Don’t put Descartes before the horse: why philosophy won’t save the Junior Cert

Despite the excitement around the introduction of Junior Cert Philosophy, Dearbháil Clarke is skeptical of the level of change it will bring.

COMMENTIt’s common knowledge at this stage that something vague and formless is shifting in the Junior Cycle.  The Junior Certificate is rebranding itself as the Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA). The Department of Education and Skills are throwing out buzzwords like “continuous assessment”, “digital media” and ‘critical thinking’ without actually explaining much. The NCCA have released a 60-page Framework for Junior Cycle which consists of tentative hypotheses and pictures of scones. Not much has changed.

I wish that I didn’t have to be so sceptical about these developments, I truly do. However, I completed my Junior Cert just over three years ago. Though I may be naïve in the particulars of forming new educational policies, I know what it’s like to be trapped inside them. And nobody can deny that the Junior Certificate is a shaky foundation for secondary education.

The curriculum as it stands is a three-year preparation for the Leaving Certificate and not much else. What incoming secondary students need is exactly what the JCSA promises to provide: a practical education where teenagers can learn to care for themselves and think for themselves in addition to developing their literacy and numeracy. They need to be allowed to sample up-to-date subjects to develop their interests and skills. 

To facilitate this, the JCSA have proposed a series of short courses, up to four of which can be taken in conjunction with existing exam subjects. These include Coding, Digital Media Literacy, Chinese Language and Culture, Artistic Performance and – controversially – Philosophy.

Healthy Questioning

I believe that Philosophy is as relevant and important to modern life as every other subject that has been proposed for the JCSA. Taught well, philosophy is a toolkit for thinking critically: it gives names, structure and context to the big questions that teenagers are already contemplating. 

Regardless of whether they’re taught or not, people will think philosophically. We’re hardwired to wonder “Why?” and “How?”, and to question existence on some level. We’ve already been exposed to the ideas of great philosophical thinkers through the stances of our parents and peers.

Books, movies, TV shows and videogames all have their own philosophies and pose their own questions, regardless of their target audience. The Matrix is often seen as a modern elucidation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and the animated adult comedy show Rick & Morty embodies the philosophy of nihilism while exploring the multiple universe theory. Videogames are the perfect platform to explore ethical and moral issues – Bioshock and Undertale being two great examples.

Teenagers don’t shy away from considering these questions: they openly embrace them. I voraciously consumed ideologies over my Junior Cert and tried them on for size – I was an anarchist, a communist, an atheist, an existentialist, a pacifist. Eventually I picked up the popular philosophy book Sophie’s World, got hooked, and started sifting through my thoughts.

I was taking my Junior Cert in a deeply conservative all-female Convent of Mercy, so to say my thoughts were unwelcome in the classroom would be a massive understatement. I’ll never forget the clammy days spent in Junior Cert Religion with our poor, harried substitute teacher – particularly when the other students felt brave enough to pipe up. In the middle of a particularly sluggish class, a student who was usually quite reserved came out suddenly with the exact question that’s been haunting the philosophy of religion since its beginnings: “Miss, if God exists, and he’s so great, why do so many bad things happen in the world?”  

Taken aback, the teacher gave the Christian explanation of original sin and the fall of man. This didn’t satisfy us. Before the moment passed, I asked if there were any justifications that didn’t rely on the Bible. I was sent out of the class. As per usual.

I’m not trying to imply that I was treated unjustly in secondary school – I had a problem with authority, and I’ve since mellowed down into secularism. But the fact remains: there is no scope for philosophical debate in our schools, especially on topics as important as the philosophy of religion. And I’m not sure if that will change with the introduction of the JCSA. Considering that 90% of Irish secondary schools are run under Catholic patronage, I’m not sure we’ll be able to achieve a healthy questioning and diversity of theological beliefs in the Junior Cycle.

Institutional Problems

This is my primary reservation around the JCSA: students are eager to learn, and curriculums can be changed, but can you change entire institutions and the ingrained habits of our teachers? I’m not sure. After all, the teachers are the important part. And if the persistent ASTI and TUI strikes that peppered holes into my Leaving Cert year show anything, it’s that teachers already aren’t happy with the terms of this reform.

What’s my solution? Make a compromise with the teachers of Ireland. Their concerns around the JCSA – mainly, the removal of a third party for marking the standardised exams – have solid grounding. Impartial examiners serve several important functions in our education system. Their removal would add great stress to the workloads of Irish teachers and make them vulnerable to criticism from local parents. 

Not only that, but Irish students deserve anonymity in their grading.

Whether they’re conscious of it or not, teachers cannot mark their own students with complete impartiality. Their knowledge of their past essays and exams, their behaviour and their work ethic will indubitably influence their perception of their performance. This is especially important in a subject like philosophy, where students are expected to give their own opinions on learned material. If students know how to pander to the thoughts and opinions of their teachers for extra credit, they will. 

Another important step for the Department of Education and Skills is to quell the squabbling of the ASTI and TUI and form a singular, united teachers’ union. The schism between the unions has already led to fragmented teaching and unnecessary complications. Frankly, there is no room for minor political differences when we’re dealing with something as important as education. 

It’s widely acknowledged among the younger generations that the Catholic Church needs to be pried away from schools.

Children deserve a balanced and accepting education which promotes equality, diversity and independent thought. This is the 21st century: I can’t quite believe that until recently I was attending a school where males and females were separated, where non-Catholic students were denied admittance or isolated, and where I was sent out of class for expressing unchristian sentiments or refusing to say the prayers that opened every lesson.

Baby Steps

Promisingly, the Minister for Education expressed the intention to abolish Rule 68 of Rules for National Schools, the 1965 document that still governs Irish primary schools. Rule 68 begins as follows: 

“Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject-matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

The fact that Jan O’Sullivan has received huge backlash over this plan shows how backwards this country really is. We have a lot of baby steps to take before each religion is given equal weighting in our schools, and before our Catholic-centred Religion course can be replaced with broader subjects like Theology and Philosophy instead. 

The problems in the Junior Certificate run far deeper than the curriculum itself, and until they’re solved the JCSA just isn’t going to work.