Should Students Learn Philosophy?

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This is a question that I can’t remember coming up in any conversation I’ve had with another teacher. Philosophy is something that has, for many years, been reserved for older folks (by older I mean those perhaps 16-17+ in age), with the assumption that it is too difficult for students to grasp. But is this the case? What value can the teaching of philosophy have for school age children?

Some aspects of the academic study of philosophy may create challenges for school children (a deep exploration of the arguments made by Descartes, Kant, or Schopenhauer, for example, may be a bit much to ask students to do), but the process of philosophic thinking can certainly be useful and accessible for students. In doing philosophy, kids develop skills and competency in how to think, in particular reasoning and the consideration of perspective. We can all think, but the quality of thinking improves with practice and training. Philosophy provides opportunities for students to become better critical thinkers ready to face the challenges and success of tomorrow.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the benefits of teaching philosophy to students. In it, Steve Neumann argues that students can become better citizens (a vital concern of social studies and, one can argue, the education system as a whole) through the incorporation of philosophical thinking and questioning into curricula.

When people hear the word “philosophy” they might think first of something like a set of guiding principles or a general worldview. The New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick may have a coaching philosophy, for instance, while someone like the rapper Drake encourages us to have a YOLO attitude toward life. But academic philosophy is that discipline of the humanities concerned with clarifying and analyzing concepts and arguments relating to the big questions of life.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

I’ve seen some degree of this developing in social studies courses at the high school level in Newfoundland and Labrador, not in the sense of a formal academic philosophy approach (there is one course that partially introduces students to philosophy at present), but in terms of inquiry-based and problem-based learning — vital skills that have recently found a home in new curriculum. Personally, I feel this is an area that can be developed to the benefit of students and, by extension, society as a whole, not to mention the value students might find in exploring how they and other groups make up and interact within society.

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