Thursday, December 3, 2009

Another Look At Teaching Pre-College Philosophy

A few months back, I wrote here at ISW about the pros and cons of teaching pre-college philosophy. The response took me by surprise. Many of you engaged the arguments, pro and con, and took a serious look at the reasons for and against teaching pre-college philosophy. Many others expressed their own delight and inspiration at the prospect of teaching pre-college philosophy. Not surprisingly, however, many of you wanted to know more about how to land such a job. The question naturally lends itself to a different, but important, question for those interested in teaching High School philosophy: what does it mean for a philosopher to teach pre-college philosophy? So, there are two questions I will try to answer in response to the comments that have been made since my post. The first is whether a philosopher can land a pre-college philosophy job; and the second is what it means to be a philosopher who teaches High School?

Can a Philosopher Really Land a High School Philosophy Job?
A former student of mine, who is now at Georgetown University and was working in its philosophy department at the time, contacted me one afternoon. Two tenure track positions in philosophy were open, and she had already filed over three hundred CVs for the jobs! “That’s insane!” I thought. I began to ask myself whether I would even have a remote chance of landing such a gig given the competition. There was no way. I am A.B.D, but even if I were finished with my dissertation, I don’t have the pedigree, the publications or the “pop” on my CV that makes a department like Georgetown say, “We need this philosopher!” But I didn’t need the position; I wasn’t looking for a job. I had a job.

I teach philosophy at Wayland Academy, a private boarding school nestled among the farm towns of South-Eastern Wisconsin. The Georgetown University job search caused me to reflect upon the two questions of this essay: How did I land this job? And what does it mean that I am a philosopher teaching High School?

There are High School philosophy jobs in the United States, but they are rare (they are less rare in Europe, but still not easy to come by). It is mostly the private schools, and even then mostly the elite, private boarding schools, that have the relative freedom to offer such a course or courses. Where philosophy is offered, it is usually offered as an elective to seniors, and not usually taken seriously as an academic course. That is not to say that the teachers aren’t serious or that nothing serious ever gets done, but it is often the case that it is difficult to sell the dean on a rigorous philosophy course that has no specific place in the curriculum. But it can be done!

Six years ago, when I was hired at my current post, I was not hired to teach philosophy. I was hired to teach Honors U.S. Literature and freshmen World Civilizations. I have neither an English degree, nor a History degree, but I had taught High School English and History before, and the school liked my advanced education. I was fortunate enough to enter into a dynamic conversation among the faculty and administration about cross-curricular studies and the development of an intensive writing initiative on campus. Over the course of many conversations that year, I was allowed the opportunity to begin a series of history of philosophy classes that would be offered for advanced credit to upper-classmen. The Dean of College Counseling visited one course, then sat down with me to work out a draft document that could be sent to colleges for those students taking the course in order to explain the rigorous nature of what was being offered. There is more to the story, but the point is that I began teaching philosophy at an academy that believed in what I was doing, and didn’t shy away from making it known outside of the academy. This singular fact, that the academy was interested in what I was doing, created an opportunity that I did not think imaginable. I am a philosopher, and I teach High School philosophy. My course offerings since then have included courses in ethics/political philosophy, introductory logic, and independent studies in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the philosophy of language.

So that you do not think that Wayland Academy is the only school with such an opportunity and a vision, explore some of the links below. While I cannot say that there will be a job posted in the “Jobs For Philosophers” section of the APA any time soon, with a little creativity, a supportive administration, some ambition and sometimes a lot of convincing, landing a job teaching High School philosophy is definitely possible.

What does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School?
I really do love my graduate institution, and I have never been more supported in my education as I have been by the faculty at Marquette University. Yet, even there, it is difficult for some to understand why I would not make the jump to the college level. To be honest, I reevaluate this question every year, and it is an ongoing conversation that I have with my closest colleagues in the field. But as for the question, “what does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School”, there is very little question about it.

1) I do not publish, and I rarely submit to conferences. It is not that I am uninterested, but I don’t have as much time to research as I would like. That said, I am finishing my dissertation, and I have been teaching High School full-time all the way through my graduate studies at Marquette. I imagine, then, that when I am freed from my academic obligations that I too will be able to teach and publish. The most important fact, however, is that I am not expected to publish. I am expected to be an excellent teacher, to coach, to supervise, and to mentor. That’s it. If I publish, when I publish, it will be because I want to, and because I need to say something, not because my tenure depends upon it.

2) I teach four classes each semester with elective options each year. My average student-load is around 55 students, and my average class size is 14 for under-classmen courses and five for upper-classmen electives. I, therefore, can spend a great deal of time crafting lectures for my students, lectures that are specifically designed for that group of minds in front of me at that moment. I do not need to be original or profound; I just need to connect with the students in front of me, who genuinely look forward to anything interesting that I have to teach. Which brings me to my final point:

3) My students are young. They are inspired, and they are not yet jaded by their education or their world. Therefore, if I can show them that what I am teaching is worth studying, they will worthily study it. They live for those “A-ha!” moments, which makes teaching them refreshingly rewarding...and they succeed because of it. My former student, who is now at Georgetown, once submitted a paper to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association annual conference. Under blind review, her paper was accepted….and mine was not. After delivering her paper and fielding questions, she was asked what college she was attending. She demurely replied, “I will have to graduate high school first before I can answer that.” Wayland is not a school for “smarties.” It hosts average students, whose faculty have enough time for them and where they are encouraged to be inspired by what they are learning.

