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.


short people

I am five foot six-and-a-half. That’s how tall I am. There are five feet, and six-and-a-half inches of Charlie Duncan in between the floor and the top of my head. That is how much me there is.

This has generally never been a problem for me psychologically. I was a bit put out by it as a boy, being a little bit less tall than the other boys, but I’ve always made up for it with a certain amount of intellectual confidence. I also try to be as pleasant a person as I can be, and I think on the whole people like me. Additionally, I’m good at what I do, and this helps. So my height is rarely an issue. Plus, I mean – I’m not even that short.

So, I’d like to say that was all there was to it.

Unfortunately it isn’t. Tonight, for example, I was invited by a friend – a good friend, I think, one I like and admire a lot – to come over to her house for the evening. She had another friend over, too, who was attractive and nice and apparently single-ish, and I got the impression that my friend was trying to get us to meet each other, at least partly to see if we would get on well.

The problem was that my friend kept on and on, over and over again, about me being short. As if it was a problem.

I have no idea why she did this, because this friend is a kind and brilliant person who has always been perfectly lovely in every other sense, and I know that she will be absolutely mortified to read this and realise she’s upset me at all. And I don’t think she meant it maliciously or intended it to be harmful. But it was still kind of uncomfortable.

At one point we were even doing the ridiculous childhood thing of all standing up and measuring our respective heights against each other to see how tall we were, with the result being that I was, by about three-quarters of an inch, not quite as tall as this girl I had just been introduced to.

We all got on quite well otherwise; but later in the evening, when this girl went to the bathroom, my friend whispered to me, “You really fancy her, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t know…she’s quite attractive I suppose…” I said.

“You’re too short for her,” my friend said. And my heart sank.

It just went on and on, to the extent that, however funny and charming and nice I might have been, if her friend had ever had that kind of interest in me at all (and of course I have no reason to believe that she would have), she would definitely have doubted by the end of the evening that she might be able to get together with me without anyone’s height being an issue. I mean, it’s unlikely of course, but it’s not impossible that if we’d all just sat round a table and no mention of it had been made, this girl and I would have got on fantastically well and by the time she even realised I was an inch shorter than her it wouldn’t have mattered.

I guess I’ll never know, because my friend made it matter.

I was even naïve enough to think I’d got away from it at the end of the evening, with an interesting story from doing stand-up comedy. This is a good place to leave it, I thought, announced that I was leaving, and hugged my friend goodbye. “You’re so short,” she said, again. Which led to another conversation about height in which my friend said that the ideal height for a man was about 6”0, which prompted the girl I had been introduced to add that she guessed perhaps the ideal height for a man for her was maybe even 6”2, and at that point I decided to just cut my losses and get out.

The thing is, there are some things which are caused by what we might call chance of birth. We can’t do anything at all about them, however much we might like to. As well as height, those things include things like skin colour, biological sex, age, genetic disabilities, what kind of person we find attractive, the country we were born in, or how rich or poor our parents are. We might like or hate these things about ourselves, and some people have argued they should somehow be compensated for, but the point is we can’t really do anything to change them. Some of them can be hidden: we can dye our hair or change our gender, etc. But height can’t be hidden. It’s just…there.

Of course, the things that one can’t control include who one fancies, and I have no objection at all to people having sexual preferences and prejudices. Personally I have sexual prejudices against men, children, and the elderly. This is uncontrollable.

But I find it horrible that people would consciously take the piss out of someone for any of these things. It’s just so unnecessary.

I used to have a rule as a stand-up comedian, and one that I think I kept to quite well mostly, that I would happily take the piss out of an audience member for stupid things they consciously say and do, but I would never take the piss out of an audience member for anything about themselves which they could do nothing about. It isn’t fair.

And by ‘take the piss’, of course, I don’t mean to make an occasional fond joke about it with that person in private, if it’s totally clear that it doesn’t hurt them. What I mean is, repeatedly drawing attention to some aspect of them in a way which actually harms or undermines them – or is reckless about whether it might harm them – either personally or socially.

