“No… Plato is easy…” Enrique P. Mesa, a high school philosophy teacher in the working-class Madrid district of Villaverde, is a man on a mission: to convince his students that his subject has a role to play in everyday life, and that anybody can get their head around philosophy.
“He’s not like the other teachers,” says a student who is sitting in the back row of the classroom. Mesa uses jokes and cartoons on the blackboard, and speaks carefully and slowly, regularly stopping to make sure he hasn’t left anybody behind.
In just 45 minutes, the 17-year-olds in his class have received an introduction to the father of philosophy and begun to address the key questions about life. “You can only discover the world of ideas by using rational thinking,” concludes Mesa as he ends his class.
But the latest reforms to Spain’s education system, known as the LOMCE, will see philosophy relegated to the sidelines.
Until now, high school students were obliged to study three related subjects: Philosophy, Ethical Values, and the History of Philosophy. But with the reform, only the first will be compulsory during the first year of Bachillerato, a post-secondary two-year program for students who wish to go on to university.
This is all part of the tendency toward pragmatism, it reflects our obsession with immediacy”
Emilio Lledó, Spanish thinker
This means that 16-year-olds who leave school will have been given little understanding about how Western thinking evolved, from the Ancient Greeks to Jean-Paul Sartre.
“People mistakenly think that philosophy teaches you how to think. But there are other ways of learning to think. Philosophy is about critical thinking, which is the basis of democracy. We have the right to vote because we are considered to be critical and self-reliant,” says Mesa during a class break.
Mesa is the head of the Madrid Philosophy Teachers’ Association, and has been active in raising awareness among parents, as have other teachers throughout the country, albeit with varying results. Cantabria and Andalusia’s regional administrations have promised to reincorporate philosophy into the part of the curriculum designed by their own education departments.
The conservative government’s education reform returns religion to the curriculum. In Madrid, there has been a 150-percent increase in students taking the subject, which is seen as an easier option than Ethical Values, which is taught by philosophy teachers.
“In the times in which we live, which are characterized by progress and rationality, religion should be in a different area of teaching. The idea that it should take precedence over philosophy says a great deal about where our leaders want to take us,” says Antonio Cascón, the dean of the philosophy department at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM).
José Luis Mora of UAM's social anthropology and Spanish philosophical thinking department, adds: “Philosophy helps build open minds, it cannot be an alternative to religion. Teaching centers are the public space of reason. Anything else is a return to the 18th century.”
Philosophy teachers have also been backed by institutions such as the Spanish Society for the History of Medicine, as well as by some members of the public. A letter to the editor of EL PAÍS titled “The beauty of the humanities” garnered 200,000 likes on Facebook.
“Starting next year, philosophy will disappear from the second year of Bachillerato and be locked away in a dark trunk where her sisters, music, painting, literature, history, rhetoric, etc, were exiled,” wrote Pedro Argüellol, who sent the letter.
“I felt a deep sadness, because this measure is part of a conception of education that I don’t share,” says Silvia Vela Arrans, a 46-year-old teacher. “It doesn’t just affect Philosophy, but also all the other subjects that help pupils be creative, from painting to music.”
Philosophy’s place in the Spanish education curriculum has been steadily eroded over the last three decades, says Antonio Campillo, the dean of Murcia University’s School of Philosophy.
“You can’t learn the foundations of philosophy in a single year; they have to be studied in cycles. Philosophy helps you learn to express yourself,” he says. “That is why even business schools have realized that an economist or an engineer needs to study the humanities.”
Some philosophy teachers have met with representatives from the Education Ministry, but to little avail, says Esperanza Rodríguez, president of the Education Commission of the Spanish Philosophy Network, which represents around 24 university departments and 40 associations.
Philosophy is about critical thinking, which is the basis of democracy. We have the right to vote because we are considered to be critical and self-reliant”
Enrique P. Mesa, high school philosophy teacher
“Some of us will continue to teach philosophy, others will be given different similar subjects. But I think the real losers here are the students. Adolescence is a great age to ask oneself questions about life. Philosophy helps them to face up to new issues, to become more adult-like. And that requires time and help,” she says.
Emilio Lledó is a member of the Spanish Royal Academy, a Princess of Asturias Prize winner, and one of the country’s most respected thinkers. But above all, he still considers himself, at the age of 88, to be a philosophy teacher.
“This is all part of the tendency toward pragmatism, it reflects our obsession with immediacy,” he says. “This is the death of our country’s greatest treasure, which is its culture, because that is where freedom is to be found. Philosophy plays an essential role in society, obliging us to think about language, about goodness, about justice, about who we are, about truth. From the Ancient Greeks onward, philosophers have always been the conscience of their times.”