About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 28, 2009

From the APA: philosophy for children?

It has always struck me as bizarre that in the United States philosophy is taught only at the college level, and even then it is considered a form of intellectual masturbation for pointy-headed intellectuals. As if somehow learning about what some of the greatest thinkers in history had to say about morality, reality, knowledge and beauty, to name but a few of the areas covered by philosophy, was not essential to shaping a mind capable of critical thinking. Then again, perhaps that’s the point: our society doesn’t want critically thinking citizens, they may start asking uncomfortably probing questions about the status quo.
This is why I am attending a session on teaching philosophy at the pre-college level at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division), which is taking place at the “crossroads of the world,” in Manhattan’s Times Square.
[Note to my philosophy colleagues: please, please get out of the awful habit of simply reading your papers, especially in a monotone. If you are not a Shakespearian actor, use a computer presentation, we will all follow you so much better...]
Michael Burroughs of the University of Memphis talked about his experiences in introducing philosophy discussion groups in local high schools in Tennessee. Predictably, the main obstacle is going through the red tape that it takes to convince administrators that this is a good idea, even when someone volunteers to do so on his own time and therefore at no cost to the school. Burroughs suggested two approaches to “selling” philosophy in high schools: on the one hand, its emphasis on critical thinking and logic may be of direct help to students in preparing for standardized tests and other horrors of modern education; on the other hand — once one is already inside the school system — it is possible to emphasize the benefits of philosophy for its own sake, as a way ofexpanding students’ minds and facilitate their understanding of complex issues.
Burroughs often approaches his students in a way similar to the many philosophy cafes that have sprung up all over the country in recent years: begin with a broad question that is both intrinsically interesting and about which students have something to say even without any background in philosophy. I mean, who is not interested in exploring the issue of “what is a good life?” The interactions between students and teacher are modeled as a community where people exchange ideas in person and on a blog, but where there is as little top-down lecturing as possible. Philosophy, in other words, is not a spectator sport.
The following speaker, Paul Thomson, is the “philosopher in residence” at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in New York — an unusual title to be sure! He uses the time-tested method of dialogues to introduce students to philosophy. Again, though, the emphasis is on participation: not only is each topic presented by means of a dialogue from a book, but students are then instructed to write their own dialogues on philosophical issues.
Incidentally, Thomson’s program has 96 slots available for students, and the astounding thing is that they get about 1000 applications each year. Who says kids are not interested in philosophy?
The last speaker of the session was Wendy Turgeon of St. Joseph’s College (Long Island), who takes the different approach of teaching the teachers about philosophy. One of the major obstacles she has to overcome is a widespread attitude that doing philosophy simply means having an opinion, and after all everyone has opinions, right? (Yes, but most of them are ill-founded in either fact or argument.)
The problem, according to Turgeon, is that while children are naturally curious — something that makes them open to both science and philosophy — philosophical (or scientific) thinking requires the sort of rigor that does not come naturally (to either children or adults, for that matter). It is simply not true that children are “natural philosophers” or that “there are no wrong answers” to a philosophical question.
Turgeon also noted that teachers have trouble distinguishing between philosophy and religion, or even psychology, often not grasping what it is that makes a question philosophical rather than scientific. To some extent, I would argue, this is a legitimate issue, considering that the borders between these and other fields are in fact permeable. But I suspect that the major problem is that people are much more familiar with religion, science, psychology and so forth than they are with philosophy and philosophizing.
There are a couple of problems that were evident from the APA session: first off, judging from the low number of attendees, philosophers themselves do not care enough about this issue. This is no different from scientists, many of whom put only a nominal value on public outreach and early science education. The predictable lack of results is similar: just as a large number of Americans reject evolution, vaccines and global warming, I doubt that most Americans would be able to distinguish between utilitarianism and virtue ethics, or to stay away from common logical fallacies. The second issue is: why do we so often equate pre-college education with high school? Is there a reason why primary school children could or should not be exposed to philosophy (or science, for that matter)? Religionists know better: the Jesuits famously say that if you give them a child of seven in a few years they will mold a man of faith out of him. And then it takes the rest of us a lifetime to undo the damage.


