The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools - Part 2: Conducting Class

Some Background

In the 1970's, I taught two philosophy courses in public high school. The first was Philosophical Foundations, an analysis of philosophical problems as exemplified by events in American history. It examined, for example, the question of Puritan orthodoxy by exploring the following questions: What happens to a group with political power which believes it has truth? How does such a group view itself and behave toward dissenters? How does it view the nature and purpose of learning and education? How would it view critical thinking? What relation does certainty have to the possession of truth?

Historical parallels were drawn to show how other ages and cultures dealt with these and other questions illustrated by American history. By placing these problems within the wider context of Western civilization, the course not only provided a broader perspective on the American past, but also introduced some of the philosophical traditions of Western philosophy. This was a two-semester, team-taught course in English and social studies for juniors and seniors.

The second course, The Challenge of the Modern Mind, was a critical inquiry into the intellectual revolution that characterized Western thought since the Enlightenment and its effect upon traditional belief systems. The disciplines of philosophy, cultural anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, science, comparative religions, and biblical criticism were explored to show how each contributed to the emergence of a new secular consciousness which drew into question the inherited beliefs about the meaning of life, the classical understanding of human nature, and the existence of an eternal, immutable moral order. The breakdown of traditional art forms in music, art, literature, and theater was discussed in terms of how they mirrored this newfound questionability of time-honored beliefs. This was an elective two-semester course and restricted to seniors.

From the 1980's until 2013, I taught three humanities courses -- college-prep, Honors, and AP English IV, which introduced seniors to critical thinking, the Greeks, the Bible as Literature, Shakespeare, British literature, and representative novels and plays of the literary canon. Throughout all of these courses, special emphasis was placed on the critical discussion of ideas as expressed in literature. By familiarizing themselves with some of the philosophical conflicts that characterized Western literature from the Greeks to the present, students achieved a broader and deeper historical perspective on life's perennial questions than would have been possible in traditional senior English programs. All of these courses had one central focus - to encourage students to think for themselves.

Keeping Students Uncertain

Teaching courses of this nature in high school is a unique experience. It entails the responsibility of presenting all sides of a question -- fairly. The point is not to make converts, but critical thinkers. The teacher does not take a stand on any position, but simply asks questions that examine the arguments of every position. A biased teacher has no place in a classroom. Someone who makes every view unconvincing except his or her own isn't teaching philosophy, but indoctrinating students.

A teacher who feels strongly against a particular position must conceal that dislike and present its case as well as its proponents would. Revealing one's bias would destroy the ideal of critical detachment and take unfair advantage of students' trust. High-school students are at an age when many are prone to accept or reject a view merely because a teacher holds it. Nor should one offer one's view by way of modest opinion, which may persuade by its modesty.

Even given the dubious claim that one knew the truth, one should never reveal it lest students know the right view for the wrong reason. Should teachers choose to tell students their views, students could pay them no higher compliment than by rejecting those views if they didn't agree with them. Teachers would then know that they had succeeded in having their students think for themselves. A teacher owes it to students to confound them, to have them feel the power of every position, and to keep them in doubt as to which one is true. Plato went to the heart of the matter: "Philosophy begins in wonder." It is wonder, not certainty, which opens the mind. Certainty only closes it. A teacher's task is to keep students uncertain.

Teaching by Questions

While refusing to give students answers to philosophical questions, a teacher must convey each question's complexity. This is done by guiding class discussion through a series of questions which examine each problem from several perspectives. These questions may be specific or open-ended; they may imply or elaborate; they may prompt introspection or conjecture; they may probe and dissect; they may seem to affirm or deny; but they must never resolve.

Discussion -- the Heart of the Course

The teacher reminds students on the first day of class that the course is based on class discussion in which everyone must take an active part. There is no heresy in the course, and students can say whatever they want as long as they support it. Students will already know this from their counselor at scheduling time and from the Program of Studies on the school website. Some may still be uneasy about speaking up, but once they observe that the teacher receives whatever is said with respect, everyone begins to participate.

There may at times be reluctance to speak for other reasons: never before having considered the question under discussion; inexperience in putting one's views into words; regarding one's view as too personal or commonplace; sensing oneself in a beleaguered minority; inability to disagree tactfully with others, especially friends; or fearing that one's view may shock classmates or even oneself. Whatever the reason, a teacher can lessen these inhibitions by asking students to role-play different reactions, allowing them to say with impunity whatever their role would allow.

