Bentham goes back to school
By Louise Seaward, on 13 July 2015
It is a bit strange to go back to secondary school after more than 10 years away. I have recently been visiting Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy (HAKA) in Bromley to deliver a series of tutorials as part of The Brilliant Club. The Brilliant Club is a non-profit organisation focused on widening access to top universities for high-achieving pupils from state schools. PhD students and post-doctoral researchers work with The Brilliant Club to deliver University-style tutorials to sixth formers and younger pupils. These sessions are designed to build a foundation for University learning by developing students’ knowledge, research skills and confidence.
I have been teaching a group of four sixth formers from HAKA who are studying a range of AS Levels including Sociology, History and Biology. Our course is titled, ‘Because I’m Happy: Jeremy Bentham and his Ideas on Happiness’. The course is an introduction to Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism and concentrates on the application of his philosophy in matters of politics, religion and penal reform. As well as reading extracts from Bentham’s own writings, the students have been able to engage with Bentham scholarship – Michel Foucault’s perspective on the Panopticon generated a particularly interesting discussion!
I have been impressed by my students’ consideration of the meaning of happiness – how important is it, how can we measure it and can it be fairly distributed through society? We have also spent time exploring the contemporary relevance of Bentham’s ideas. The pupils all recognised that utilitarianism could play a significant role in current debates over the acceptability of government surveillance, the usefulness of religion and the inevitability of political spin. It has been great to see the students grow in confidence as they weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism in each tutorial.
Now that school is out for the summer, the pupils have the next few weeks to complete an essay evaluating Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism. Once their essays have been marked, they will have the opportunity to participate in a Brilliant Club graduation ceremony to congratulate them on their progress. I would like to thank the pupils for their enthusiasm and hard work. Studying Bentham can be challenging but their thoughtful contributions have made the experience an enlightening one for me, and hopefully for them too.