  1. Great post, Massimo. I'm in my third year of college now, but I started to explore philosophy in 8th grade. I've always wondered why there was never any mention whatsoever about the things I read outside of class, despite the fact that the philosophers I read had things to say directly about the subjects we were learning about.

    I hope the situation starts to change. The very fact that there was a presentation about this topic is a sign of hope, right?

  2. ... the Jesuits famously say that if you give them a child of seven in a few years they will mold a man of faith out of him. And then it takes the rest of us a lifetime to undo the damage.

    But, having endured the tender mercies of a Jesuit college education, the one thing they also insist on is understanding philosophy.

  3. I was fortunate enough to have a philosophy class in my high school (public and in Canada, no less!) which I took in grade 12. Along with law, political science, and history it was one of the few classes to have had a lasting impact upon me since graduating. Though the instructor did not have a philosophy degree, it was his passion and he was quite adept. A testament, I think, to the open nature of philosophy -- that anyone can participate provided certain minimal criteria are met.

    Admittedly there were a couple strange moments -- such as the time where he played us "Radio Baghdad" by Patti Smith [YouTube, pt. 1 of 2] while we sat quietly in the dark -- and times where, looking back, the instructor's lack of a degree is now noticeable, I am overall very happy with what I learned. It was sufficiently good that I am still today, as a third-year undergrad philosophy major (due in no small part to that high school course!), remembering things from that class as they turn up again in primary sources.

    To extend the argument beyond merely adolescents and their competency for philosophy, the SEP has an interesting article on philosophy for children which argues that pre-adolescents can engage in philosophising competently and thus there ought to be available philosophy curriculum in pre-adolescent schooling too. Though I imagine this might be even more difficult to implement than high school philosophy...

    I am surprised, however, at one aspect of this post: It is on the topic of education reform (whether to include philosophy in the curriculum) and there is no mention, positive or negative, of Dewey! Truly this is a remarkable event.

  4. Hello,

    In France they have philosophy during the last year of High School. I myself, in Belgium, studied to be a philosophy teacher in High School. I have the degree for it, but in reality few schools offer that option, so most of the time people like me ends up teaching "religion class" - and yeah, in Belgium, we have religion class (to make a long story short, it's possible because the parents choose the religion their children will study, and it's possible to take the option "atheist", wich is the second most popular after catholic and way before protestant, muslim or judaïsm).

    Anyway, I read a few books about philosophy for children, even for younger age than that, and it's really fascinating stuff. Great way - I think - to teach critical thinking...

    With skepticality,

  5. About 30 years ago there was a "Philosophy for Children" program at Emory University. Does anyone know if that program still exists or what its fate was?

  6. "As if somehow learning about what some of the greatest thinkers in history had to say about morality, reality, knowledge and beauty, to name but a few of the areas covered by philosophy, was not essential to shaping a mind capable of critical thinking."

    It seems obvious to me that a knowledge of Philosophy is absolutely not essential to shaping a mind capable of critical thinking. "Critical thinking" is not something you're capable of or not capable of, anyway; it exists in gradations. But on the grand scale of things, I really don't think that reading On Libertyor The Realm of Rights ever improved my critical thinking skills.

    Massimo seems to me riding on the idea that if you teach people about critical thinking, they will become critical thinkers. Much of Philosophy is not directly about critical thinking, and I don't know of any evidence that teaching about the Philosophers who were concerned with critical thinking actually improves critical thinking ability.

  7. Massimo,
    As much as it pains me to agree with you, you are right on in your position that Philosophy should be taught at pre-college levels. I'm not sure how educators expect children to practice critical thinking if they have never been given the tools that lead to thinking critically!

  8. James,

    I'm not quite sure why it is so painful to agree with me, but I'm glad you do.


    critical thinking is a complex subject matter, which includes elements of logic and an understanding of logical fallacies. Of course taking a philosophy course is not the only way to learn to think critically, just like taking a formal algebra course is not the only way to learn math. But why wouldn't you want kids to take algebra?

  9. You can't phrase it like that, Massimo, because there are tons of subjects that are vying for a place in school curriculums. I have a friend who said he thinks it's terrible that we don't teach personal finance in high schools. A fair claim, but again, we have to measure it against other subjects.

