The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools - Part 1

What should be surprising is not that a case must be made for philosophy in America's high schools, but that philosophy hasn't already become an integral part of its schools long ago.
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Adolescents are a skeptical lot. Anything and everything is fair game to them, and woe betide what is found wanting. Criticism comes easily to these professional skeptics. Irreverence is natural when one is taking the world's measure, cutting one's teeth, and finding oneself. However, American high schools waste this irreverence by failing to harness and turn it to educational use. By not providing programs which could tap into this natural resource, they forgo their most valuable asset -- the intellectual restlessness of youth itself.

By barring this critical spirit from the classroom, high schools are saying that questioning is wrong and has no part in one's education. If one wants it, one must get it on one's own. This is the message schools often convey. This is regrettable, since what could be an opportunity to exploit and sharpen this critical temper is irresponsibly allowed to run into the sand. Not that schools should become coliseums where intellectual gladiators slay their opponents, but training grounds where students learn to think for themselves.

The study of philosophy is one such program which American high schools should introduce to channel this skepticism toward academic ends. This would not be a course which would indoctrinate students into the tenets of a particular school of thought and show why schools which disagree are wrong. Nor would it be a history of philosophy which surveys major figures and movements.

Rather, it would be a course which simply asks questions: Does life have meaning and purpose, and how do we know? What is truth and how do we know that we have it when truth and illusion feel the same way? Does truth change over time? Are beliefs the creations of our subjective needs? Are values discovered or invented? Do human beings have value? Can we know anything beyond this world?

Such a course would consider the various answers which have been advanced to these and similar questions over the centuries; seek to understand the historical era in which an answer arose; empathize with each answer to understand it better; analyze its respective arguments, and suggest objections and rebuttals.

By observing how each position qualifies, complements, or critiques the others, students would explore not only specific questions and their answers, but also the nature of critical thinking itself. Students would learn how to detect fallacies in logical reasoning; how to dissect and refute faulty arguments; how to determine what can and cannot be proven; in short, how to think, and not what to think.

The course would be offered as a senior elective. Books wouldn't be used; one's humanity would be enough. Books are apt to distract students from their own thinking. While they might profitably be read later, initial reliance on them might suggest that the ideas of students weren't worth considering. This dependence could weaken trust in their own judgment, making students rely on authority figures to do their thinking for them. Philosophy is communing with oneself, struggling for insight, and groping in darkness. Only lastly is it the reading of books.

There would be a minimum of teacher lecture, apart from setting up each question and guiding discussion, which would be the heart of the course. There would be no heresy in the course; students could say whatever they wished, provided that they supported it. The course would take no position on anything, but simply outline the options, so that students could have an intelligent basis upon which to decide for themselves. While one might, in principle, agree with the desirability of such a course, five objections suggest themselves.

(1.) "Philosophy is unnecessary in high school since it is taught in college."

Would the study of English, history, mathematics, and science also be unnecessary in high school, since they too are taught in college? If one exposure would be insufficient for these four subjects, it would be no less insufficient for philosophy. A student who took philosophy in high school would have two choices in college: either take additional courses in philosophy or learn something else.

Not all high-school students will go to college, especially at today's sticker-shock prices. A high-school philosophy course might therefore be some students' only chance for such an experience. Learning to think for themselves and to be tolerant toward ideas different from their own would be invaluable training for life.

Moreover, waiting until college to take philosophy would prove too late for some students. Critical thinking must be nurtured early in life; otherwise the habit of accepting ideas uncritically becomes too ingrained to overcome. The longer one waits, the more difficult it is to discard old habits. Better to start early since philosophy and critical thinking would prepare students for college, where, from their first day on campus, they would already have what most freshmen lack - the ability to think for themselves.

(2.) "Philosophy is too advanced for high-school seniors."

Philosophy is simply the asking of questions. It is looking at life and asking why. What could be more relevant to seniors who are already asking the big questions of life? However, many of them are perplexed by these questions to a degree seldom realized by adults who have made their peace with these issues decades ago. They hesitate to discuss them with parents, and they are hard put to find educational contexts which deal with them. So they discuss them with friends, who are equally puzzled.

A philosophy course would help students sort themselves out, make them realize that these questions are part of a centuries-old tradition of what it means to be human, and reassure them that they aren't alone in their search for meaning. The clarity reached in these matters would enable them to see themselves and their concerns in a much broader context. By consolidating their position on these ultimate questions, they would be consolidating a part of themselves.

