Andy West has been teaching Philosophy courses at City Lit since 2018, covering topics that include happiness, guilt, love, sex and art. He also teaches Philosophy in prisons and primary schools. We caught up with him to find out more about his route to Philosophy teaching and what he enjoys most about working with learners.
Tell us about yourself and your teaching
I was a despondent student at school. I left with only two GCSEs, but I had a moment when I discovered Philosophy, at the age of 17, at a sixth form open day and I remember thinking 'Thank God there's something!' I fell in love with the subject. It gave me a hunger.
At that stage, I couldn't really write a decent sentence and I benefitted from a teacher who helped me make up the miles. I hadn't grown up with the idea of education as something to enjoy and so when I did discover the pleasure it could bring, I appreciated it all the more. It's like with reading: if you're from a background where there weren't books around at home and you first pick up a book at 15, the effect can be like a bombshell. It's a formative experience.
Coming to education slightly later in life also gives you a different perspective, because you know the before and after feeling of it and can better understand the effect it has had on you.
It felt natural to become a teacher after my own experiences of learning. I started teaching in 2011 and I teach in prison settings and primary schools, particularly state schools, as well as at City Lit. I feel that what's been most important in my teaching is reaching people from all backgrounds. That's what really gives it meaning.
How has teaching in prisons affected how you think about Philosophy?
Prison is an acid test for gauging the immediacy of a question, in some ways. My students in prison are living in a very immediate way: they are confined, which produces a directness, and the threat of violence makes for a very in-the-moment existence.
There's also a kind of dizziness in terms of the perception of time for people in prison. They're often just getting through today rather than thinking about how to cope with the next ten years.
When you're in front of people in these circumstances, if you talk about very abstract philosophy - obscure philosophy of maths problems, for example - you lose the room a bit. But there are questions which are maybe better answered in extremis. What is time? Questions of memory, freedom and power. Asking these sorts of questions instantly raises the temperature of the debate and brings the classroom to life.
On the other hand, some people in prison thrive on the analytical side of philosophy – the escape from their life in prison. There's a pleasure in that kind of escape. It can be a necessity, as we all know from lockdown. Whatever way you do it – watching a film or reading a book – you can get some relief from the situation you're in. So it goes both ways with teaching Philosophy in prison. There's the need to keep things somehow relevant to the very particular circumstances the students are experiencing, but at the same time, Philosophy can be the route to a kind of freedom.
You use works of art and literature in your teaching. What is it about paintings and stories that helps us understand philosophical ideas?
What sometimes makes people feel cold about philosophical questions is the fact that they are decontextualised. If we have a story or a picture, we're much more emotionally invested in what happens next, or what we think should happen next. With the story of Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters, for example – the whole idea of a drink that can bring infinite happiness – we have a scenario that is bristling with philosophical interest.
The reason we go to literature for anything is that we can look at our own lives obliquely through the characters, and we can look at our philosophical lives through them as well.
What's the best thing about teaching Philosophy?
It's the moment that someone feels they have grasped an idea and can put into words what they believe. They open their mouth to speak and just at that moment another thought occurs to them, and there's a beautiful moment of hesitation. Where there was conviction there is suddenly doubt and uncertainty. The Greeks had a word for this – aporia – which means, literally, to be without a path. For me, that moment is the real buzz of Philosophy teaching.
You're currently writing a book. Can you tell us more about it?
The book is called The Life Inside: Stories of Prison, Philosophy and Family and it's about the four years I've spent teaching Philosophy in prisons and the conversations I've had with people in the classroom about things like happiness, time, love and freedom.
It also tells a personal narrative about my dad, brother and uncle, who were all in prison at various stages during my childhood. It's as much about my own family identity as it is about those conversations in prison.
If you were going to learn something new at City Lit, what would you choose?
It's very good to be a student sometimes, not always the teacher. It's like an anchor for my professional teaching practice. I'd like to do something that's as opposite to Philosophy classes as possible. Something to re-engage the senses and the body – perhaps aromatherapy or dance. They would be a good counterweight and a great way of being a student again!
What would you say to someone thinking about joining a beginners’ Philosophy class at City Lit?
Philosophy can sound like an intimating subject, but once you take the class you might find that you’ve actually been doing Philosophy your whole life, but you’ve just never had a name for it. I love having a mix of beginners and experienced philosophers in the class, because before life’s biggest questions we all have something to offer.