AQA vs. Philosophy

Is AQA denying A Level students the opportunity to explore all aspects of Philosophy?

According to popular myth, God died in 1882, and it was a philosopher who killed him. Today, the tables are turning: in the parochial but telling confines of AQA’s philosophy syllabus, it is philosophy that is dying, and God who has killed it. So laments Charlie Saffrey, whose recent Guardian article notes that the new draft syllabus for A-level philosophy looks set to replace whole fields of philosophy with the compulsory study of philosophy of religion.

Saffrey’s first complaint is that several options, including aesthetics, free will and political philosophy are replaced in the new syllabus by a compulsory philosophy of religion element weighing 50% of the AS. The problem he sees here is the impoverishment and misrepresentation of philosophy. Impoverishment because the omitted fields are valuable; misrepresentation because the remainder is both unduly biased toward religion, and just badly incomplete.

While I agree broadly with Saffrey, two qualifications are due. First, the 50% weighting of religion only pertains to the AS, not the A2. The new syllabus includes epistemology and philosophy of religion in the AS year, and ethics and philosophy of mind at A2: in this sense philosophy of religion is not emphasised more than any other component. Second, while the narrow focus on four areas is not representative of philosophy in general, it does provide a fair basis from which to start. It may not be much, but it is better than a course that focuses only on religion and a half-hearted soup of ethical garbles.

Of course, Saffrey is right that the new syllabus is a narrow one. It is a pity that aesthetics, free will, political philosophy, and modern philosophy will no longer be studied under the AQA syllabus. Saffrey writes that “the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject.” Indeed, the point is more general than this: some of the core areas of philosophy, even on the old syllabus, do not appear at all. For example, no space is given to the study of logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, or phenomenology.

One good reason for these omissions might be that an A-level course cannot cover more than a handful of these topics. But this is not convincing: it is still important to have the right range of options – enough to be representative of philosophy as a discipline. Saffrey rejoins (on behalf of AQA) that the focus on philosophy of religion reflects the fact that this is the most popular area of study. But he rightly adds that this is so because “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.”

Now, it is hardly AQA’s fault that lots of schools ask RE teachers to teach philosophy. It may not even be the fault of the schools. Perhaps there are simply not enough philosophy graduates in the teaching profession. So, while Saffrey is right that the narrowness of the new AQA syllabus is very much something to lament, I suspect that it may only reflect a problem whose causes lie elsewhere. If there is reason to worry specifically about the AQA syllabus, this may not be it.

Consider the claim that ‘every truth is knowable’ entails ‘God exists’. It is one thing to say that this is the case; plainly, it is quite a different thing to show that it is so. The argument is quite ingenious, and controversial. But whether the reasoning succeeds or fails, note that most of the benefit is not in simply knowing what the argument is, or whether it succeeds – rather, it is in what we learn through working it out. Likewise, it is one thing to say that Kant criticised the ontological argument for its mistreatment of the notion of existence, but quite another achievement to understand why Kant might have thought such a thing.

Here we hit what is most disheartening about the new AQA syllabus; the way in which exam scripts will be marked. There are two ‘assessment objectives’ (criteria): one for describing arguments and views and ideas (AO1), and one for assessing them (AO2). Under the new syllabus, the AS scheme gives 80% weighting to AO1, with a mere 20% reserved for AO2. The A2 is not much better, distributed at 70–30.

There is irony in this change: if the Higher Powers at AQA had read Mill’s On Liberty rather than cutting it from their syllabus, they could hardly have missed his point, that we must always continue to reason, lest our firmest beliefs and even knowledge should become dead dogma.

It is worth raising a general point here about impact and relevance. It would be easy to think that a course in (say) ethics is useful, or relevant, because through it one learns a whole kaleidoscope of moral theories. But in truth, one does not learn that much about moral theories in an A-level, and in any case, a trip to Oxfam will often better serve that purpose. The usefulness of the course consists far more in the practical skills that it imparts, of making, discerning, and listening to arguments about moral topics. Piano lessons are useful because they make us better at playing; just so, philosophy lessons make us better at thinking. And the useful skill of such thinking is one that expands readily into areas new and unfamiliar, not one that falls back on philosophical incantations, however canonical or profound.

It may be hard, practically, to mark exam scripts in a standardised way when a large amount of the mark is given to something as volatile as assessment and argumentation. But if the difficulty there pertains to giving a student the right amount of by SaverAddon” style=”background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% transparent ! important; border: medium none ! important; display: inline-block ! important; text-indent: 0px ! important; float: none ! important; font-weight: bold ! important; height: auto ! important; margin: 0px ! important; min-height: 0px ! important; min-width: 0px ! important; padding: 0px ! important; text-transform: uppercase ! important; text-decoration: underline ! important; vertical-align: baseline ! important; width: auto ! important;” in_hover=”” in_hdr=”1″>credit

for their arguments, the slipshod new AQA syllabus will only ensure that they receive no credit at all. (Here is a real-world example of the ‘levelling-down’ objection to egalitarianism! But wait, we no longer study political philosophy…) No doubt it is easy for two examiners to mark an essay in the same way when they merely to play verbal bingo with some bullet points on a mark scheme. But the resulting subject bears no resemblance at all to philosophy: it is not even a poor substitute. Saffrey puts the point starkly:

“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.”

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