Diversity in the A-level philosophy syllabus - guest post by Rufus Duits

Diversity in the A-level Philosophy syllabus

Guest blog post from Rufus Duits 

I think therefore I’m a man 

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.

Simone de Beauvoir  

Picture the scene

You are a sixteen-year-old girl about to embark on your A-Levels at a state comprehensive. You had exceptionally good GCSE results and have been told you should think about an Oxbridge application. You’ve chosen to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics and are dreaming about becoming the first Black female British Prime Minister.

You turn up to your introductory Philosophy A-Level class and after an hour of the teacher explaining what the syllabus includes and who you will study, you start to wonder: ‘Is this really for me? Have I made the wrong choice or been too ambitious?’  

Female thinkers are massively underrepresented on the A-Level Philosophy syllabus, while thinkers from the global ethnic majority are entirely absent.

AQA is the only exam board to offer an A-Level in Philosophy. It is a rigorous and demanding course, divided into four topics: theory of knowledge, moral philosophy, theory of mind, and philosophy of religion.

It’s a popular choice in many schools because children are naturally inquisitive about the world and their place within it. In 2022 3,275 students sat Philosophy A-Level, compared with 4,117 taking Politics and 2,015 German.  

Of the 40 authors named on the AQA specification, just five are women – and of those only three are well-recognised, professional philosophers.

This is despite the fact that there are many female philosophers who are much more prominent and much more relevant to the syllabus than many of the male authors who are present. 

AQA admits that the philosophers studied are almost exclusively male, white, Western and Christian, but as yet has failed to address this imbalance. When it comes to representing the rich diversity of philosophical thinkers and traditions available for study, this syllabus is a failure.   

So why is this a problem? 

We often hear if you can’t see it, you can’t be it and this is particularly important in education.

If women are absent from the books pupils read, the impression is that their voices and ideas are less valuable and can be ignored, fuelling what Caroline Criado Perez, feminist and author of the book Invisible Women, terms the “myth of male universality”. 

The narrow approach to the Philosophy syllabus exacerbates sexism and misogyny in schools, engendering a lack of respect for women and girls and their contributions to academia.

By omitting female philosophers, AQA gives the impression that men think more profoundly than women and always have. It creates a hierarchy of intellectual value where both boys and girls believe only male philosophers are worthy of study.  

Students are missing out on profound and inspiring works by women like Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot in the UK and Carol Gilligan in the US who have revolutionised moral philosophy by reinstating virtue ethics. 

Also overlooked is Mary Midgely, who showed how the entire paradigm that has dominated our thinking about the mind and knowledge for the last few centuries is irredeemably gendered.

Midgely explains how the current environmental crisis has its roots in what she calls the “virist” or masculinist “myth we live by” in which men are placed above nature and the rest of creation and women are classed with the fauna. Feminist thinkers have had an awful lot to say about the gendered nature of the concept of God, the misogyny of religions, and about the “omnibenevolence” of a God who appears to not love women all that much.

You can’t conduct an analysis of the problem of evil without underscoring the systematic oppression and suffering of women throughout history. 

Representing diversity in education

Diverse representation in education can promote critical thinking. Students are encouraged to question assumptions and stereotypes when they encounter a range of perspectives, which can lead to a deeper understanding of complex issues.

A study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that exposure to diverse perspectives can lead to more complex thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making (AAC&U, 2018). The representation of women on the A-Level Philosophy syllabus is particularly important as philosophy asks and responds to the most fundamental questions.

Philosophy reinforces fundamental ways of understanding the world and our place within it. This can be hard for pupils to reassess and undo later. Female philosophers regularly disrupt these basic ways of understanding the world, so their work is valuable for reflecting on the philosophical tradition. 

A-Level Philosophy needs to give pupils a sense of the most important philosophical questions and the main traditions that have evolved to answer them. And of course these traditions have their fair share of male contributors. However, there are many points on the syllabus where the absence of the important contributions of renowned female philosophers is astounding. 

A-Level Philosophy provides a poor recruitment tool for Philosophy degree programmes. Many of the named authors are openly misogynistic (Aristotle and Kant, for example) and the dearth of female philosophers gives the impression that studying philosophy is not for women. The under-representation of women in philosophy programmes and departments at all levels is a crisis.

In Higher Education, Philosophy continues to be dominated by men in a way that many other disciplines – particularly in the arts and humanities – are not. According to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, only 35% of philosophy PhD students in the UK are female, compared to 61% in English and 53% in history. The proportion of female permanent post-holders in UK philosophy departments stands at roughly 24%. 

AQA’s “Access to assessment: diversity and inclusion” statement notes that “The subject criteria have been assessed to see if any of the skills or knowledge required present any possible difficulty to any students, whatever their ethnic background, religion, sex, age, disability or sexuality”. But the required knowledge does pose a “possible difficulty” to girls and women engaging with the subject. 

And what can we do about it? 

A group of teachers from the HMC Cluster group, the Eton Group, and the Association of Philosophy Teachers have written to AQA to highlight this issue and received an encouraging response.

Plans are afoot to replace the current specification with a syllabus that has a diverse range of philosophers and AQA has already assembled a working group of teachers and academics to spearhead the project. 

The content of the Philosophy A-Level is ultimately decided by the Department of Education. There is now a desire among school teachers, within university departments, in institutions such as the Royal Institute of Philosophy and the British Philosophy Association, and within the exam board itself to diversify the voices of the curriculum. Let’s hope the DfE listens.

If you would like to help keep up the pressure on AQA, you can write to express your concerns here https://www.aqa.org.uk/contact-us

Further reading around diversity in Philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more, a good introduction to female voices disrupting the philosophical tradition is provided byMetaphysical Animals: how four women brought philosophy back to life, by Rachael Wiseman and Clare Mac Cumhaill, Chatto & Windus. Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? By Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins is also a useful and thought provoking read.

Sarah Reavley
Sarah Reavley
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