This is part 2. You might want to see part 1 here if you haven’t already.
I have now encountered several objections to the idea that philosophy should be a requirement in high school, so that will be my focus here. Most of these objections were provided in a philosophy discussion forum on facebook. I will describe the objections, then respond to them below. The first nine of these objections are not serious and I think they are quickly dispelled. The final four objections target my specific ideas about implementing philosophy in high school as part of our English classes. That’s a much more difficult issue and I can’t say for absolute certain that my suggestion is the best one possible. However, I think my suggestion is one of the better options we have, and it’s modest enough to be a realistic goal.
1. High school students can’t learn philosophy.
The objection: Philosophy is too hard for high school students to learn. We can’t expect them to read what the world’s greatest minds think at this stage in their life.
My reply: First, we often underestimate how much students can learn. It’s insulting to just assume that they are stupid. Second, children of all ages have been learning philosophy for decades, and the classes and reading materials are directed for the appropriate age groups. Children can learn a lot about good reasoning by discussing philosophical issues at a young age without having to know who Socrates is or various abstract theories.
2. No amount of education will make people be reasonable or moral.
The objection: People will be unreasonable and immoral, even if they learn about philosophy, logic, and ethics.
My reply: The purpose of education isn’t just perfection, it’s progress. I agree that philosophy can’t make people be reasonable or moral, but it can help. In fact, there are proven benefits to philosophy. I have already discussed some of them. Philosophy even has proven benefits for young children including improved test scores, mathematical ability, and other cognitive abilities. “The Educational Testing Service evaluated the Lipman philosophy program in 1981… Tests on a cross section of 4,500 fifth and sixth graders in Newark public schools showed that those exposed to the program gained as much as a half year in reading, mathematics and and reasoning skills over those who did not take the philosophy program.”1 Go here for more information.
3. Philosophy corrupts the youth.
The objection: Philosophy can teach students to question authority figures including their parents. They might demand reasons and arguments, and they might wonder about the qualifications of authority figures.
My reply: There is little evidence that philosophy has significant negative effects on students. Insofar as philosophy teaches us to be reasonable, it can teach us to question authority and demand arguments. It makes sense for us to question the qualifications of our authority figures. Philosophy students are quite aware that there can be consequences for disobedience, and it might be a good idea to remind them that many people don’t take kindly to being questioned. Of course, authority figures shouldn’t be threatened by being questioned and being required to act reasonably—and teaching them philosophy when they are young can help them understand that fact.
4. Philosophy can teach students to be relativists.
The objection: Many teaching philosophy to children tell the children to respect everyone’s opinion, to be tolerant of others, and that all opinions are equal. This might make students relativists—people who think all opinions are equal or truth is different for each person.
My reply: How exactly teachers do their jobs is and ought to be greatly up to them. I personally am against relativism and I think relativism is very destructive to philosophy. The whole point of philosophy is that some opinions are unreasonable and can be refuted, but others are reasonable and justified. We prefer justified beliefs to unjustified ones. Many philosophy teachers tackle relativism to help students understand why it’s unreasonable and should be rejected, and that could go a long way in preventing students from becoming relativists. Additionally, I think many teachers are already instructing students to be relativists and that philosophy is the best way to combat this menace.
5. Philosophy causes emotional distress.
The objection: Philosophy can be too upsetting because it can destroy a student’s worldview. It can give us existential angst and question the meaning of life.
My reply: Finding out that we are wrong or unreasonable is painful—and that’s a good thing. It helps motivate us to improve ourselves and our beliefs. Avoiding pain at all costs can lead to fanaticism and unreasonable beliefs. That’s exactly what I don’t want. The emotional pain of philosophy is a worthy sacrifice for the benefits that it gives us.
6. Adding philosophy to our education is too much.
The objection: High school kids already have too much to deal with. Adding philosophy to the mix will be too hard on them.
My reply: First, if philosophy is taught instead of something else, then no more work is given to high school students. For example, English classes can teach some symbolic formal logic instead of how to diagram sentences; and they can have students read a philosophy book instead of a novel. Second, many studies indicate that high school students are now learning less than they were before. Some studies have also shown that colleges expect less of college students than they did in the past, and the students are learning less as a consequence. Third, I don’t think anything comparatively important will be lost from an English class that teaches philosophy. English classes at the high school level teach a little grammar, how to diagram sentences, how to interpret poetry, reading, and writing. Reading and writing is the most important thing taught in English, and students can read and write philosophy. Additionally, even a philosophy class can easily remind students about the rules of grammar.
7. Philosophy is a specialist field and not everyone cares about it.
The objection: Philosophy is too abstract, boring, and disconnected from reality; or it’s just one specialist field among many.
My reply: First, I already implied an answer to this, but I will say it again. Good reasoning and being a moral person are not just specialist fields, it’s something important to everyone. We all want others to be reasonable and moral, even if we personally don’t want to be reasonable or moral. The unreasonableness and poor moral character of others can be dangerous to everyone. Second, philosophy can be applied to just about anything. Engaging philosophical discussion is not merely abstract or disconnected from reality, it can be interesting and relevant to everyone.
8. Teachers are unqualified to teach philosophy.
The objection: We can’t let teachers tell students right from wrong or how to be moral because teachers don’t know. Some teachers will use the class to teach their personal moral beliefs to the class.