One might say that height is fair game for this, that it’s not like ethnicity or gender because it’s not really a bad thing. But someone’s height does have a real effect on people’s lives. A 2004 study at the University of North Carolina found that someone my height is likely to earn an average of $5,525 less per annum than someone who is six feet tall (after controlling for age, gender and other factors). This is actually not far off the pay gap between men and women.

The study also found that there is a self-fulfilling cycle at play: when smaller people are given less respect socially, it leads to them both being less confident and being given less opportunities, because an unjustly negative view of smaller people is perpetuated and then reinforced. Which is why taking the piss causes harm.

Of course, I can’t complain too much because my salary is pretty good. And I would never claim to be more oppressed than people who didn’t have the same lovely upbringing and educational opportunities that I’ve had, or people who face actual violence or abuse, which generally I don’t. But height discrimination is still a real cultural problem that inexplicably just isn’t taken seriously enough in relation to the real effects it has on people’s lives.

Perhaps this is because discrimination against height, like age discrimination, is so endemically pervasive in our consciousness that it is rare for anyone to question it. Or perhaps it is because height never had any actual legal limitations on voting or civil rights attached to it, which other genetic or biological differences did. When feminists and racial equality activists successfully had those legal limitations lifted they realised they hadn’t gone far enough, and turned to addressing cultural inequalities – but this never happened for height discrimination, and the culturally engrained discrimination continues unchallenged.

Either way, I felt hurt by my friend.

And I’m glad that she didn’t do some other things which she could, using the same logic, have done: she could have spent the evening taking the piss out of her slightly-taller-than-average female friend for being ‘too tall’ (after all, I imagine she probably has as many social limitations on the people she can ‘acceptably’ go out with as I do, although whether she chooses to accept those social limitations I have no idea).

Or perhaps my friend could have invited a black or Jewish or disabled friend over, introduced them to the new attractive friend, and told them they were too black or Jewish or disabled for her. (All of which, I should point out, she would never ever do).

My friend didn’t intend any of it in a malicious way, she is still my friend and she is also, in so many other ways, an impeccable example of moral virtue. She was just a bit reckless about it. So I’m not going to be bitter about it.

But I want her to know – and part of the reason I have written this blog is so that, even if she doesn’t read it, I can get my thoughts straight to tell her the next time I see her – that it isn’t okay to take the piss out of people about their height. In fact, the reason why you don’t usually hear me complaining about my height is because I tend to quietly eliminate people from my life who make an issue of it. I don’t want to eliminate this friend, which I why I’d like her to know this. And if any other friends of mine are reading this, who might have commented on my height disparagingly at any point, and then not heard from me for a few months afterwards…well, now you know why.

And, to speak more generally: if there is a feature of somebody you know, any feature, that that person can do nothing about – even if they seem okay with it, as I (mostly) am – It is not okay to take the piss out of them for it.

It just isn’t okay.



It’s 9am the following morning, and I’ve just had a quite upset phonecall from my friend who has read this blog. She is, as I thought she might be, absolutely mortified to think that she had hurt me.

She also explained a bit about the context. Apparently the girl she was introducing me to had made a remark previously about how she thought she could only find tall men attractive; and my friend said she knew someone who could make her think differently about that.

Which is something of a compliment, I think, even if she was a little clumsy to then keep referring to it when we were being introduced. People are influenced by these things.

I just wish it didn’t matter at all.

what a teacher isn’t

I was asked the other night what a teacher is. Despite having been teaching for eight years, I found it very difficult to say. It’s much easier to say what a teacher, or teaching, is not. So…

Teaching is not, in itself, a skill.

– It is more like finding yourself immersed in beautiful water, sticking your head out and saying to anyone who will listen, “OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO GET IN THIS WATER! It’s amazing…” (And, sometimes, offering a ladder for anyone unable to jump.) But you have to really be in the water first, and you have to really care about sharing it. After this, any development of the supposed ‘skill’ of teaching is peripheral; it’s just a few extra rungs on a poolside ladder.

