When I tell people I teach philosophy, to children their reaction is almost always: “Gosh, you mean in a private school?” When I tell them that I mostly work in Deptford, Brixton and Whitechapel with children receiving free school meals, they look surprised.
Who can blame them? Philosophers stir their tea pondering how we know the sun will rise tomorrow, while the working classes worry whether there is enough money on the electric meter for today, right?
Growing up, my dad, brother and uncle were in and out of prison for violent and drug-related crime, while my mum worked two jobs. Teachers tried their hardest with me, but the more they told me “You have a choice” the more they convinced me that they knew nothing about the real world. My peers couldn’t understand the realities of my background; those who did, I tried to stay away from.
I left school with three GCSEs. To placate my stepfather, I said I’d join the army, but the authority made me even more contrary, and I pulled out. Buying fizzy sweets in my local supermarket, I realised I could be working there soon. If that was my future, then the sun would not be coming up tomorrow. I knew plenty of kids dealing drugs near where I lived. They had nice trainers too. Nicer than mine, I thought.
Earlier that year a teacher had photocopied an ex-student’s coursework and written my name on it. I respected him for breaking the rules; I felt I was being given a chance. His gesture helped me understand there were teachers who were trying to help me. So I went to an open day at a sixth-form college where the philosophy teacher posed the question: “How do we know we’re not just dreaming this reality?”
Marooned in my own unrelatable reality, I embraced this chance to grapple with the true nature of things. As we debated, I realised that the alienation that underpinned my identity could be transformed into thoughts, essays, grades; it could be the makings of an education. In that classroom, my argumentative nature was a virtue and could be moulded into more nuanced skill. I decided to resit my GCSEs so that I could take philosophy. The sun might just come up tomorrow.
Largely because of the access I had to philosophy, I was brought safely away from the edge of the abyss that my life teetered above. But is my story just an anomaly? Is it or yet another tale of social mobility that is as unrepresentative as it is redemptive? Research by the Institute of Education has shown that a term of philosophy sessions improved the reading skills of children on free school meals when compared to a control group. If philosophy is made more available to working-class children, then stories like mine won’t seem so unusual.
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd
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