developed student volunteering services in the country, and also that the philosophy department head, Robert Stern, was on side.
“We were a bit nervous at the beginning about how this would come across to the kids, and whether we’d get a hostile reaction or not,” says Stern, “but we did have people on the inside in schools who could say that’s inappropriate, or they’ll really like that.”
Indeed, Stern thought Artaud de la Ferriere’s idea was better than an alternative they’d been toying with, which was to send out some of its staff to local schools.
“I thought the advantage of having undergrads do it is partly that they’re closer to the school experience. Having us come in, from a different generation and rather formal, we’d probably have gone into normal lecturing mode and that probably wouldn’t be the right level. As long as we had the right support, which we did, I was pretty confident that it would work, and it did.”
The class I witnessed backs up the claim. Under the guidance of postgraduates Alison Patrick and Rebecca Waters, the 11- to12-year-old children were discussing the ethics of punishment. One questioned the wisdom of life sentences instead of capital punishment by asking, “If they’re going to die in prison, why not just kill them?” Another believed firmly in the death penalty, saying with Old Testament logic that “how they killed someone, they should be killed too.”
Others were more lenient. “If you punish someone, you could make them mad, so they’ll do something worse,” warned one. Another, responding to the utilitarian argument that sometimes even the innocent should be punished as a deterrent, said, “Won’t people find out that if they do something wrong, they’ll be let off, but if they don’t, they’ll go to prison?”
The kids seemed to genuinely value the experience. “They’re interesting because they make you think and they’re not like other lessons which are just full of facts and things you’ve got to remember,” said Ellie; Adam echoed a common belief that “It makes you think beyond what you normally think.” When I asked what he got out of it, Max said “To look at things differently, in a way. I like it.”
Their teacher, Jill Harrison, is also an enthusiast. “It’s always good to be challenged – and they have been. It’s good for them to talk to different people, they’ve enjoyed it. They like active learning.
“They need to know there is this subject and they need to know what it is. There’s no reason why philosophy as a subject in itself can’t be taught in schools, and I think it should be, and not just for sixth formers.”
The Sheffield students certainly haven’t gone for the easy option. The lesson I saw was at The City School, where half the students have identified Special Educational Needs and nearly one in five qualifies for free school meals.
What exactly they do in each session varies. “There are two main constraining factors,” says another volunteer, Elaine Yeadon, “what the schools require and what the volunteers we have are comfortable teaching.
“We have a few set lesson plans that usually work very well for any age group. Usually it’s very interactive. What we’ve generally done is a very short presentation at the beginning of the main issues, and then prompt them with some questions and get them to go into groups, discuss them, and give feedback.”
The volunteers I talked to seemed to strike the right balance between scepticism towards how much they could expect to achieve in such circumstances, and commitment to the possibility of making a difference.
“There is a tradition in philosophy, maybe starting with Socrates,” says one of them, Joshua Forstenzer, “in which there’s this sense that you can have an education which is perhaps not the normal type of education which provides certain basic skills, but one which provides you with a capacity for reasoning and a taste for things which are not available everywhere. That can be the drive for anybody to go on and study greater things.”
His colleague James Andow is living proof. Andow came to Sheffield from The Ridings High School in Winterbourne, where he participated in the gifted and talented programme. “The only reason I’m now doing philosophy at university, why I’m involved in this project,” he says, “is that after that we did a little thing about formal thinking and logic.
“The amount that we’re going to change their future lives is going to be reasonably minimal, unless they take it up as an academic career or something like that. But you’ll have introduced them to something worthwhile, just by giving them a new way of thinking about things.”
The students clearly get something out of the experience themselves, although it’s not always the obvious. “I do it because I like the look of bewilderment on their faces when you question something they thought was a given,” says Yeadon.
Stern also sees benefits for the students. “Philosophy does give people skills but they don’t recognise it, and I think doing some of the teaching makes them realise they can do things and there are skills they can one day put on a CV, but not in an artificial way.”
But it should be remembered that this is not the USA, where community service can gain students credits and is almost obligatory for anyone applying to a good university. There is something exceptional about this level of commitment and the project seems to have genuinely retained an altruistic edge.
“When we did the first big recruitment drive I went along fully prepared to sell it not as a selfless thing,” explains Andow, “but that it does a lot for us, it gives us teaching experience, it gives us something to put on our CV, it counts towards the Sheffield graduate award, it can help you understand philosophy better. I was ready to sell it on all these grounds, and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with doing it for those reasons. But we didn’t have to, because people were willing to do it just for selfless reasons.”
With 25 student volunteers, the scheme is currently riding high, and this year it will extend to running a summer school. It was nominated for a Times Higher Education Award (but alas didn’t win) and Artaud de la Ferriere has also been nominated for the University’s Chancellor’s medal, although with characteristic modesty, he actually said “we have been nominated”. The future, however, is far from assured.
“We’ve got to pass it on,” says Stern. “There’s a worry that there’s a core of enthusiasts who have seen it through but are going to be leaving, and will it all then peter out? One thing is to ensure a succession and structures that can continue and pass on from year to year. This is the first year of real change of that sort and I think things are in place for next year and it will continue.”
Let’s hope it does, or even that the idea spreads.