A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher


Heavenly spheres
The War for Children's Minds

The Philosopher's verdict: an impressive achievement that fails to satisfy its own criteria

The War for Children's Minds
by Stephen Law, Routledge 2006 hb ISBN 0415378559

The photo on the cover of this book is of a small girl standing on a box on a pebble beach with her arms outstretched as if flying. It is a charming picture, and conjures up the idea that something goes on inside children's minds that is different from what goes in our own once we get older.

And a book that looks at this disparity would indeed be very welcome. Alas this is not at all what Stephen Law has in mind. Here is instead a rather literal, rather journalistic account of current political controversies over the spread of 'relativism' in schools and society, and the erosion of traditional forms of moral authority, notably religious.

Stephen Law, who wrote a popular book called 'The Philosophy Files' aimed (like Sophie's World) at introducing children to philosophy, or at least conventional Western philosophy, is also the editor of a journal funded by the Royal Society for Philosophy aimed at schools. He currently lectures at Heythrop college in London, but clearly has an interest in philosophy for children. And indeed this book finishes with a set of 'policy recommendations' for the UK government, which add up essentially to the introduction of 'philosophy in schools' programmes of the kind advanced in the US.

Stephen Law's main thesis is that the best way of bringing up children is to be 'independent thinkers' who employ 'rational' methods of enquiry into the world around them. He writes breezily and usually very clearly, but the book becomes repetitious. This thesis alone, fine though for philosophers it may be, I regret, is repeated at least twenty times. But then repetition is a pedagogical technique - in lessons everything must be said at the beginning, the middle and the end, and so here we find, for example, Jonathan Sacks, the UK's Chief Rabbi indeed quoted at length (eight lines) on page 9 - and the same quote exactly reappears on page 105! (Does anyone read books to the end any more?)

Anyway, Law, like philosophers since Plato , assumes that a philosophical training will suffice to produce virtuous and socially productive citizens. His targets are the 'Authoritarians', a terrible group he distinguishes unhelpfully and confusingly from the 'authoritarians' (with a lower-case 'a') who are by no means so bad. Indeed, he says being 'authoritarian' is fine, as long as one is 'enlightened' and liberal as well. He explains that he also uses the term 'enlightened' in a special way, the way that 'Kant' uses it. (Alas, in an appendix, he discusses the possibility that other interpretations of Kant could have led to the holocaust, explaining that this sort of 'Kant' is not his.) The 'Authoritarians' attempt to asset that something is right and something is wrong because they say so, acting perhaps as the agents of God, or of the State. He gives as examples of Authoritarians Hitler and Stalin, Pol Pot and poor old Chairman Mao.

I say poor old Chairman Mao, because the main example of how evil Mao was is given as the period of the Cultural revolution, when of course the 'Gang of Four' (not exactly Mao himself) encouraged the devolution of decision making to the communist activists - and in the resulting anarchy millions died. The Cultural Revolution was a collapse of central authority, and Maoism itself contained exactly those ingredients Law is at pains to recommend: the process of local committees holding discussion meetings to rationally decide policy. Some of Mao's (with insight) greatest errors , the various 'leaps forward that resulted in famine, were arrived at by a process of rational consultation, of the kind Law assures us here is always positive.

As for Pol Pot, who Law says used to torture people to change their opinions, rather than to extract information or as part of a punishment, it is sad to see again the misinformation that the Khmer Rouge was some kind of communist plot spread further. The historical facts (and again Law sets himself up as a judge on this sort of basis) are that the Khmer Rouge was armed, trained and funded by the West, including the British, and that long after the horrors of 'Year Zero' emerged (after the Communists of Vietnam had invaded) continued to be backed by the forces of 'rationalism'. For example, the West insisted that the Khmer Rouge retain the UN seat for Cambodia. Why? So that there could be a rational debate between the two 'factions'. Their inclusion here as a proof of the superiority of the Western democratic way is unwarranted.

Similarly, that rather too broad concept of 'Islamic countries' provides a familiar stalking horse. Law quotes a Times report that pupils at a Muslim faith school were told the 'enemies of Allah' would try to poison their minds as weighty evidence against Muslim schools. Similarly, "a number of Islamic countries continue to execute any citizen who publicly rejects the Muslim faith", asserts Law, evidently fuelled more by commentators like Melanie Phillips (quoted five or six times) than any detailed interest in Islamic governance. (For example, it is presumably not true that non-Muslim citizens of Islamic countries are executed for 'publicly rejecting the Muslim faith'). 

But enough of this - mere facts - what of the central philosophical arguments?

Law says that Liberalism is best in that it provides each individual with the right to decide what is right and what is wrong for themselves. However, he says, this does not mean that there is no 'objective' right and wrong. To link liberalism with relativism is, he assures us, an ignorant mistake.

Furthermore, rationalism, what he calls 'the filter of reason' is best as "sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs'. Law offers some examples of physical science, such as 'the earth's core is made of cheese' to illustrate the superiority of rationalism over irrationalism. 

Whether rationality can decide questions of value is not itself questioned, although much later in the book Law does indeed raise the problem summed up by David Hume, of an 'is does not imply an ought'. This counter argument to his main thesis is well done - he offers a mugger of old ladies who believes old ladies deserve to suffer, and thus cannot be persuaded by any amount of factual evidence that mugging old ladies causes them misery and distress. Law retrenches at this point , saying that rationality after all cannot generate moral behaviour. "The view defended here", he says instead, "is that , wherever your moral beliefs happen to come from, you should be encouraged to think critically about them." Sounds like Bible study class then.

The best parts of this book are the quotes from the various right-wing ideologues, such as the firey Himmelfarb and the watery Pat Buchanan in the US. There are some good clear accounts of ethically interesting research such as the famous experiment by Stanley Milgram (in which volunteers are persuaded to (apparently) electrocute another volunteers) and useful summaries of certain argument for the 'parents and policy makers' the book says it is addressing.

The weakness of the book is in the narrowness of it approach - in two senses. One is sociological and geographical - it is really a survey of the world as seen through the London Sunday papers, a world in which religious fanatics, and historical tyrants are set against virtuous academics in London, Oxbridge and the US. There is no discussion of the other war for children's minds, conducted by subtle forces of capitalism and individualism. 

Another, and this is even more unfortunate, weakness in the book is the absence of the concept of family and the changing role (especially as authority figures) of parents, for whom the book was ostensibly written. There are no references to Jean Piaget, who showed how children have to evolve a moral sense or to other 'educationalists'. Instead there are references to contemporary 'hard philosophers' like Robin le Poivedin, a self-styled expert in the philosophy of Time whose view that atheists do not wish to accept religious authority is approvingly quoted. Any survey of moral behaviour which fails to take into account the influence of parents and parental controls during the 'pre-rational' years, is going to be inadequate. 

Stephen Laws' book is still an impressive achievement, but as a philosophical work, it fails to satisfy its own criteria.

Never mind what The Philosopher says -
Take me to the bookshop!
Reviewed by Martin Cohen