I recently received an e-mail from a parent asking why kids should study philosophy. To paraphrase:
“I don’t understand philosophy, so I am not completely sure whether it is valuable to a child. I was looking at the US school curriculums, and they don’t cover philosophy at either middle school or even high school level. So, looks like the study of philosophy will not help the kids in their school prep…? Why would you recommend that kids take philosophy courses?"
Only yesterday I was planning the development of a large philosophy course for one of the schools I work with. When discussing what students would be evaluated on in this course, I argued that, if the course was properly created, students should emerge from it with the critical communication skills, the sharp analytical skills, and the self-awareness that will allow them to succeed in all other realms. And this is why I think all students should do philosophy. A child properly educated in philosophy, I believe, has a true foundation for education.
Studying philosophy means entering into conversation with the greatest minds of humanity. We read them and come to see the world from their perspective. To do this we must develop our reading skills and our empathy – we develop techniques to see the world as others do. But then we see their blind spots, argue against their logic, present new evidence, and slowly, begin to build our own position. This is intellectual exercise in its purest forms. We read critically, we analyse ruthlessly, we question endlessly. We develop the confidence and the skills to question all ideas and, in the process, we search for and develop our own language skills to communicate our own views.
As we discover each philosopher we learn to decipher his/her unique language – we develop our linguistic abilities, we grow as communicators. As we discuss ideas of the distant past and the present we suddenly realise that much of what we take for granted has been built on these ideas, and thus our understanding of our civilization, its heights and flaws, becomes more nuanced. We can discuss everything from literature to architecture and mathematics with greater confidence as we understand the roots and each idea.
Why is philosophy not part of every school’s curriculum? In part because philosophy, some would argue, is now spread through the various other disciplines… bits in English, bits in the sciences, bits in maths. However, in this spreading, and in the drive to measure everything kids do through testing, we have lost the heart of philosophy. Moreover, the truth is that philosophy badly taught is dreadfully boring. Rather than a fantastic set of conversations you end up with boring lectures on who was Plato. Also, critical thinking and critical communication are difficult to measure, thus we have moved away from the time and labour-intensive teaching needed to teach philosophy, to curriculums that can be used in larger groups with outcomes that can be tested and measured.
So, why should kids study philosophy? Because philosophy challenges them to develop
the communication, analytical, and critical skills they MUST have to master all other academic discipline – from literature to math – and, more importantly, to be thoughtful, engaged citizens. More importantly, these skills are developed while undertaking the greatest, most fun, conversations, which all kids crave to have. Education, after all, should inspire more learning. Philosophical conversation should lead learners to want to find more – to read more, to think more, to discuss more, as they continue to search for their own answer to the big questions which philosophy broaches: what is justice? What is the good life? Should we trust each other? Can we know the truth? Should we ever lie?