on the new a-level philosophy syllabus

— cross-posted fromThe Guardian

For A-level students in the UK, there is only one exam board that runs a real philosophy course. And that’s about to be changed into yet another religious education course.

For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.

The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.

The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.

It would not be difficult to see, were one looking for such things, a rather sinister agenda in all this. Secular students who consider the question of God to be irrelevant to their lives will simply not have any other option if they wish to be philosophers.

Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.

A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.

(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)

But there is a broader danger than this. Philosophy – the vibrant, engaging, and often controversial practice of subjecting all concepts and ideas to rigorous logical scrutiny – has struggled for many years to be properly understood as a discipline apart from religious studies. And yet, philosophy is absolutely crucial for a proper questioning of the assumptions we make about government and about our lives in general.

In a climate where university philosophy departments face closure, the very survival of philosophy in the UK depends on philosophers being able to make clear to post-16 students what secular philosophy is and why it is worth studying. It is difficult to see how the new specification will make this anything other than impossible.

Not only will future students not get a representative grounding in philosophy; it is likely that schools and colleges will eventually cease to run a discrete philosophy course, and will increasingly staff the course from RE departments – if they run it at all. The implications for the discipline in general are likely to be devastating.


why i am a feminist

Some time ago I started calling myself a feminist. I’d always been one, but resisted the label; now I’m happy to accept the label. In response to being asked a few times recently what my thought process was for this, here’s what happened.

To begin with, my previous position – a kind of ‘I’d-rather-call-myself-a-humanist’ cop-out – was due to a combination of factors. I misunderstood what the goals of feminism could be and the extent to which they had in fact already been achieved.

I also felt excluded from feminism on the grounds of being male. I once had an English teacher who explained to me that as a feminist, she thought men couldn’t be feminists because feminism was necessarily bad for men.

It’s not like I wasn’t told that feminists are just people who resist gender discrimination. I was told that plenty of times (by one person in particular who really deserves an apology for my stubbornness in acknowledging it).

I also had, underlying the labelling thing, a philosophical commitment to simplifying political language by using -ism terms in their most literal and straightforward sense. That meant I took any word with the suffix ‘-ism’ to straightforwardly mean an ideological position which prioritises the value or concerns of whatever it is that the ‘-ism’ is a suffix of. (so eg, a racist values a race and prioritises racial factors when making judgements; a socialist values society and prioritises that, etc).

So I made a common mistake and took ‘feminism’ to mean the prioritising and valuing of women when making judgements, to the exclusion of other concerns. And certainly some radical feminists do that, but they aren’t representative of all feminists.

In combination with this, I compounded my mistake by thinking that the legal and cultural progress made in the UK and the USA was sufficient for women to now have the same opportunities as men (for the first ten years of my life, a female Prime Minister had governed the UK), and legal recourse for the occasions when they didn’t.

I also observed a number of situations where it appeared that specific women were in fact able to gain advantages over men by virtue of their being able to, for example, make cynical use of their looks or sexuality, or give an appearance of vulnerability. (I’m aware now that this is patriarchal too).

As a result, I thought that while an ideology which prioritised the value and importance of women may have been valuable at other points in history, it was no longer necessary. I considered that gender equality was still a good thing, but preferred a more vague tag like ‘anti-gender-discrimination’ or something like that.

This analysis was extremely naive.

The year before last, a number of things happened.

Firstly, I found myself in close contact with a number of people who considered themselves feminists but who held positions which I found pretty objectionable. Once, for example, I came up against the idea that childcare should be entirely state-socialised from birth because mothers shouldn’t be expected to provide any care for their children, and there was no way you could ever expect fathers to do it.

Sometimes I came across versions of radical feminist claims about the evils of ALL men, or the claim that ALL men secretly hate women and should be punished accordingly. (Essentialist identity politics like this just ends up in ridiculous ‘not all men…’ debates when that is absoultely not the point – the point is that patriarchy and misogyny exist at all.)

There’s even a version of feminism (particularly prevalent amongst young feminists in Brighton) which regularly seemed to take the position that it was legitimate to treat individual men extremely poorly, particularly in the areas of sex or dating, on the grounds that ‘it’s what a man would do’ and that there was, after all, a ‘war’ going on.

It just so seemed inconsistent with the principle of gender equality that I started to despair. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that I was really genuinely concerned with the fate of an ideology that I valued a great deal more than I thought I had.

I also found myself in a position where I was teaching my A-level politics class about feminism, and for the first time I had to do some serious studying of its history. I had to actually read Wollstonecraft and Friedan and Greer (all of whom I liked very much) and Dworkin and Firestone and Millett (who I didn’t like quite so much) and I saw how incredibly rich the debates within feminism are, and yet how all of these people could still call themselves feminists.

