Amid London's knife crime epidemic, classical philosophy offers young people an alternative

For the young people I've worked with, who describe living "in a warzone", discussing philosophy isn't only an alternative to the restrictions of traditional learning. It empowers them to think critically about their own lives

May 10, 2018
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To grapple with Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’ we are expected to imagine a group of people who have been chained-up in a cave since childhood and forced to watch shadows cast on a wall in front of them. They are unaware, however, that the shadows are even shadows at all, shapes being deliberately manipulated by captors stood out of view, holding objects in front of a bright fire. But the shadows are all that the enchained know, and thus represent the full extent of their reality—one that is constructed, artificial, untrue. This thought experiment, described in Plato’s Republic, poses that to uncover truth we must be able to think critically about the world and free ourselves from the restrictions of what we are told or taught to know. More broadly, the allegory of the cave was Plato’s grand, colourful way of explaining the importance of philosophy as a life-changing practice. According to him, only a philosopher can cut the prisoners’ chains and liberate them from their captive state. Only by mastering philosophy can we turn to realise the fire, the source of our false reality, and exit the cave to discover the bright sky and fresh air of absolute truth. “So the shadows are things like shottin’ and carrying a shank?” a boy I mentor responded with a raised eyebrow, referring to drug-dealing and carrying a knife, when I showed him a diagram of the cave. “The cave is LJ,” he added, referring to his home of Loughborough Junction in Brixton, South London—a hotspot of inner-city poverty and youth violence.

In Plato's cave, shadows are broadcast on the cave walls. Photo: YouTube screen grab In Plato's cave, shadows are broadcast on the cave walls. Photo: YouTube screen grab

In Plato's cave, shadows broadcast on the cave walls are mistaken for reality. Photo: YouTube screen grab We were sat in a stuffy classroom at Marcus Lipton Community Centre, a single-floor building which cowers in the shadows of Loughborough housing estate’s huge, forgotten white towers. The centre’s front door is reinforced by a thick, padlocked metal gate and CCTV cameras record every inch of floorspace within its walls. At the time, my mentee was fifteen-years-old, and like a growing number of others like him across London, he had that week been permanently excluded from his school for bringing in a knife. “If you woke up every morning thinking there was a chance you might die, wouldn’t you protect yourself?” he asked me, his stare firmer and voice deeper than his modest years. “I don’t care if they perm me. If my man’s carrying a knife, I’m carrying a knife.”


Over the last three years I have held hundreds of group discussion, workshops and mentoring conversations with teenagers in South London. It is for my delivery of work to boys at risk of exclusion that I have found philosophy to be a particularly effective tool. It’s no surprise that those boys who feel like they are living “in a warzone”—as one timid twelve-year-old student once told me—or who lack a father-figure at home, or who cannot name a single teacher they trust, are distracted from their studies. Not enough is done in the British education system to get students to develop what the Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire calls, in his classic work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a “critical consciousness.” Due to forces usually beyond their control, many children are not able to learn in our outdated school structures or easily bank the information thrown at them in traditional classroom settings. Often, the boys I have worked with are overwhelmingly distracted by their lives outside of school. For those who struggle most—statistically speaking, based on rates of exclusion, male students who receive free school meals—we ought to invest in a different approach. Students who cannot comply in lessons or follow instructions crave the opportunity to think and talk critically about their daily experiences. Philosophy offers a way of working with those young people who, due to their disproportionately complex lives, are most naturally inclined towards challenging the system they exist within. In some ways, they are the ones who need help appropriately channelling their critical-thinking skills most. In my own life, learning the basics of philosophical thought has empowered me to slow down, focus and understand the social structures around me. Through youth work, I try to use it to empower my mentees. Philosophy not only requires patient, intellectual debate. It also actively embraces a type of thinking that is prepared to challenge the status quo. For better or worse, this comes naturally to boys who struggle to engage in a classroom setting. Whilst volunteering at my local community centre and coordinating a behavioural intervention for male students at an academy in Southwark, I have often turned to philosophy to design each week’s workshop resources. Instead of lecturing them for answering back, or making them feel guilty about losing their temper, I have aimed to curate a calm, respectful forum in which participants can discuss the topics—masculinity, violence, misogyny, rules, school, music—most pertinent to them. In one workshop I showed participants a diagram of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century “panopticon.” The panopticon is a circular structure in which imagined prisoners are held in cells around the circumference, all facing inwards towards a concealed guard-tower. The idea is that the prisoners become led to adjust their own behaviour because of the perceived threat of being constantly watched by the guards.

Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Photo: Wikimedia commons/Friman Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Photo: Wikimedia commons/Friman

Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Photo: Wikimedia commons/Friman The guards thus hold a unique type of indirect power over their subjects. "He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it,” writes Michel Foucault of the panopticon in Discipline and Punish, “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power … he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” After being asked to unpick what ‘power’ means, and identify different types of power in reference to the panopticon, boys I have worked with have come to life. “That’s why they should put more fake CCTV cameras up in the playground!” one posed. “Nah that would make me feel like they don’t trust me...” another rebutted. “The guard-tower is like an undie’s whip!” another poignantly exclaimed, referring to the patrolling presence of an undercover police car, which generated laughter all-round. Each time I have delivered the workshop it has sparked a new direction of intrigue. Moreover, it provides a chance for those involved to have their criticisms of rules and surveillance in society taken seriously; forces they see as putting a negative strain on their experience of inner-city life.


Other subjects work equally well. After taking a FutureLearn course with the University of Birmingham, I designed resources on “Virtue Ethics.” This is the branch of moral philosophy, founded by Aristotle, that says right, moral actions—as opposed to wrong, immoral ones—are those which a virtuous person would take. It teaches that people’s ‘virtues’ can be developed, and their ‘vices’ rooted-out, to make them act and live like a more virtuous person. In the first of my series of workshops, participants are asked to identify their own virtues—respectfulness, trustworthiness, honesty, etc—and ways that these concepts fit into their daily interactions. Discussing ‘courage’, for example, pairs of relatable scenarios are posed, and mentees are asked to debate which they believe would take more courage to overcome. Saying no to your friend who asks you to join them in a fight after school, or standing up against an act of racism in a public place? A boy who performs a speech in assembly despite having a stutter, or a girl who refuses to give her mobile number to a man asking for it on the bus? Last year, after a whole term of discussing virtues, I started to notice how participants on my programme were combining different virtues to strengthen their debates. They might, for example, articulate how certain acts of honesty require trust—“I can’t be real with a teacher unless I properly trust them”—or how some expressions of gratitude require courage. For the boys I’ve taught, this sort of ethical interrogation has provided an otherwise rare chance to practice a formal vernacular with which to critique each other’s opinions and actions. Daily behaviours amongst even the most rebellious boys can be held to account not just by figures of authority, as we tend to expect, but by groups of young friends on a self-reflective, peer-to-peer basis. Moral philosophy is a powerful language. In the week following a workshop about “respect” which led to a discussion about the clear need to speak to female students with greater respect, for example, I had boys coming up to me in the corridor to update me on how they had actively spoken respectfully to girls that day, or criticised their friends for being misogynistic. Aside from anything else, it showed me how having relaxed, open conversations with young people who might otherwise struggle to articulate themselves emotionally can be a driver of positive action. By aiding young people’s conscious grasp of philosophy, the myth that behaviourally challenging demographics are automatically more disruptive, or deserve more condemnation than others, can be challenged.


Young people are increasingly living in fear for their lives in London as youth violence continues to spiral out of control. Many lack a medium through which to communicate their frustrations properly to adults before it is too late. At worst, they turn to the open arms of brotherhood in the form of gangs, the temptation of getting quick money from running drugs, the feeling of security from carrying a knife, or most commonly, the sense of connection with their peers from the distorting technologies of social media. These are dangerous, DIY responses to the neglect our society has particularly shown to teenagers, entrenching their isolation. My mentee at the community centre recognised in the cave’s shadows his very real but locally-constructed need to sell drugs and carry a knife. Surely more ought to be done to play the role of the educator-philosopher in lives like his, before boys like him are excluded from school? Patient, non-judgmental youth-work spaces could do wonders in our schools and youth-centres, as could the greater employment of philosophy as a pedagogical tool. Every child deserves the opportunity to challenge what they see in the shadows before them, to turn to discover the fire behind them and leave the cave to flourish in the open air.