Philosophy and Mental Health: Lessons from the French Education System

Growing up in Australia in the seventies and eighties, I barely knew what philosophy meant. It wasn’t until I arrived at university that I discovered, (with some relief!) that I was not the only person who frequently pondered the mysteries of existence and the intricacies of the human condition.

Philosophy and Mental Health: Lessons from the French Education System

Much later, I learned that unlike in my Australian education, philosophy has been a mandatory subject for French high school students since Napoleon instituted the Baccalaureate (Bac) in 1809. The French senior year or Terminale culminates in exams including the lengthy “Philo Bac” in which students answer a sweeping philosophical question, reflecting on themes or ‘notions’ like power, liberty, and truth.

A Rich Philosophical Tradition

France has been home to some of the most famous philosophers throughout history, including René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault, to name only a few. She is also the birthplace of important schools of philosophical thought, such as existentialism and post-structuralism. (I’ll be delving deeper into all of this in future articles.)

Given the country’s rich philosophical tradition, it is perhaps unsurprising that in recent years some French schools have begun to incorporate philosophy programs into the primary curriculum.

Practical Philosophy

In contrast to the intense academic focus of the Philo Bac, young children are taught to think critically and analytically about the world around them through discussion and expressing their opinions. They may also learn about famous philosophers and the major schools of philosophical thought. The focus is practical, and children are given a chance to explore philosophical concepts through discussion and debate.

Academic and Social Benefits of Philosophy

Several international studies have reported that philosophy programs successfully teach children to examine ideas and assumptions, weigh evidence, and form considered opinions. I spoke to former French primary school teacher Remi Gourdel who agreed that encouraging children to have respectful debates in the classroom helps them to feel heard,

It helps them to understand the world better and to learn to think critically.

Introducing children to philosophical concepts helps foster curiosity, new perspectives, and a love of learning. Children learn to speak their minds and listen to others, which can have a positive impact on children’s cognitive abilities and empathy for others, as well as improve academic performance.

France’s philosophy program aims to provide children with a foundation on which they can build their own philosophical system, helping to form the next generation of thinkers and leaders. This seems to be a place where the French education system is getting it right. In addition, such skills are likely more broadly useful than only in the intellectual and social domains.

Philosophy and Mental Health

Over decades as a psychologist, I’ve seen how important it is to develop an awareness of our thought processes, and ways of looking at ourselves and the world, because self-awareness powers positive change, healing, and growth. We may see a world of colour and potential or a world that is grey and hopeless, depending upon the inner ‘lenses’ we wear, our inner narratives, and our ability to question them.

Being taught to calmly reflect on our thinking and responses to the world from an early age is likely to have potentially deeper benefits across the lifespan. It is empowering on a deeply personal level.

Philosophy and Mental Health: Lessons from the French Education System

There is some evidence pointing to a positive relationship between learning philosophy in early life and better mental health outcomes. During the global pandemic in 2021, French researcher Catherine Malboeuf-Hurtubise and her colleagues found that children in a philosophy study group were generally less anxious than those not undertaking the program and scored higher on a measure of autonomy. Some researchers have posited that the benefits of learning philosophy are particularly pronounced among students who are facing serious life challenges because it can provide a framework for processing their experiences and finding meaning in their struggles.

In a fast-paced, distracted world, mindful, self-aware thinking is a valuable mental health tool. The fake news era, demands we critically evaluate large quantities of information like never before. Philosophy encourages us to reflect calmly and rationally about all the potentially frightening unknowns of our lives and reminds us that we are far from alone in our existential struggles.

As in most nations, the upheavals and losses of the pandemic years have led to a rise in the need for mental health support in France, to which the government is responding. On a positive note, France’s emphasis on critical thinking and debate from the early years supports a social environment in which mental health issues can be discussed openly with less stigma than in some other nations. While some students may find philosophy very challenging, perhaps Australia’s future would benefit greatly from future leaders embodying the rich lessons of philosophy from the early years.

Did you learn philosophy at school? If so, do you think it had any benefits for your mental health and your life in general? What are your thoughts on teaching children about philosophy during their primary years? Let us know in the comments below

Image credits
1. Marija Zaric on Unsplash – Commons
2.  Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash – Commons
References & gratitude:
Catherine Malboeuf-Hurtubise, Terra Léger-Goodes, Geneviève A. Mageau, Mireille Joussemet, Catherine Herba, Nicholas Chadi, David Lefrançois, Chantal Camden, Ève-Line Bussières, Geneviève Taylor, Marc-André Éthier, Mathieu Gagnon, (2021). Philosophy for children and mindfulness during COVID-19: Results from a randomized cluster trial and impact on mental health in elementary school students, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, (107).
Sijin Yan, Lynne Walters, Zhuoying Wang, Chia-Chiang Wang (2018). Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Philosophy for Children Programs on Students’ Cognitive Outcomes. Journal of Analytical Teaching and Philosophical Practice (39)
And thanks to former French Primary School teacher Remi Gourdel for sharing his ideas.

About the Contributor

Debra Campbell

I'm Debra, a writer, and psychologist from Melbourne Australia. My personal passions include the French language, travel, cinema, literature & culture. I study French: online with native speakers & a regular conversation group. I'm looking forward to visiting France soon & perhaps living there.

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