Modern Liberal thought draws on, and is historically at least partly rooted in that period of our intellectual history known as, the Enlightenment. The French intellectuals Diderot and d’Alembert define the Enlightenment thinker as one who,
trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.[i]
Daring to think for yourself is a core Enlightenment value. In 1784 Kant wrote a short magazine article entitled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant, not normally known for his brevity, came up with one of the most quoted characterizations:
[Enlightenment is the] emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason![ii]
“Sapere” and “Aude” are, not uncoincidentally, the names of two philosophy for children organizations. Philosophy for children is very much an Enlightened, Liberal idea, and in arguing that children should be raised to be autonomous, independent critical thinkers, proponents of P4C are promoters of a core Enlightenment value.
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about that value, particularly in the classroom. Some social and religious conservatives believe that to encourage children to think independently and make their own judgements is to sow the seeds of disaster. They argue that, without some religious Authority in the classroom to which children are encouraged to defer, children are cast perilously adrift. They insist that, in the absence of some external Authority, morality boils down to nothing more than individual, subjective preference and choice. Every point of view becomes as “correct” as every other. So a Liberal approach – which removes external Authority from the classroom – is a recipe for moral decay and catastrophe.
Those who take this view are, in my view, muddled. In my book The War For Children’s Minds I tackle a range of arguments offered by those critical of a Liberal approach to moral and religious education. Here I explain the failings of just two amongst many particular lines of argument. Both involve the thought that development of a robust cultural and moral identity requires more or less uncritical acceptance of certain cultural norms and values, at least early on, and that a P4C approach is therefore likely to be culturally and morally destructive.