Some students don't feel challenged by conventional high-school courses. They find traditional subjects necessary but somehow unimportant since they don't address their souls. American education's commitment to pluralism would seem to suggest that we help these students. In recognizing different kinds of students with different needs and abilities, we should provide different kinds of programs to meet these needs. Philosophy would be one such program.

(3.) "High school already teaches critical thinking."

On the contrary, high school does not teach critical thinking for two basic reasons: lack of time and community pressure. Philosophy, on the other hand, is critical thinking applied to questions of meaning and values with real-life consequences. It wields the scalpel of doubt in an explicit, self-conscious, and rigorous way, and students exposed to its method learn to wield it themselves. It is a technical skill which requires much effort and time.

The skepticism of students, on the other hand, is often only vague feeling that something is wrong with a line of reasoning. This kind of skepticism may be uncritical, rejecting as blindly as others accept; it may be simplistic, seeing things in terms of either/or, black and white, or only black; it may be undifferentiated in nature, with no particular object on which to focus; it may be love of contradiction, compulsive nay-saying, or denial for denial's sake. These forms of skepticism lack precision. They need to be structured, disciplined, and channeled before they can be honed into an intellectual tool. Philosophy can help do this on the whetstone of the world with its universe of questions.

Critical thinking isn't quoting authorities or following the crowd to prove one is right; nor is it insult or name-calling to prove someone is wrong. Nor does it prove that something is true because it's old or new or "self-evident," or because one will profit from it, or it makes one feel good. Nor that something is false because it is frightening. Critical thinking is thinking for oneself by means of evidence, and this kind of skill, while taught in the sciences, is not in the humanities. This is the greatest weakness in our humanities programs.

(4.) "Philosophy is an educational frill."

While high school does provide students with some of the knowledge necessary for later in life, it is a rare high school graduate who can think critically. High school must impart the factual, the practical, and the essential survival kit of basic skills, but if it imparts no more than that, it ultimately fails its students. In teaching them not to ask questions, or how to deal with them critically, or how to critically evaluate what they read, hear, and write, high schools produce "A" students who can memorize, but who cannot think for themselves.

If the final purpose of education isn't to open and train the mind to think critically, what then is its purpose? One would do better to leave school and educate oneself rather than be exposed to years of group-think. Why learn to read if one isn't at the same time taught to judge the worth of what one is reading? One will only become more easily brainwashed. Why learn to memorize facts if one isn't also taught how to distinguish between fact and prejudice masquerading as fact? Indeed, what doesn't contribute to these skills is an educational frill!

(5.) "Philosophy is inadvisable at the high-school level."

Critical thinking is "inadvisable" at any level; hence, the many attempts throughout history to control and suppress it. Thought strikes at the group, casts doubts on its idols, and shakes its complacency. It is the enemy of habit and privilege, yet it persists, and whatever small progress has been made in this world has been due to its efforts.

Critical thinking may be inadvisable to some high-school students, who might feel threatened by thinking for themselves. Perhaps these students would be better off not questioning, but simply accepting the way things are, but even this is a troubling prospect that could be exploited or promoted by those in power. What these students might need is a bit of courage to become their own persons.

However, there are many other students who do want to question, who want to hear all sides of an issue, and who welcome the clash of opposing ideas. Why should these students be denied the chance because of those who wouldn't be taking the course?

To deny them this chance would be to teach them more than we realize -- that, despite what we say, we really believe that critical thinking is wrong, inadvisable, and dangerous, but not for students, but for the powerful, who would then have to face an electorate which was much more demanding of its politicians.

By refusing to give students courses that would make them think critically, we would continue to consign them to educational limbos where they try to educate themselves in spite of their schools. If education isn't, ultimately, the liberation of the mind, it is not education, but initiation rites into the myths of one's tribe.


What should be surprising is not that a case must be made for philosophy in America's high schools, but that philosophy hasn't already become an integral part of its schools long ago. The habits of mind instilled by philosophy constitute the essence of a liberal education. Its ideals of freedom of thought and expression are at the heart of our political traditions. Its aspirations are the foundation of Western culture. Its message has always been that truth is never afraid of scrutiny.

If students cannot learn this lesson in school, when can they learn it? Later, when they are no longer young and receptive to learning, or when the opportunity to learn is no longer present? If we want our students to think for themselves and not be our echoes, we will rethink what education should be about and how long we can afford to exclude philosophy's critical spirit from America's classrooms.

This is a revised excerpt of an article that appeared in Curriculum Review,
(August/September, 1982, pp. 333 - 336).

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