A teacher isn’t necessarily cleverer or more mature than their students.

– They just happen to have some information, and put a value on that information, that the student doesn’t. As it happens, I am cleverer than many of my students – but by no means all of them. And the first time I meet any new student, I remind myself that any of them could be much, much cleverer than me, once they have the information I have.

A teacher doesn’t tell anyone what values to hold.

– That would be the job of a philosopher. It is not for teachers to persuade anyone to agree with their values – or the values of their institution – but for each teacher to provide opportunities for students to decide, to support or challenge their own values. For example, I am not a Tory and I wish the Conservative party little goodwill; but if one of my politics classes reach the end of a course without at least one student switching their sympathies from Labour to the Conservatives, I take it as a sign that I haven’t given them enough encouragement to challenge themselves.

Teachers are not all the same.

– The notion of a fixed set of standards that all teachers should meet is absurd if it misses the one crucial thing about them – that they really really care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching it to. And every teacher is different in the way they do this.

A teacher, like anyone else, is not a neutral vehicle for information…

– No person is neutral, and pretending to give neutral information entails exactly the opposite. Michael Gove’s new Teaching Standards framework contains an explicit phrase about how teachers must not expressing personal beliefs in a way which might ‘exploit pupils’ vulnerability’. This framework itself, of course, is far from politically neutral: it is an attempt to enforce the political values of Michael Gove. Additionally, it is clumsily worded and easily ridiculed. In the interests of transparency I read this section of the standards out loud to my students at the beginning of this year – they found it hilarious. We now have a running joke: any time I am asked whether a certain value or argument or policy is a good thing, I ask: ‘from whose perspective? Not mine – I wouldn’t want to exploit your vulnerability, after all.’ And we all laugh.

…and they do not insult their students’ intelligence by pretending to be.

– And after the laugh has ended, the brightest students sometimes get angry about this idea that it would be ‘exploiting their vulnerability’ to know what their teacher’s opinions are. They know it is an insult to their intelligence. They want to know what their teachers think, and why, so that they can evaluate the information they are given – bearing in mind what they know about their teachers’ biases – and decide whether they agree. I often find myself in a position where I have to give my politics classes clues about who I voted for at the last general election, and the means to assess how biased the information is which I am giving them. I hope that this is not a breach of the standards.

A teacher, when teaching, is not a representative of an institution.

– It is possible for people who work as teachers to represent the institution, and the values of the institution, for which they work. If they work for a school or college or university, they might enforce rules, check uniforms, or communicate notices to each other and to their students regarding the affairs of their institution. This is often important for the basic functioning of the institution. But this is not teaching. In teaching, the teacher represents only themselves, their own discipline and their own relationship with it. The role of the institution should be to facilitate this. We do well to ask of any institutional action which is not clearly and directly related to teaching, ‘what is the point of this, and why are we letting it take us away from the subjects we love?’

Teachers are not to be taken seriously as people.

– “A good teacher,” wrote Nietzsche, “takes nothing seriously except in relation to their students – not even themselves.” He didn’t just mean that good teachers are ridiculous people, and are aware that they are ridiculous in their willingness to give up so much of their time for the sake of other people’s understanding. He meant that the call they make, from the thing they love to the people they want to make love it, subsumes any other value they might have as people. Everything that a teacher is can be seen in their students. And eventually, that fades and nothing is left of them at all.

Teachers do not rightfully have authority.

– What teachers have is leadership – and these are two different things.

Some teachers might be disciplinarians, but disciplinarians don’t necessarily make good teachers.

– Or, often, make teachers at all. Punishment and coercion are not good teaching methods. Some teachers recognise that, but still think that good discipline over students is a necessary condition of good teaching. That belief is for teachers who are too boring or rude to give students any other more persuasive reason to listen to them.

A teacher is not afraid to be an entertainer.

If they aren’t, then nobody’s getting in the water. Sure, you can push them in; but they’ll get out as soon as they can, and never go near that pool again.


