The Case for Secondary School Philosophy

I’m still very much playing catch-up here. I’ve been blogging a bit less regularly than I’d ideally like to require of myself, and not for lack of things to say. In any case, without further excuses, one of the most important issues that has been on my mind for the past few months in particular has been to give my own thoughts on the PLATO conference that I had the privilege of attending at Columbia University this summer.

For those who haven’t heard, PLATO is an acronym for Philosophy Learners’ And Teachers’ Organization (http://plato-apa.org/). Its goal is to bring together those interested in promoting the teaching of philosophy and ethics at a pre-college level in the United States in particular. Being part of such an organization is in many respects one of my dreams come true. The founding conference for this organization left me with mixed feelings, however. As with all radical new initiatives, there was some internal skepticism, some division between parties with different priorities, some posturing among would-be leaders and lots of evidence of a long road ahead if we are going to have an impact on American and global education. Yet on the other hand it was a glorious moment in which many people who had wondered if there really was anyone else in the world who shared their thoughts and vision were able to come together and encourage each other.

Within this new organization there seem to be two primary fractions to start with: those focused on elementary school philosophy teaching, and those focused on high school philosophy teaching. The elementary school emphasis stems from the work of Matthew Lipman and the international “p4c” movement. The emphasis here is in telling stories and getting children to respond and interact regarding the values and knowledge issues contained in these stories. Leaders in this movement that I was able to meet at this conference included Jana Mohr Lone, Chairperson of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Pre-college Instruction in Philosophy; Maughn Rollins Gregory (http://www.philosophyinpubliclife.org/Why/previousepisodes/episode30.html ) ; Sara Goering (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DLzXAjscXk); and Thomas Wartenberg, to name a few. By comparison those of us interested in philosophy as a high school subject were much more modestly represented, and among our ranks were a number of differences of emphasis and perspective. There were those who still see philosophy as primarily a college or university subject that smart kids can get a head start on through advanced placement programs and the like; there are those who provide a sort of ad hoc follow-through to the philosophical background that some kids received in elementary school p4c classes, and then there were those who for one reason or another had more freedom to pursue their own subjects of interest than is normally the case.

Of particular interest and encouragement to me was the pilot project being carried out by the Columbia Secondary School, loosely connected with the University there on New York City’s upper west side. This is not an elite school, in the sense that the majority of the students are just local kids from Spanish Harlem, but using its partnership with the university and implementing a vision for pursuing excellence and pride, one key element of this school’s curriculum is an intense emphasis on philosophy as an academic subject. Within their justification for this aspect of their program (http://www.columbiasecondary.org/philosophy) they state quite confidently that, “Developing a philosophical way of thinking –– a disposition to ask why and to examine issues deeply and from multiple perspectives –– will serve students well, in all of their academic course work and in their lives outside of and beyond school.” They also point out that it is a shame for the U.S. to be behind many other countries in this respect. It would seem then that the best hope for philosophy as an academic subject making inroads into the American public education system would be for programs like that at Columbia to start yielding fruit in ways that others determine that the idea is worth borrowing.

The debate over who needs philosophy lessons, and why, rages on however. For most it remains, sadly, an element of the more elite education that those attending college are entitled to, if they so choose; not something that is normally even offered before that. Or when it is offered, it takes the form of a children’s cognitive play club, which has its own profound value but does not prevent a catastrophic lack of critical thinking skills among those who have completed such a program.

Obviously my bias on this issue is showing, so let’s see if I can rationally (philosophically) justify it. What are the things that a course in philosophy, presented in standard academic fashion at the high school level (whether or not it is preceded or followed by other courses) has to offer, that those not given such a course will miss out on? I should start by saying that Maughn Gregory deserves a great deal of credit for providing the most systematic defense of philosophy teaching per se at the PLATO conference. I am borrowing his ideas here quite a bit, but I am also putting my own twist on them, and so he should not be blamed for any short-comings or radical opinions in what follows here. I will move from what I consider to be the weakest to the strongest arguments, with that judgment based entirely on my own perspective.

 

1. The Insider Thrill

One of the main reasons that people do philosophy as an academic specialty is because once you get into it, it’s actually a lot of fun. What’s more, the thrills of philosophizing aren’t restricted by equipment requirements or the use of a particular sort of venue. There is no reason for it to be just a rich boys’ game. All you really need is a mind, a shared language and an interest in exploring ideas with whoever else is involved. Of course, like most hobbies, the better you get at it, the more interesting it becomes for you. Those who can’t stand to have their ideas or beliefs criticized, or those who like to have simple rules to follow so they don’t have to bother with active problem solving, will never find philosophy a particularly enjoyable pastime; just like short, obese people tend to get little joy out of playing basketball. But if enjoying the game is part of our reason for getting kids into ball sports of various sorts, it also provides a good reason to get them into philosophy. They should come to see using their minds in looking at some of the deeper questions of life as a cool experience. As someone who has a lot of fun with it myself, and having seen where kids are particularly good at it, I see no reason why all kids shouldn’t have the opportunity to philosophize. The weakness of this argument of course is that it doesn’t provide any necessity for philosophy learning, just a potential benefit. But it is a really cool benefit.

 

You need no special equipment to philosophize.

