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Chile: the philosophical question

The global trend against humanities is hitting Chile, a country where thousands of students regularly take to the streets demanding not only free but better education. Español

Laura Vidal Natali Herrera Pacheco
19 September 2016
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Chilean students demonstrate during the “Chilean Winter” in Santiago de Chile for free and equal quality education, Aug. 18, 2011. AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo

In Chile, social networks, academia, and the general public have been abuzz with the news that philosophy might be removed from the list of required subjects for high school juniors and seniors.

At first, it was reported that this change would turn philosophy into an optional subject, or even into subject-matter for the civic education class. The Ministry of Education stated however that the proposal, far from limiting student access to philosophy, sought to standardize the curriculum nationwide, so as to make the subject more accessible for the majority of students.

The fate of the philosophy class has not yet been decided, but many see the idea of meddling with the current set-up as ominous. The ongoing debate in Chile involves deans, university authorities, professors, and the media. In any case, many believe that philosophy's very presence in schools is being threatened.

Academics like Adolfo Estrella argued on the website El Desconcierto (“bewilderment” in Spanish) that philosophy should be part of a curriculum which, as a whole, should promote critical thinking in school across different activities and subjects: “Philosophy can defend itself. But it should be defended as a subject”.

Regarding the annexation of philosophy to the civics class programme, César Guadalupe, a professor and researcher at the University of the Pacific in Peru, says that the most important thing is to understand that civic education is about “legal, formal, patriotic, and philosophic” knowledge, but that the essential question is: “In the end, what is it that we want children to learn in school? Is it knowledge about certain subjects or a set of abilities?” If the latter, “which of those abilities do we want to strengthen?”

Guadalupe insists that critical thinking is not exclusive to one subject: “Critical thinking is an ability, a competency that should be developed in physics, in mathematics, in psychology, or in any subject. One can critically reflect on any subject.”

For his part, Guido Larson, a professor at the Humanities Institute of the Development University in Chile, has remarked that the proposed changes — whatever they end up being — just do not seem to be well thought out.

On the other hand, and in a bitingly ironic manner, Hernán Neira has criticized the Ministry's plan: “Dear Minister: You are quite right to eliminate philosophy, that deceitful and useless subject, from the educational programme. Because of it, our compatriots increasingly ask themselves about the meaning of life. Sick and tired of being consumers of material and immaterial goods like civic education, they want to become human beings again.”

Philosophy is not a bargaining chip in Chile's market-driven education

In an endless stream of messages, Chileans have been expressing their opinion on what some consider a step that is consistent with the state of education in the country, with its high costs and its structure devoted to satisfying only economic requirements. You can follow their ongoing conversation and constant flow of opinions, articles and debates at #Derechoalafilosofía (#RightToPhilosophy). Just a taste:

“A #Chile without memory, without civic education, without philosophy, without history, is destined to the most complete failure” — Rocío Barrientos (@Chiobtos).

Another contributor asks the minister of education to roll back the changes and conduct a better analysis: “Minister, throw out all of these weird ideas on cheap efficiency” — Fernando Rubilar (@FernandoRubilar)

Yet another opinion: “Philosophy, civics, any change requires teacher validation, and in Chile this has not happened. Hence the failures and constant experimentation – Marcela Momberg (@marcelamomberg)

The Network of Chilean Philosophy Professors (REPROFICH) launched a campaign – namely, “Petition to the Chilean Ministry of Education. Defending the Right to Philosophy”- through the website Change.org. They are collecting signatures supporting academic and citizen opinions against the curricular alteration.

Among the demonstrations of support for the unrestricted presence of philosophy in the classrooms, the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso hosted a debate (“Defending Philosophy”) in which both students and professors spoke in favour of studying philosophy for something more than mere accumulation of knowledge or as an element within “Chile's market-driven education.” The participants’ main concern was the possibility of philosophy disappearing from schools due to educational disinterest once the subject becomes optional or a source material for civics. They believe that, considering the competitive structures of formal schooling in Chile, this fear could become a reality.

The discussion remains open, although it is to be hoped that both sides will eventually reach some agreement. Even though this piece of news has generated a great deal of controversy in Chile, it is important to remember that just one year ago Spain said goodbye to philosophy in their schools, highlighting the fact that the spaces for teaching humanities and critical thinking as we know them are experiencing radical changes globally. The impact that these changes will have on the formation of youth and on citizen behaviour, however, remains to be seen.

This article was published previously by Global Voices.

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