For the last two years I have volunteered as primary school ethics teacher. For those reading this who are not from Australia, primary school ethics is a class that is held during scripture (religious education) for those who do not wish to attend those classes. The classes are run by volunteers, who are usually parents who have children attending the school. The class is designed to raise age appropriate moral questions and encourage a Socratic dialogue between the students. For example, I will ask the question “Is it always wrong to lie?” and I will take an answer from a student and encourage them to give a reason for why they answered the way they did. After this, I will encourage other students that either disagree or have different reasons for the same view and ask them to give their reasons for those beliefs.
Younger vs older students
In my first year I taught year 5 students (10-11 year olds), and in my second year I taught year 1 students (6-7 year olds). During the time I taught the year 5 students, I noticed the topics were amazing for their age. The topics implicity covered Rawls’ and Nozick’s conpeting theories of justice; utilitarianism vs categorical imperatives; the free will problem; speciesism; and so on. The reactions from the children revealed different intuitions on all of these topics, except for the free will problem. The universal reaction from the students I taught reflected an attitude of semi compatibilism, where they saw deterministic worlds as worlds where you don’t have free will, but in those same worlds you are still morally responsible for your behaviour.
As for the year 1 students, most topics were of virtually universal agreement on what they viewed as right or wrong, but much more encouragement was needed for them to provide reasons for those views. This is an unsurpising result given the age gap between students as well as experience in the class. However, it did reveal the value of introducing the concept of not merely accepting things as a matter of fact, but to think about the reasons why these things are true.
Non religious but not anti-religious
The primary school ethics class has a strict curriculum. The curriculum has been constructed by various academic philosophers designed to ensure that the content is age appropriate and does not ‘push’ for any particular viewpoint. This does not mean it promotes moral relativism, just that it allows and encourages competing conclusions to result from the content.
There are historical reasons for this. Religious organisations feared the introduction of ethics due to concerns that it would be designed to teach moral relativism and anti religious sentiments. To put these fears to rest, ethics was designed with such a strict curriculum, along with all teachers trained to respect the script of the curriculum and to encourage children to arrive at their own conclusions as opposed to being lead to a particular answer. After two years of teaching I have observed of course that these fears were unfounded.
However, I am thankful that such process occurred ro create primary school ethics, even if it was to lay to rest unfounded concerns. Firstly, having professionals control the program has resulted in circumstances where a child that participates in ethics for their whole time at primary school will have exposure to virtually all philosophical moral concepts one would gain from an undergraduate philosophy degree (not the detailed arguments of course, just the existence of those ideas. For example they will know the competing moral theories [without necessarily knowing their names], but not the academic arguments for them).
Second, it has no implicit or explicit discussions over whether God exists, or whether religion is good or evil, rational or irrational, and so on. This is entirely consisted with academic philosophy. After all, one of my favourite lecturers from when I was an undergrad believes in God.
The need for philosophy as a compulsory subject
Seeing for myself the capacity for older primary school students to grasp concepts related to undergraduate philosophy has bolstered a view that I have held for some time, which is that philosophy ought to be a compulsory high school subject.
There is a wealth of literature from the journal of philosophy in schools that provides arguments for the same thing. However, observing first hand the potential from year 5 students, I would feel confident in year 12 high school graduates having the equivalent of a 1st year undergraduate’s knowledge of philosophy.
High school graduates having undergraduate philosophy knowledge would be an application of true democracy. Having an uninformed population is contrary to democracy. However, especially in this age of virtually infinite access to information, a population without the skills to analyse arguments and understand basic philosophical principles is just as contrary to democracy.