How Should Philosophy Be Introduced Into Public School?

How Should Philosophy Be Introduced Into Public School? May 19, 2015


Ireland has plans to formally introduce philosophy into its “junior cycle” curriculum (kids aged 12 – 16). What exactly is being introduced hasn’t been decided yet, but they’re calling it a “short course in philosophy.” But as this article in the Irish Times notes, even this proposal is being met with resistance.

Already, voices can be heard suggesting philosophy is covered in the Leaving Cert RE syllabus – by virtue of Plato and Aristotle being name-checked in a module that deals primarily with religion’s quest for meaning. Others have argued that schools already cater for critical thinking through debating.

The “Leaving Cert,” short for Leaving Certification Examinations, is the final examination in Ireland’s secondary school system. Peter Worley, co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation in the UK, and quoted in the article, rightly says that philosophy is about more than just learning about traditions. And that, as far as debating is concerned, “it teaches students how to win arguments rather than seek the truth.” Debating skill is great for lawyers and politicians, but I don’t think we need more of those.

I’m an advocate for introducing philosophy into the public school curriculum in the United States. But I’m not interested in just having kids take a course on the history of philosophy, for example, or to study the writings of particular philosophers, whomever they may be. What I’m most interested in is teaching kids to be little philosophers themselves — to practice philosophy and not just to study it.

As the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, schools both here and abroad have made efforts to introduce philosophy into the curriculum, but they’re introducing the study of, rather than the practice of, philosophy. And as Maughn Gregory, Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children told me, “most of those programs have no relationship to Philosophy for Children the way we do it — dialogic inquiry into philosophical issues drawn from the students’ own experience.” That’s what I’d like to change, because our kids’ critical thinking skills will only grow by doing philosophy, not by reading about it.

One objection the article raises is that some parents “might be uneasy at the idea of introducing doubt in their children’s lives.” In other words, children need certainty. But Worley makes precisely the right point about that concern:

Leaving school and getting involved in the real world will involve dealing with situations where the answer is not in the back of the book. It seems to me if we take a blanket view that children should be taught certainty, ‘end of story’, then we are misleading these children as to what the world is really like and, in fact, you will have to deceive them at some point because they are quite bright and they will ask questions.

Among the important outcomes we identify are not just critical thinking but the quality of resilience – the ability to deal with uncertainty – and various intellectual virtues, such as the ability to back down, the ability to recognise maybe your argument needs refining or maybe you need to rethink your position.

Contrast, for instance, philosophy and debating. In debating, you are meant to hang on to your position no matter what and try to find a way of winning, in a House of Commons kind of way. What we are looking for is for a group of children to work together to try to find out what’s the truth.

We want our kids to have the skills to be prepared for a career so they can be financially secure, but it’s equally important that they learn how to deal with life’s exigencies. And practicing philosophy can do just that.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

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