My reply: First, this issue is not insurmountable. Sometimes adjustments need to be made in our educational system and it might take some time to make the changes. It’s not impossible to encourage teachers to learn more about philosophy. Second, there are plenty of philosophy majors out there who need jobs and would be happy to fulfill a new role in society. Third, philosophy isn’t always about being qualified. Philosophical discussion can help students learn how to improve their thinking, even if the teacher isn’t a philosopher. One teacher said, “’I say to children that my opinion counts as much as theirs,” which makes me wonder about her qualifications, but the philosophy program she was involved with was quite successful (ibid.). Fourth, philosophy teachers aren’t supposed to be teaching students what to think about various moral issues and are instead supposed to teach them how to think about moral issues for themselves in a rational manner. Some teachers already use classes to indoctrinate children, and philosophy is probably the best way to combat mindless and irrational forms of indoctrination.
9. There’s no right or wrong in philosophy!
The objection: Philosophers have all sorts of opinions and they don’t agree about anything. Philosophy can’t give us knowledge.
My reply: I have already dealt with this objection in the original discussion. To repeat, this is a vast misunderstanding of philosophy. Philosophy can provide us with knowledge. Our knowledge of formal logic is just one example of the high degree of certainty that philosophy can provide us with, but our knowledge need not always be known for certain.
10. Nothing should be an educational requirement.
The objection: There’s something wrong with mandatory education. Students forced to learn will get bored, feel like a slave, etc. It might not be possible or wise to force people to learn something against their will.
Reply: First, this might be true. If so, philosophy should be taught as an optional class in high school along with other highly important classes, such as English, history, and mathematics. Second, we think it’s important that high school students reach certain standards so that we know that their education counts for something similar to meeting various requirements to get a college degree. Philosophy offers us improved reasoning and moral understanding that are of the utmost importance. It’s important for philosophy to be taught so that high school students can prove that they have met meaningful standards, even if it’s not required.
11. It’s not enough. We need philosophy as its own class.
The objection: The idea of teaching philosophy in a class only part of the school year and spending the rest of the year on “English” (grammar, reading novels, interpreting poetry, etc.) isn’t enough. It would be better to teach philosophy for the entire school year because it’s so helpful.
My reply: First, this might be true. My idea of making English into philosophy classes is pragmatic. It’s more modest to only ask for some philosophy in English classes rather than require all high school students to learn philosophy all year round. Second, it might be possible to turn English classes into philosophy classes entirely. The philosophy classes would be required to teach students reading, writing, and some grammar in addition to philosophical ideas. I don’t think this would detract from philosophical learning because reading and writing should be taught in philosophy classes anyway. To know how to think philosophically can be greatly improved through reading and writing about philosophy. Many philosophy classes in college already require reading and writing, and they can even fulfill English requirements now and then.
12. High school students shouldn’t be forced to learn formal logic.
The objection: Formal logic shouldn’t be taught because it’s too abstract and we can learn to be reasonable without it.
My reply: Although logic is abstract and we can learn be reasonable without it, I personally think formal logic can greatly help us be reasonable. I explain why here, and a study provides evidence that formal logic can greatly benefit students. Formal logic need not be detached from our lives. We can learn how to apply formal logic to our arguments and everyday reasoning. Of course, we can try to teach students philosophy in all sorts of ways to find out for ourselves the best way to do it. Many philosophy teachers have found logic to be very important in the past, and logic was developed precisely because it was part of knowing what it means to be a reasonable person. It seems likely to me that high school students would benefit from at least some education in logic for the reasons that I gave in the above discussion, but further research could potentially prove me wrong.
13. Philosophy is already taught in high school.
The objection: We learn philosophy in English, science, and history. We learn ethics when we are taught to be kind to one another, and we learn logic when we learn mathematics.
My reply: Some great teachers might introduce some pretty deep philosophy in their classes, such as formal logic in math classes. However, that is not the norm. It is true that some reasoning does occur in various high school classes, but it is not what I would call “philosophy.” Unintentionally being philosophical is not the same thing as being truly philosophical—to intentionally attempt to be reasonable through argumentation, justification, and debate. I want students to find out what philosophy is as an area of study and what it means to try to be reasonable. I want students to actually read some philosophical essays or books at some point in their education. I want students to actually spend time dwelling on important ethical issues and learn how to apply formal logic to arguments. I want students to actually practice reading and writing philosophical ideas.
Objections to teaching philosophy in high school greatly reveal the need for it because they are based on ignorance and irrational fear. Those who know philosophy well will not be impressed with them. However, the best way to implement philosophy to our high schools is a difficult question. Some objections to my suggestion that philosophy can become part of our English classes are quite relevant, but I think I have good replies to those objections. In particular, I find my suggestion to be realistic, modest, and a great improvement to the current educational system.
Update 4/10/11: Made a minor change to explain that philosophy teachers aren’t supposed to use the class as an excuse to tell students their personal moral beliefs.
1 Berger, Joseph. “Newest Incubator for Philosophers is Third Grade.” New York Times. 8 April 2011. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE7D6163BF930A15752C1A96E948260>. Originally published 23 November 1988. Page 2.