Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Teaching Philosophy in Schools

Harry has a nice post up at CT about teaching Controversial Issues to high schoolers, with a link to his paper about it. I encourage you to read both. The idea is that philosophy is important, because it equips us with certain skills that we need to navigate our moral life (among other skills like reason/logic, critical thinking, etc). An ethics course can equip students to analyze arguments and make their own, all in the attempt to discern some ethical truths. Now Harry rightly points out that this sort of course does not work until you first strike down the pop philosophy concept of moral relativism (which is more prevalent in mainstream thinking than you'd suppose). After all, if there is no moral fact of the matter, however hard it might be to know, then there really is no use discussing these things, because you can't reach a truth that doesn't exist. Assuming you get everyone on board with that, there's a lot that you can do with philosophy, even with younger children. So before I say anything else, I want to be clear that I am definitely on board with more philosophy in schools. My concern, however, is how this can be done well. If it can't be done well, than I think perhaps it shouldn't be done at all.

Take the Controversial Moral Issues class as an example. This sort of class is different than your typical high school class. It does not involve memorizing and repeating facts, and starkly opposing answers can (if argued well) all be given a good grade. The focus is less on the answer, though the moral answer is important, but more on the process of arriving at that answer. Now, teaching a class that focuses on method and not a set of answers is tricky, because as the teacher you have to be comfortable with the method yourself. The method is often called the reflective equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying that you think of some assumptions we can agree upon and then you reason out to a conclusion. You can argue with each over the truth of the assumptions or the validity of the logic. This is not an easy task, esp not to teach. The Socratic method is also fun, but not easy. How can you make the students arrive at the answers themselves by only asking questions? You don't want to lecture at them, but you want them to learn something. It's a tough balance, and I'm afraid that balance may not be teachable.

Here's a real life example. This past year I taught English in a French high school. In one of my classes, I taught a CMI-like course. I knew the material, the articles, the arguments, etc. I was very comfortable with what I was teaching, having studied it quite a bit as an undergraduate (something not most teachers have done). When I started teaching that class, I was floored by how poorly it often went. Why? I knew the material, wasn't that enough? Not hardly. I had to figure out, somehow, how to teach my students how to think. It seemed impossible. How do you change how they think??? How do you teach them to be critical and logical? I'm not sure I know. I had some classes that went well, while others bombed. I'm not sure I know why in either case. One thing that did work sometimes (though this may have been cheating) was being horribly uncharitable to an author's argument. Flaws in philosophical work are often subtle, and most high schoolers (and college students) will have a really hard time catching them. So to help my students out, I rewrote the arguments and exaggerated the "holes" (as I called them). I made the faults look as obvious as possible, but even then, my students had a hard time finding them (I admit, part of this was the language barrier). Eventually, some of my students learned how to spot the holes. Most of my students did not, but some of those at least started to understand the holes after I pointed them out. One thing I never accomplished, arguably the most important thing, was to get them to argue something for themselves. To be original and creative. Maybe it was my own fault, or the language thing, or just that the students weren't ready to do that yet. I'm not sure. But I do know this much: that class was not easy to teach.

So why do I worry about how well a teacher can teach the class? I worry for the sake of the student, because a poorly taught ethics class is worse than no ethics class at all. Worst case scenario: a teacher teaches dogmatically (either because she wants to promote her own views or, more likely, because she is under pressure from the school and parents to teach a certain view) and the students come out with a certain set of "answers" fed to them in class. Perhaps they were even taught the best arguments for those answers, but even so, they did not learn how to think about those answers critically. In fact, a student coming out of a class like that is more likely to be confidant that those answers are right, than a student who (never having had a class in ethics) is still unsure what she thinks about it all. I'd rather a student be unsure but not brainwashed than the opposite. A commenter at CT replied to my concern with a good point. The response was that sometimes our concern for "impartiality" puts up too many unnecessary roadblocks. Yes, I agree that teachers could never be completely impartial, and that's okay, but that doesn't mean some teachers (perhaps due to school pressure or liability) won't be unacceptably partial. Even without outside pressure, it's very hard not to let your own views creep in and color the discussion (it certainly was for me --in fact, to offset this, I tried to fight for the opposite side more, or make sure I was fighting for the side that was the least popular in class).

Teachers will always have biases in their classes, but some classes should be taught anyways. I think that a college level CMI course, even if biased, is better than none. However, I think a biased CMI course in a high school is worse than none at all. Part of this is a distrust that a high school student could recognize bias and file it away as such. When I was in high school, I was much more trusting of the authority of my teachers than I was at university. Part of that was due to the fact that I had many more professors at university that had contradictory views (making it clear that neither side was decided upon). But a bigger reason, I suspect, was that I was more mature as a student in university than I was in high school. In high school I was too inexperienced to mistrust the views of my teachers, and I was much too easily swayed. Now I'm not saying this is true of all high schoolers, certainly not. And maybe if it is true that would in fact be another reason to have CMI course, so that students could be taught to be more critical. There's also the concern that not everyone, in fact most students, won't go to college (or if they do they may not take a basic ethics course). The CMI's of today are important enough that everyone ought to be thinking about them, so maybe high school is the best place to start that process. And I want schools to have well run CMI classes. That, to me, would be amazing. But I just don't know. If the course is poorly done, that may cause more harm than good, and that wouldn't be a worthwhile trade-off.

So I'll follow the comments over at CT, and maybe if I see some good suggestions for how to train teachers to do this (and give them the academic leg room they need to do so), then I'll be less worried about it. Or maybe the jobless philosophy phds should step up and help out. Who knows...

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