Sunday, September 16, 2007

Children and Philosophy

In the public school system where I grew up, philosophy was never an option. Physics, yes. Calculus, yes. History, of course. But philosophy, never. To many of you, this is no surprise. Philosophy hasn't been considered a core subject for some time (and by sometime, I mean at least as far back as I can remember, which isn't far...), and the future isn't looking good for resurrecting it. Of course you can sometimes find a philosophy class (or something like it) in some private schools, but especially in a religious private school, it's not likely to be taught as openly as it ought to be. It hasn't always been this way though. Philosophy used to be the subject, and all other subjects were really only subdivisions of it. So where did it go? Why aren't we teaching it anymore?

I think it would be a mistake to think that philosophy, or at least a course in philosophy, is about learning something. Learning philosophy is more like learning some way. Yes, you can teach a history of philosophy course and teach about all the different philosophers and all of their theories. However, a real philosophy class focuses on the method of obtaining knowledge. Whether you're studying what exists, what we ought to do, or how we can know anything, you have to learn a method for reaching those answers. I think philosophy hasn't been taught precisely because it's not a matter of simply presenting information and having students commit it to memory. If it was, then it would be easy enough to include. It isn't easy to teach a method for thinking, for critical thinking. In fact, I standby the rather heretical claim that I never really learned how to think critically before college. I probably did it on my own sometimes, or by accident, but I was never formerly taught that I ought to be doing it or how to go about doing it properly. At this point, you may be wondering, if the difficulty is that it's a method, then why do we teach math? Math, at it's best, is the method for rationally reaching a numerical sum for whatever problem we are facing. When you teach math, you teach a method for reaching a solution that is more than just the memorization of formulas and conversion factors. So why can we teach math and not philosophy?

That's a good question, and the only answer I can propose is that perhaps it's because no one ever fought over the square root of 25. And people certainly don't disagree over the sum of real numbers, or the multiplication of fractions. Math is numbers, and numbers are neutral. You can replace the numbers with letters, and even those letters are neutral. But moral realism, dualism v physicalism, does God exist, etc, are not neutral issues. Philosophy tries to get at basic truths about our world, and these truths are philosophical precisely because they can't be verified empirically. You can't argue about a math solution done correctly, but you can argue about a conclusion reached in philosophy even if the argument was valid. If we only taught a philosophy logic class, that wouldn't be very controversial. But I think children ought to learn much more than mere logic.

I think the biggest obstacle to introducing philosophy into primary/secondary education would be the lack of qualified teachers. Some universities make select students take some sort of philosophy course, but not everyone has to. And even if future teachers did take an introductory course in philosophy, that doesn't mean they would be well-equipped to teach it to impressionable students. If you're going to teach philosophy, you have to do it right. It's hard enough at the university level to teach a philo course without it being clearly biased by the ideology of the professor. If done improperly, students walk away with the ideas of their teacher, not the ideas that they examined on their own. It's difficult to teach because a philosophy teacher can't just lecture, he or she must facilitate open and critical discussion. The teacher must teach students how to think about ideas, but then give them the space to explore the issues on their own and as a class.

I think that the best way to introduce this sort of thing into schools would be to slowly spark an interest for philosophy in the students. You don't have to teach a full blown philosophy class to start raising philosophical questions and to think critically about them. Students should be critical of what they learn in school, whether it be in literature, history or science. We emphasise excellence on standardized tests or AP tests, and we forget that teaching to tests limits students' scope for independent thought. There's no time to criticize when you must learn said amount of information for such and such test to earn said amount of money for the school or said credit for college. Not that these tests are completely bad, but they have become the ends instead of a way of gaging whether the means are leading to knowledge.

Subjects that are already being taught are a good place to start. History and literature, for example, provide wonderful starting blocks for these sorts of discussions. When you learn about the civil war you can ask the students why slavery is wrong. Most just take it for granted that slavery is bad, just like their southern predecessors probably took for granted that slavery was okay. It's bad to blindly accept a moral truth regardless of whether you're right about it. So students should be actively discussing why slavery is wrong, and why we believe all people have equal moral standing. We didn't always think that (still today not everyone thinks this), and they can begin to learn how to understand the moral foundation their lives which may not always jive with that of modern society.

In the same way, literature classes are wonderful starting points for philosophical discussions. From Where the wild things are to The Giver to 1984, books perform the necessary probing to get students thinking. Unfortunately, too many lit classes focus on plot diagrams, character sketches, and other useless time wasters that are designed to analyse books to death. I had many a book ruined by literature classes where we spent more time on conventions, like: what is the climax? the anticlimax?, than on the actual questions of the book. For example, in a course we would have spent more time talking about what happened in The Giver then we would have on what the book had to say about society, diversity and the value of a human life. Even in the classes where we did find those questions, we never attempted to answer them. Even if we figured out what the author had to say about those questions, we weren't really given the opportunity to discuss whether we agreed or disagreed. We didn't even get that far until high school, and before HS we would never have looked past the actual plot of the book. Though, as you can probably guess, I strongly believe we should have.

I think that if I was forced to learn the origins of western society, and the shape of electron clouds, and the inner workings of a cow's eye, then I should have at least learned how to think for myself. Part of being a responsible citizen, or for being a responsible person is to be able to think independently and to think critically about our world. So why aren't we equipping students to do this?

I'm not the only who thinks this, and in one house at one school the change has begun. One of of the teachers at the school I've been helping at teaches literature to 8th graders. She happens to agree with me that the way books are currently taught isn't working. Kids aren't learning to love books, and they certainly aren't thinking deeply about them. So this teacher has let me try something new with the GT kids. The GT kids were singled out because they are the least challenged by the current system, but the method we're experimenting with is not only for gifted kids. I think all kids should be allowed to do what the GT kids will have the chance to do in this class. I'll leave it at that for now, and I promise to explain more soon!

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