If some students choose to voice their personal views, they are, naturally, always welcome to do so. However, asking for such views is never advisable. Apart from whether a teacher has the right to inquire into students' personal opinions, such requests tend to immobilize a student's thinking. Taking a stand commits one to defending rather than examining it. Self-justification replaces critical analysis. Even an unsolicited opinion may be misleading since it may spring from a student's ambivalence toward that opinion and be designed to have the class develop the student's own thoughts on both sides of a question.

The Power of Emotions on Thinking

Teaching philosophy also entails making students aware of what they may overlook -- the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding a particular viewpoint. This is important because students may not even realize that the emotions can exercise a powerful influence upon thinking. Alerting them to this possibility may prevent their succumbing to a situation where critical thinking becomes a way of rationalizing what their emotions desire.

There is another reason for addressing students' emotions in a philosophy class. It is a more effective way of having students understand the urgency of philosophical questions than by simply giving them a list of questions with pro and con arguments. Students must first feel the relevance of such questions to their own lives before they can be motivated to find answers to them. The emotional reaction of role-playing different responses to a question can help them to invest in the question immediately. Not that students should think with their feelings, but that the emotions can reveal how central to their lives a question is.

The Importance of Silence

It's important that a teacher be at home with silence in creating a reflective class climate. Philosophical questions can rarely be answered at once. Several seconds may need to elapse before a question can be fully digested, let alone prompt even a tentative answer by students. One must never rush a discussion, but let silence dignify the time students require to prepare their responses. Time spent in silence is never time wasted. Nothing trivializes or destroys a discussion like haste. If the teacher is comfortable with silence, so will the students, and all will go well.

Retreating to the Background

It often happens that a discussion will take on a life of its own when students begin to respond to each other. At such moments, a teacher can best advance the discussion by withdrawing to the background and letting things happen. Student exchanges are gifts from the gods, since students are more candid with each other than with teachers. These conversations have a spontaneity all their own and never depart from the teacher's intended line of inquiry. Indeed, they point the way to further questions should students fall silent. A teacher can only hope to prepare the mood for such moments. Success is never assured, but whenever they occur, the teacher must stand aside and let the spirits take over.

Different Kinds of Students

A philosophy course draws all kinds of students. Some seek answers; others have them and want to convert. Some view ideas aesthetically; others fall upon them like prey. Some welcome paradox; others are made uneasy by it. Some are analytically gifted, but find it hard to construct an argument; others are all creativity, without critical sense. Some want to listen; others to be heard. Some are precocious on paper, but silent in class; others bedazzle an audience, but freeze with a pen. Some are full of sound and fury, which keeps to the surface; others struggle for words and discover the depths. Some need insight diluted; others can take it full-strength. A teacher works with all of them, entering each field of vision to help the student explore it more closely. With some, one is the liberal; with others, the conservative; with all, the devil's advocate.

Student Assignments

This assistance can best be given in written comments on student assignments, which may direct a student to: (1) make a case for both sides of a question; (2) discuss an argument's fallacies, assumptions, and implications; (3) devise an argument which is wholly fallacious to train students to detect when fallacies are used on them; (4) discuss the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding different viewpoints; (5) answer questions which explore only one side of an issue, so that the other side will emerge of itself; or (6) combine parts of the preceding assignments. Students slowly discover what they think by immersion in questions amidst a welter of contradictory claims. Over time, they gain detachment from themselves to determine whether their views are based on emotion or reason.

Benefits of Assignments

Trained to scrutinize their own thoughts, students can better scrutinize the thoughts of others by learning to listen and read neither to accept nor reject, but simply to understand and evaluate. They can determine when the possible or probable is put forth as certain; whether words manipulate by begging the question; whether the facts presented are facts or inferences posing as facts; whether the arguments advanced are fallacious and may serve a hidden agenda; whether objections are honestly dealt with or ignored; and whether a persuasive case could be argued against the position.

The result of such training is intellectual caution; respect for words and their implications; concern for clarity which does not mistake obscurity for depth; methodical doubt as an analytical tool; ability to isolate and test hidden assumptions; unwillingness to equate truth with the first viewpoint learned; and refusal to pronounce knowingly when certainty or probability cannot be had.

Such out-of-class assignments are essential parts in students' internalizing the theories and techniques learned in the classroom. There is so much to learn, and so little time to do it in. Students need continual practice in dealing with problems and questions to make this knowledge supremely their own. Practice makes perfect. There is no other way. There are many obstacles that will be put in one's way, but one thing is certain. If one wants an education, one must take it by storm.

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