2. Building a better smart-ass

Those who become particularly good at philosophy can often use it as a tool to be “hyper-clever”. Philosophy can have its own inside jokes and its own tool kit for making yourself look smarter than the next guy for the fun of it. This is something that actually tends to happen when someone is less interested in the joys of finding wisdom and valid new perspectives on things, and when they more just want to mess with people’s heads for the fun of it. In this sense philosophy can be a form of intellectual combat, though usually on a more playful level. And like all forms of combat –– boxing, wrestling, fencing, judo, karate, rugby, etc. –– knowing what you are doing can keep you from getting hurt, from accidentally hurting the other guy more than you intended, and it can keep others from trying to kick sand in your face, so to speak. So when someone tells you that you don’t know what you’re talking about on some subject, you can snap back at them by questioning their grounds for assuming that they have a higher degree of epistemological certainty than you do. If you know what you’re doing with these things you can save yourself a lot of grief, and/or have a lot of fun just messing with people in a mostly harmless way. All kids should be taught some basic skills in standing up for themselves intellectually, sometimes by clever use of classical ideas, sometimes just be straight-forward awareness of principles of sound argument.

 

3. Overall academic improvement

It should be an intuitive no-brainer in some ways, but it is amazing how many educators miss it: when kids start enjoying the process of using their brains in clever and creative ways, that joy of thinking makes them better at it for other subjects as well. Philosophy is all about having a passion for asking those difficult questions –– for seriously getting a charge out of exploring problems where there is no single right answer. Skills at seeing what makes one possible answer better than another, and at defending one alternative against another which might be just as hypothetically plausible –– especially when they’re having fun with it –– will inevitably improve students’ performance in other academic subjects as well. Thus for those familiar with the teaching of philosophy it comes as no surprise that those who study this subject inevitably do better in other subjects as a result. So even if a school narrow-mindedly wants to put all of their resources into improving standardized test scores in core subjects, they should be teaching philosophy, because philosophy lessons will help raise performance levels in those core subjects also. Not that academic accomplishment should be the purpose of life, but sometimes that’s all school administrators or parents even care about. So if that is to be the yardstick, there too philosophy as a subject measures up.

 

4. Providing functional B.S. detectors

John Dewey pointed out that one of the major roles for education in the Unites States, or any functioning democracy, is to equip voters to understand the issues they are voting on, and to enable them to tell the difference between rational and irrational arguments; just and unjust proposals; responsible and irresponsible policies. Without a functional education system, a democracy cannot survive. One need look no further than the ratings for Fox News, and the absurdity of the presidential primary campaign speeches going around this year in the U.S. to see how horrendously the education system has failed to live up to Dewey’s hopes and expectations. While it could be argued that civics and social studies classes should provide these basic skills, it certainly wouldn’t hurt at this point to provide further support in the form of philosophy lessons. To study more directly the issues of what make a valid argument valid and what makes a moral perspective moral is an area where students deserve more than they are getting; and that is really the focal point of philosophy as an academic discipline.

These same skills also need to be applied to media literacy in general and awareness of advertising strategies in particular. We should be empowering learners to make informed decisions to get what they ultimately want out of life, in a just exchange with those who provide them with what they need to achieve their goals. We should be helping them avoid getting ripped off. To the best of our professional ability as educators we should be keeping them from becoming slaves to the abusive practices of commercial interests. As our top priority we should be providing them with valid means of judging which information and authorities they can trust and which they can’t. If they can’t sniff out B.S. for what it is, the education system has entirely failed them.

 

5. Creating true personal autonomy

Enabling learners not to be slaves to the system should not be a matter of providing them with a different system of thought to be submitted to than the commercial one. Our reasons for educating young people should not be to make them as useful as possible to business or industry. We should be teaching them to help them more fully realize their value as people. In this regard I must tip my hat to a young lady named Erica (http://americaviaerica.blogspot.com/2010/07/coxsackie-athens-valedictorian-speech.html) whose irreverent speech at her high school graduation has become something of a classic already. It includes the lines:

I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. […] I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. […] When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed.

 

Frankly philosophy teachers are rarer than “avant-garde tenth grade English teachers” in American high schools, and in most of the world’s school systems for that matter, but our task is the same: to open young minds to ask questions before accepting doctrines. This shouldn’t be rare, and having a specific class to encourage kids to think about what it means to be thinking –– philosophy by any name you care to give it –– could save many more Erica-like kids from the sort of doom she refers to.

Why at high school level? By no means do I mean to exclude earlier or later instruction in philosophy, but I believe that high school –– the final stage of education freely available to all and intended for the majority of the population, whatever that be called in various cultures –– is the place where philosophy lessons are most critical. Within that phase of formal education every young person should have the opportunity to revive the fun in learning, learn to defend their views (and adjust them when necessary), prove what they are academically capable of, establish functional criteria for knowing what information to trust and what not to; and most importantly come to respect themselves as human beings, thinkers and adventurers, not just workers. If this aspect of education is discontinued after elementary school (for those lucky enough to have had it there) or if it is only provided for those who are fortunate enough to reach the tertiary level of education, schools will continue to broadly fail at their most essential tasks in relation to the age we live in.

So let’s join together with the folks from Columbia Secondary, PLATO and other scattered idealist in setting out to give every adolescent the empowerment he/she deserves as a human being just beginning the process of self-definition, by providing them with a specific area of subject teaching that invites them to question how we know stuff, what is most important to life as we know it, and what it takes to be a “good person”. And since such a subject has been traditionally known as “philosophy”, why don’t we just use that for a name? Aren’t our kids worth this kind of effort?

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Priorities

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