As a philosopher, then, I have a job where I can think and teach for the same reason that I began studying and teaching in the first place, because I love it! My job gives me the relative leisure (heavy on the relative…boarding schools are still busy places) to craft my ideas for the sake of teaching students who want to learn (mostly…they are people after all). It gives me the freedom to publish, if and when I have something to say, and because it’s worth saying (some of my colleagues continue to publish and give papers in their respective fields every year for the sole reason that they want to). Teaching pre-college philosophy allows me to be a philosopher, in the way I understand being a philosopher, perhaps not with all of the professional trappings that the university offers, but a philosopher nonetheless.

I thank those of you who contributed both publicly and privately to the ongoing conversation of teaching pre-college philosophy. I am glad to have gotten to know some of you through email, and I am sincerely grateful for your thoughts. The primary purpose of the piece was to introduce people to teaching philosophy at the secondary school level. I gladly anticipate your responses whether publicly or in private.


For information regarding private boarding schools:

For information regarding private day schools:

For information on where to begin looking for a job:


  1. While I was in high school (not long ago actually) my high school and my county offered an introductory philosophy course and before I left another course on western philosophy opened up with a class on formal logic and one on ethics well underway, all coming from my philosophy teacher at the time. It seems that the education boards are opening up to the idea of philosophy being taught in high school and I can say for myself that it has been a great advantage. This of course as i said wasn't too long ago, 2 years ago to be exact. But lately it is obvious that philosophy has taken a foothold in education outside of colleges and more philosophers are needed to give these upcoming high school students the advantage of having been introduced to such life changing experiences that philosophy can bring. I can personally say that when I graduate teaching high school philosophy will definitely be an option.

  2. In Ontario, Philosophy has been the the fastest growing subject in our high schools since it was introduced in 2000.

    I teach at public school in toronto Toronto where we have had between 90 -130 of 250 grade 12 students taking the course in each of the last 5 years. But we are far from unique. It would take me a while to think of a school that doesn't offer Philosophy.

    The Ontario curriculum offers 2 separate courses. (pg 111)

    Grade 11 (open) "The Big Questions"
    From the course description:

    This course addresses three (or more) of the following questions:What is a person? What is a
    meaningful life? What are good and evil? What is a just society? What is human knowledge?
    How do we know what is beautiful in art,music,and literature? Students will learn critical-
    thinking skills in evaluating philosophical arguments related to these questions,as well as skills
    used in researching and investigating various topics in philosophy.

    Grade 12 (University Prep) - Questions and Theories

    From the course description:
    This course addresses three (or more) of the main areas of philosophy: metaphysics,logic,
    epistemology,ethics,social and political philosophy,and aesthetics. Students will learn critical-
    thinking skills,the main ideas expressed by philosophers from a variety of the world’s traditions,
    how to develop and explain their own philosophical ideas,and how to apply those ideas to
    contemporary social issues and personal experiences.The course will also help students refine
    skills used in researching and investigating topics in philosophy.

    Overwhelmingly students take these classes because they are something new. Math, Science, English, History, -- every student knows what to expect, but the novelty of philosophy brings new students through the door every year, even though they have no idea what philosophy is. Every year I am compelled to explain that this is not a place where we will take off our shoes, sit in a circle and talk about our feelings, nor it is a class that doesn't have wrong answers.

    But once we get beyond this the class realises the benefit of philosophy - the same benefit that we all have long understood. It is amazing to see students that many would write off as immature stretch them selves. The allegory of the cave blows their minds, Kant scares them, and every ethical dilemma starts with a trolly. I imagine teaching Philosophy to high school students is the same as teaching any intro philosophy course anywhere.

  3. You have my dream job! But because I currently teach philosophy in Higher Ed I can't admit it. There I'm expected to teach over 150 students each term and publish on just anything (regardless of whether I really care about the topic or whether there is something important and new to say about it).

  4. M. Skinner,
    Thanks for the link. I have heard about the Canadian, secondary school philosophy curriculum, but only second hand. It's nice to finally get a document. The curriculum guide seems really good. I particularly like how clear it is and how open the possibilities are for teachers to manufacture their courses according to their respective expertise. If you could email me with your contact information, I would like to ask you some more questions about High School philosophy in Canada.

    Best to you,

  5. I was wondering if there are some good websites listing many of these schools that have needs.

    I wish such schools were posting on HigherEdJobs, for example.

  6. Thank you for the post Jason. I have been looking into teaching this at some private schools, but I seem to sometimes get a better reception at the public ones.


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