In a founding St James document Nicholas Debenham, the first Headmaster, wrote: ‘Academic subjects can be taught in such a way as to lift the spirit and inspire’. For me this is particularly true with regards to the subject of Philosophy, a lesson all pupils have each week.
Yet it seems to me there is a difference between teaching Philosophy and teaching a Philosophy. The former inspires young people (or at least invites them to question and explore) whilst the latter bores them. Philosophy is a subject which must be taught in the spirit of the tradition and that of the great philosophers: out of love and dedication to wisdom, as the name of the subject implies, and not just to impart knowledge. For this, the teachers themselves must be the greatest and most devoted of students: as Heidegger says, ‘Teaching is more difficult than learning for only he who can truly learn can truly teach’. If the teacher lives this love of wisdom, then even a dry A Level philosophy syllabus can become inspiring. It is not so much a matter of imparting or instructing, as it is of transmitting the spirit of philosophy: which is a spirit that is alive and aflame, and is never reduced to philosophical ‘theories’ and doctrines. I cannot think of a subject more suited to the aims of St. James, nor indeed more relevant to education as a whole, and especially to the needs of ‘21st century’ education than this subject.
Since the practice of mindfulness and meditation is a requirement for St James teachers, it occurs to me that some of the fruits of contemplative practice are listening, loving attention and a deep sense of care for the worth of things and of beings. These are qualities that seem to me essential to bring to ‘21st century students’, not just to encourage them to practise but to bring, as teachers, to all our dealings with students. There needs to be an encounter, an attentive ‘dialogue’ with the students: find out what they think, how they think, what they feel and see, what their world is like – rather than just tell them what to think, what to practise and what is good for them (although I accept there needs to be a good dose of that too!).
To sum up, the spiritual aims and the academic aims of the school work hand in hand. Traditionally philosophy was held to be the handmaiden to theology, and, to my mind, this is still true. A philosophical approach will nourish the spiritual needs of the boys, deepen the heart of their contemplative life, and help them along the path to a life of grace, virtue and creative excellence.