And my attention was drawn to some contemporary liberal feminists and campaigning groups, people for whom it naturally followed that because they were liberals, they must be feminists: if you believe that everyone should have equal liberty and opportunities regardless of the chances of their birth, then you have to stand against things which do harm to people or their liberty and opportunities as a result of their birth sex or socialised gender.

Feminism is absolutely not a monolithic ideology with a fixed set of positions, nor is it a closed group; anyone who is opposed to gender discrimination, who thinks people should be considered as individuals regardless of their gender, can be one. Is one.

I also came to see how there’s a deep tradition of men making contributions to feminism ever since my big philosophical hero John Stuart Mill published On the Subjection of Women, and how he stood in Parliament and argued for women’s right to vote, and I didn’t feel excluded any more.

And so when some feminists made claims about ‘all men’, I could finally go beyond just trying to defend ‘some men’, and make a better argument – that their feminism didn’t look like my feminism – which is about refusing to let gender get in the way of people having all the respect and opportunities they deserve.

The problem is, gender, and people’s assumptions about it, still get in the way of too much. Having had a woman Prime Minister doesn’t mean it isn’t harder for people who happen to be women to succeed in politics, or in business, or in philosophy; and it shouldn’t be. And it is still harder for people who happen to be men to succeed in nursing, or teaching in girls’ education, or being fathers and househusbands, and it shouldn’t be.

And there is still too much gendered violence which wouldn’t happen to people if they weren’t women or girls, and it’s repulsive and of course it’s men’s problem and it needs to stop.

And that’s before we even start on transphobia or social and media perceptions of women and girls and a whole heap of other bullshit that I can’t believe I didn’t think was a big deal before.

So to be honest, I don’t care so much now about the accurate naming of ideological positions. If people who are opposed to these things are called feminists, then I’m going to call myself one, and that’s more important.

Having said that, there’s a further realisation I made since calling myself a feminist. It’s that actually, the word ‘feminism’ isn’t even wrong. It is named accurately. Because it isn’t just women, the biological sex, that need defending and liberating.

What patriarchs really demean isn’t women per se, but femininity.

Patriarchs expect women to exhibit traits which they think of as feminine, and then expect feminine people to be subservient. Supposedly ‘feminine’ traits include the ability to empathise, to compromise and show compassion, and be physically slight and beautiful. But also, in the minds of patriarchs, to be passive and deferential. They want feminine people to be submissive, just look pretty, be able to take abuse and neglect and not talk or hit or fuck back.

This is because ‘feminine’ traits are still considered as being of less value than ‘masculine’ traits: aggression, determination to compete, taking the ‘active’ role, stubbornness, avarice, desire.

All of this goes against the principle that as long as it doesn’t harm other people you should be able to have whatever the fuck kind of personality you want.

But patriarchs do harm people. They mainly harm women, because women are very deeply socialised to be feminine. Women who do not fit this expectation are shouted down, threatened, abused. But patriarchs (whether men or women) harm people who aren’t women, too.

Patriarchs expect and despise femininity in women, and fail to comprehend it in men – and despise it just as much.

Patriarchs want women to be ‘feminine’, and ‘feminine’ people of either sex to be weak; they cannot abide the thought that empathy and compassion can be every bit as powerful and courageous as competitiveness or aggression.

The reason Thatcher was loved by patriarchs is because once she had insisted that they see through her having being born female, she made them see her bullish determination and ‘rugged individualism’, and recognise her as one of their own.

They despise Nick Clegg, a politician who looks for compromises and doesn’t mind earning less than his wife.

This is not to say that the traits associated with masculinity are intrinsically bad; there is a time for them (no doubt Clegg could have done with being more stubborn and bullish at times). But there are also times for strong ‘feminine’ traits, and patriarchy will not allow it. It stands between feminine people (the vast majority of whom are women) and the respect and opportunities that they should have.

I’m aware there will be some feminists who object to this analysis on the grounds that like all men, I’m whining about how men suffer too and trying to make it all about men. I’m absolutely not. I’m in no doubt at all that women get harmed significantly more than men, in all kinds of ways.

But the thing which patriarchy demeans is femininity, and it harms everyone. For the most part, it harms women; and it harms all but the most masculine men; and eventually, it harms those masculine men too. A society which fails to give every individual the best opportunities because of mere chance-of-birth features like the set of reproductive organs they were born with, or the fact that they were socialised to be compassionate and empathetic, is not going to succeed as well as it could.

From this perspective, it is easier to see not just why liberal feminism is necessary; but just what a huge task it has ahead of it. Patriarchal thinking infiltrates almost everywhere and harms almost everyone, often without anyone seeing.

The more people start calling themselves feminists – men included – and defending women and femininity from the ridiculous assumption that the feminine are weak and less deserving, the better we will be.

And this is why I am a feminist.