    In my view, it just so happens that there are other subjects which we do not need to teach in high schools; I do not think students should have to take PE classes, and I'm skeptical of the idea that they should take foreign language classes. But I'm just saying that you can't act as though there's some empty seat in the theatre and there's no reason not to fill it with Philosophy. In the broader curriculum there are no empty seats.

    I think the best idea, off the top of my head, would be to offer AP Philosophy in high schools. This way, high school seniors could take a year of Philosophy and even get college credit for it. Of course, AP courses have their own problem: they tend to amount to test-prep courses for the AP exams. But it's better than nothing, and it is the most realistic goal for getting Philosophy into the high schools.

  10. I tend to agree with Ritchie that teaching Philosophy at a pre-college level will likely not in itself encourage critical thinking. I suspect it would of necessity be a kind of history class; Plato said this, Aristotle said that, etc. Such a class would not be a bad thing, and may even cause some to think of things they would not normally think about. But it seems to me that critical thinking has little to do with, and is indeed discouraged by, certain philosophies/philosophers.

    A course in critical thinking itself could be very useful, if one could be created that would emphasize, e.g., recognizing logical fallacies, and methods of solving problems.

  11. I have to disagree, I think you guys have a very skewed perception of what philosophy is about. When one presents the views of Aristotle, Plato, etc., the aim is to encourage critical thinking about why they were presented and what's wrong with them, not as "he said this, the other said that."

  12. If Philosophy were conceived as a field bent around critical contemplation of fundamental human questions, pedagogy in Philosophy could essentially be position-centric: professors could just talk about positions and mention their originators only as side-notes.

    But really, Philosophy is to many people, and is often taught as, a he-said-she-said matter. Tons of people are primarily interested in Philosophy for reasons of History (especially Intellectual History). Whether or not John Stuart Mill's ideas were really correct or not is not why all people who take courses on Justice take those courses.

    I don't think Massimo is fair in saying that we have a "very skewed perception of what philosophy is about". Our "skewed perception" is the accurate perception that the ideal of crystalline rational discussion is not something that public school courses can effectively inculcate in students.

    Philosophers, including Massimo, often make huge empirical leaps. They have their own irrational quirks and biases. While they may be better at reasoning about certain issues, they might not be about others, like History or Algebraic Topology. And these are just the guys with PhDs. Does Massimo know many public school teachers? Does he know how silly, unintelligent, and clueless many of them are? Even if we somehow accepted the dubious proposition that your average high school student can make a significant leap in critical thinking ability by taking a well-taught Philosophy course, there is no chance at all that the American school system, by and large, can offer such courses.

  13. I am getting a bit tired of having to defend philosophy as a discipline to a bunch of people most of whom probably never took a philosophy class, and who insist in confusing philosophy with science. But I ain't giving up that easily!

  14. I personally (how else?) have taken philosophy classes, and even majored in the subject. But that was long ago when, it seemed, the philosophers I studied (outside of the obligatory "history of" classes) were intent on demolishing much of what has passed as philosophy the past two thousand years or so--and I do not mean "deconstruct"; such a silly word.

    In those halcyon days, the emphasis was on Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Urmson, Ryle, Popper, Hempel and I was fortunate also to have a professor fond of the pragmatists, primarily Dewey. I very much valued what I was taught, and think that reading of those philosophers encouraged critical thinking. Professor Pigliucci must know far more than I do about the current state of Philosophy, so I defer to him in that regard. However, I think that teaching such as the postmoderns, including that self-described "pragmatist" Rorty, the twisted German romantics such as Heidegger, and others, particularly in high school, would not be useful.

  15. I think Massimo was being tongue-in-cheek with regards to the last paragraph of my last post. If he wasn't, good lord: I have taken four Philosophy courses. I wouldn't say that they were more bent on rationality than the other courses I've taken.

  16. there was an interesting episode of ABC Radio's The Philosopher's Zone in which the host discussed philosophy being taught at primary schools in Australia. he interviewed the teachers, students and even played some audio from one of the class. it was fascinating, and it sounded like the kids were benefitting highly from it. i would totally support such a program.


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