Is there a future for pre-college philosophy? Over the past few years, I have been heavily invested both professionally and personally in the question of whether an effective, worthwhile, and legitimate philosophy curriculum can be established at the high school level, and whether a philosopher can make a credible, scholarly career out of teaching high school philosophy. I have collected a substantial, however modest, set of research on the subject ranging nearly fifty years across many nations. In what follows and what is to come, I offer both what I have discovered and my reflections on teaching high school philosophy. At best, I hope to convince that teaching high school philosophy is not only credible, worthwhile and legitimate, but also an important part of the scholarly field that should be taken more seriously and given greater attention by professional philosophers. At worst, I hope at least to justify (if only to myself) my own professional choices. I welcome all responses, both positive and negative, but ask that the discussion develop a constructive response to the question.
In 1958 the American Philosophical Association approved a report from the Committee on Philosophy in Education regarding teaching high school philosophy. ["The Teaching of Philosophy in American High Schools" by Douglas N. Morgan and Charner Perry. From Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 32, (1958 -
1959) pp.91-137.] The committee was composed of C. W. Hendel, Chairman, H. G. Alexander, R. M. Chisholm, Max Fisch, Lucius Garvin, Douglas Morgan, A. E. Murphy, Charner Perry and R. G. Turnbul. The report refrained from recommending a national curriculum for high school philosophy, but it laid out in detail the pros and cons of teaching philosophy in high school. Of course, philosophy has been taught in many pre-college classrooms for hundreds of years both here in the United States and abroad, but the 1958 document is the first serious, detailed and rigorous attempt in the United States that I know of to investigate the relative merits for students, the field of philosophy, and the citizenry in general of teaching philosophy to pre-college students in both the public and private sectors. What follows is a summary of some of the arguments considered by the committee and my observations fifty years later. (N.B., In some places I have updated the arguments to reflect more the language of our time.)
1) Philosophy is intrinsically valuable both in its critical evaluation of the meaning of words and concepts, and in its thoughtful reflectiveness that distances the mind from imposing ideologies and assumptions. It is not the content of philosophy that is essential, but the discipline of the mind. Thinking philosophically is a natural good for the human mind and therefore is a good in itself.
2) Many do not go to college, but would benefit from philosophical inquiry before entering into public life. By thinking philosophically, we become better people and better citizens.
3) Philosophical questions arise in us when they do. The brighter students we teach usually already have been pondering philosophical questions from an early age, but it is also the case that even our more average students as well have paused before the distance of the stars, the immensity of it all, and pondered their place in the cosmos. There is no need to attempt to erect philosophical inquiry in our students; the foundations are already firmly laid. If philosophical questions are already present in our younger students, the danger is not leaving those questions unanswered, but having those questions answered by half-truths and dogmatic ideologies. "So much the worse for our culture. We, as philosophers and educators and human beings, have a serious social debt to discharge. Introducing some intelligent young people to philosophy is one way in which we may discharge this debt." (p. 94)
4) Philosophy is intrinsically difficult. Teaching may cut through the diminishing view of the humanities in our culture and reinvigorate high school studies as something more than mere fact-checking, memorization, and petty busy-work. Philosophy promises to bring some scholarly credibility back to teaching high school.
The conclusion drawn from these arguments was that, "[b]ecause philosophy is good, and because some bright pupils want and need work in philosophy, there is a prima facie case in favor of introducing it more widely. It remains to be seen, of course, whether counter-arguments and practical considerations should prevail against this prima facie case." (p. 95) I appreciate the caution of the committee on this point, first and foremost because those of us who teach high school philosophy, it seems to me, are quite passionate about it, and therefore can easily loose our heads over its relative merits. Nevertheless, I find that my academic colleagues at university and professional conferences are more and more intrigued over the level of proficiency possible both in knowledge of the history of philosophy and in thinking and writing philosophically by young high school students. Here are some examples from what I have seen, where I teach students who are bright but average. (I don't mean that disparagingly, but only to point out that my school provides a fertile place for learning for a wider variety of students than "the best". My institution is not among the elite.) In the past five years I have had the privilege of teaching a course in logic, a problems course entitled "Justice and Public Morality", and a regularly offered set of courses in the history of philosophy (Ancient to Medieval and Modern to Contemporary). I have taken students to multiple lectures and conferences at which they both participated and were engaged. One student even had her paper accepted by blind review to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association's annual conference in 2008 (where ironically my paper was rejected --no hard feelings C.P.). In addition, over the past four years the students have invited three guest philosophers to campus for an open lecture. Each time, they filled the lecture hall with energy and questions. This year's guest lecturer is Prof. Charles. W. Mills of Northwestern, who will be giving a lecture entitled "Racial Justice". So I think I am safe in arguing that high school philosophy has many benefits and can be successfully developed more broadly than might be suspected.
There are, however, good arguments against teaching philosophy in high school. No one really argues against it on philosophical grounds, but arguments can be made that such a curriculum is impractical or unwise.
1) The students are generally too immature to understand philosophy, and therefore will not benefit from the study. (Similar arguments, I think, can be made of first and second year college students).
2)Philosophy is too emotionally unsettling to be handled by students who naturally lack a certain emotional maturity. High School students are still too emotionally attached to their parent's world-view, and there is not a healthy way for them to facilitate their break from traditional thinking. Learning philosophy can be a culturally and emotionally overturning thing for young students.
3) On a practical level, challenging pre-conceived notions and ideologies can make parents uncomfortable. They might not appreciate their child hearing arguments for skepticism, atheism and moral relativism at such an early age. (I had an interesting experience with this. I have a "No Hunting" sign in my office. A parent came in one morning to talk about his son and saw the sign. He questioned if I was one of those "liberal" teachers who would hold it against his son that he would be missing a day of school in late fall to go hunting. I told him I would only hold it against his son if he came hunting for me. The joke was lost on the parent. I took the point to heart, however, and assured the parent that while my class would be discussing arguments against things the student may believe, I had no intention on changing the student's beliefs or penalizing the student for disagreeing. The parent left unwillingly satisfied.)
4) In-service jealousy over having the brightest students. (I think this is a perk, but it can have its political back drafts.)
5) Curricula become immediately over-crowded with too many courses and not enough space for essential instruction in math and English.
6) Philosophy should not be taught in High School, because high school teachers are too incompetent in the field of philosophy to teach it well enough. Philosophers never entertain a career in high school teaching, but are only interested in publishing and the collegiate life. Without sufficient expertise in the classroom, teaching philosophy in high school is not a worthwhile pursuit.
This last point hits at the heart of my professional goals. Should the current academic culture change? If teaching philosophy, or how to think philosophically, is important in itself, then we need at least some of the brightest minds teaching it at the earliest levels possible. In this post, and in the posts to come, I hope to make the argument that high school is at least as good a place to start as any. Just as we see it being called for in the field of physics, we must get experts who are willing to serve the greater social good, at least for a time, and teach younger students. This could have as added benefits both the positive creation of better teaching in the college classroom once those who teach high school eventually move on to the university sector, and the recreation of philosophy as a more valuable part of our cultural, educational heritage to come.
I welcome your responses and look forward to further discussion.