History | Citizenship | PSHE

How critical thinking can save the world

Can philosophy stop war? In a tough neighbourhood in Belfast, one man is teaching Plato, Socrates and Aristotle to challenge children to think for themselves and reject violence. In 1998, the people of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement. Catholics and Protestants agreed to end the decades of conflict that had ripped their communities apart. It was a huge moment in the history of the UK and Ireland. Almost 25 years later, the optimism is not as strong. There is increasing tension in the area. Now a headteacher in Belfast is trying something new. He wants to use philosophy to help reduce violence. It is all captured in a moving new documentary, Young Plato. Kevin McArevey is head of Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in the district of Ardoyne. The area is one of the poorest areas of Belfast. As well as sectarianism, it is troubled by urban decay, drugs and gangs. Growing up, many of the boys at Holy Cross have learnt to treat violence as the first response to any insult or injury. McArevey wants them to think differently, to learn how to use reason and empathy to defuse tensions, not escalate them. That is why he is teaching them about three great figures in classical philosophy: SocratesPlato and Aristotle. In one famous argument, Socrates takes on Thrasymachus, who claims that power is right and that no-one should ever act in a way that benefits others. Socrates counters that the only way of being happy is to treat other people well. Plato taught that we are all dependent on each other, so it is vital to find ways of living together. Aristotle believed above all in moderation. He thought we should be assertive and self-confident, but never resort to force. All three philosophers believed in the power of reason. McArevey hopes that his pupils will be able to use their own reason to end the violence in schools, and ultimately in their communities. Can philosophy stop war? Peaceful thoughts Yes: Violence is a learned behaviour, not an innate response. By thinking critically about our own behaviour and what we have been taught by others, we can learn to turn away from violence. No: The problems these children face are material, not spiritual. For as long as their communities remain poor, divided and riven by gangs, there will always be an incentive to act violently. Or… Philosophy cannot solve the problem of violence by itself, but it is a good start. If it encourages even a handful of children to turn the other cheek, there could be a domino effect across their communities. KeywordsGood Friday Agreement - The treaty that ended the Troubles, a decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which also saw fighting between the British government and Irish republicans. One of its central tenets is an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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