This blog is currently on hiatus.

That’s not to say it won’t be back soon. I know me, and as soon as I try to commit to a hiatus I’ll only start bloody writing again.

Still. There we are.

in case you were worried

As an addendum to that last post, it’s worth pointing out that I wrote it about a week and a half ago, on a day when I was not in an especially good mood.

Since then, I’ve found somewhere quite good to live, done some really fun gigs, done some work on fixing personal relationship-type things that are unbloggable but really did need fixing, and more or less stopped drinking alcohol at all.

Just so you don’t worry or anything.

day 9: close to perfect

I woke up to Chuck bringing me coffee. Chuck is another friend from London who’s staying. I like having visitors.

I spent the morning (by which I mean ‘Edinburgh Festival morning’, ie 2pm-4pm) walking up Arthur’s seat with Chuck, Anneliese and Ross. It was so different to last year’s attempt, which was bleak and lonely and done against the wind and drizzle. This was just for fun, because we could, and the sun was shining and the breeze was behind us – I’ve never put sun cream on in Scotland before, but today I did. That’s how beautiful the day was.

Near the top of Arthur’s seat, there is a plateau. From the very top, you can see that people have used the rocks which are strewn around to create shapes: patterns, flowers, the names of people they love.

We made a large cock and balls.

I think Chuck was a little uncertain about it, but I am here as in my capacity as a comedian and I didn’t climb all that way to not create a large cock and balls out of rocks.

When we got down, I finally got a replacement iphone (and started the huge task of going through emails). Then the shows were great again; there was a good crowd to see James Sherwood, and Rachel had an absolute stormer. I had the most fun compering I’ve had so far, too – at one point I noticed that there more ‘woo’s coming from the audience than actual cheers or clapping, so I pointed it out and then a few members of the audience started to shout ‘woo’ in inappropriate places. But I made mock frustration at that into a theme of my time with them, got some good laughs from that, and still managed to get it clear to the room that it wouldn’t be funny if they did it with the other acts. And generally they didn’t. It was a great gig.

The flashback show was the best yet, too. The room was full, but we filled it with energy and fun and for the first time the show felt like a four or five-star show; the pace was perfect, the ad-libs were sharp and well placed, and the whole cast put in brilliant performances. In particular, Rachel hit the pace and tone to perfection (I’d like to think because she had the earlier gig to warm up with, but really I think it’s just because she’s brilliant).

This is getting to be a lot of fun…

Showcase – Audience: almost full; Performance 8

Flashback – Fucking brilliant. Though we can still improve the johnny and baby scene…

Overall – BIG BIG WIN

day 8: the thirteenth

The number 13 has always, perversely, been lucky for me. I was born on the 13th and I always seem to well in anything which seems to have that number in it. Perhaps it’s because, like the 13th man at the Last Supper, I’ve betrayed Jesus by not really taking him very seriously any more; and the number 13 is temporarily on my side, but only while I go en route to eternal damnation in the fires of hell.

Anyway, Friday the 13th was a pretty great day. My friends Ross and Anneliese are staying with me in the Maison Flashback and I woke up to find that Anneliese had made a pretty hefty dent in the pile of washing up that was starting to build.

After that we spent a very pleasant afternoon just wandering around the city; it was the first day when we haven’t done flashback work in the afternoon and I appreciated the first chance to actually have a rest in the day before I had to start flyering. I stopped into a cafe to use their internet (and found myself sitting at Table 13); they accidentally brought me a large cappuccino instead of the small one I ordered and didn’t charge me the extra. There are few surer signs of a lucky day than this.

And then the gigs were fantastic. The showcase was great, I was really pleased with my compering, Rik had a cracker and Nick Sun headlined beautifully – there was even a reviewer in who said he enjoyed the show – and then the Flashback show was the best yet.


Actually, with the exception of the phone thing, this whole week has been ridiculously lucky…

Showcase – Audience: nearly full; Performance 8/10

Flashback – Even better again…

Overall – LUCKY WIN

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