The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools -- Conclusion: Promoting the Course

If you're the type of person who gives a quiet chuckle every time someone tells you that he or she has "the answers"; if you feel a sense of irreverence toward ideas which give themselves out as "truths"; if you're somewhat skeptical about "isms," "ologies," or beliefs that presume to tell you the way things "really are"; then you might want to consider taking the new Philosophy course being offered next September.

But be forewarned! If you come looking for other "answers," you won't find them here. You see, the course reeks of the following bias - that any education worth its salt consists not in possessing "the answers," but in understanding the questions, fully, in all their complexity!

But that's not the only bias of the course. There's another - that you don't have to have a final, definitive, infallible position about anything while you're still young; you need only consider the possibilities that exist, because you'll never fully understand the answer you choose until you understand all the others, and are thereby certain why yours is the best.

Which answer is true, or better, or more desirable? That's your affair! Ours is simply to outline the options; talk you through them and the different ways of viewing the world; point out how each arose historically; present their strengths and weaknesses; and help you determine whether there are fallacies present.

That way, before you do make up your mind on which answer is right, you'll have first heard all the options and have an intelligent basis on which to decide.

We deal with questions: Does life have a meaning? If it does, who put it there? Or do we create our own meaning? Or is there only one meaning, and it's up to us to find what it is, and if we don't, we'll be unhappy for the rest of our lives? Or does life need a meaning, or is a deeply-lived life all the meaning we need?

How do we know we're right about anything, and not deluding ourselves? What should we trust in finding the truth: reason, emotions, intuition, authority, revelation, society? What makes us so sure that any of these can be trusted?

Why do people have different beliefs about the same thing? Can they all be true? Or are there many truths, or only one, and everyone's wrong except those who possess it? Or does truth change over time, with one age thinking one thing and the next age another? Or does truth stay the same no matter what an age thinks? Or does truth even matter as long as we're happy?

Why is there suffering in the world? Is the universe fair? Does it have to be fair? Is something moral because society says it's moral, or does society say it's moral because it is moral? Who decides, and on what basis?

What's the best way to be a good person? How do we find out? Are we responsible for anyone except ourselves? Do we have a duty toward future generations? Does government have a moral obligation to help the poor? Can we know anything beyond this world? And hundreds of more questions like this.

We do lots of discussing. In fact, that's all we do, so if you like talking about ideas, and don't feel uncomfortable about hearing different beliefs and values, you'll be right at home. There's no heresy in the course. You can say whatever you want as long as you're willing to support what you say.

You'll learn how to think critically, so that no one can trick you later in life. We explore philosophies, several philosophies - even the one that says it's wrong to question or to think for yourself, but simply to accept whatever you're told.

There are reaction papers in which you'll role-play different persons who look at life differently and believe that they're right. There are those who think that viewing the world through different eyes is dangerous, and we'll discuss that view as well.

So, if you're a person who likes doing these things and likes thinking outside the box rather than feeling claustrophobic within it, then you might want to join us next year. If interested, check the school website about this new course, and if you have further questions, just stop by my classroom or send me an email.

An article like the above in your school newspaper about a month before scheduling time would stimulate course interest. It could also be posted on your school website, along with the course description, outline, and the following two items.

The Art of Critical Listening

There are several ways to listen. We can listen to be informed, to be entertained, to be reconfirmed, to be inspired, to lie in wait, or to listen critically. In this course, we'll be concerning ourselves with this last way - the art of critical listening.

We are all critical listeners. We are always judging what people say. At times, however, we let our critical faculties slumber and blindly accept whatever we hear. The following are some suggestions to keep in mind when someone is trying to convince us of the truth of what he is saying.

Are there any inconsistencies in what he is saying? Do any of his statements contradict known facts? Could another theory explain the facts equally well? If so, why does he prefer his theory? Is his theory certain, probable, or only possible? Is he claiming that his theory is certain or probable when it is only possible? Is he overstating his case by claiming more than the evidence will allow?

Are his arguments persuasive? What other arguments support his case? Why doesn't he mention them? If his case were true, what conclusions would follow? Does he deal with them? If he doesn't, why doesn't he? Does he have a hidden agenda?

Are fallacies present? Which ones? Are his "facts" really opinions, or even prejudice, self-interest, greed, or fear-mongering dressed up as facts? Can his proofs themselves be proven, or do they already assume what he's trying to prove? Are his proofs even relevant to his theory? Or are they simply his theory in different words? What is he saying between the lines?

What objections could be leveled against his theory? Does he rebut them convincingly? Or does he dispose of only the easy objections but ignore the hard ones? Does he misrepresent these objections? Does he answer the questions put to him or evade them by creating the impression that he is answering them?

Does he flit from point to point without offering any proof for what he is saying? Is he making groundless claims? Is his presentation rushed, confused, or disorganized? Is he appealing to evidence or to emotion? Is he trying to win listeners over by flattering them or trying to get them to like him so he won't have to prove his case?

Is he trying to frighten listeners so that they can't think calmly? Is his choice of words manipulative by describing the issue in emotional terms? Is he using words in presenting his theory that already assume that his theory is true when that's the very question at issue? Is he appealing to authority figures to prove his case, or letting the evidence speak for itself? Would you be able to refute his case?

Suggestions for Writing an Argumentative Essay

Pretend that you're a lawyer trying to convince the reader of the truth of his case. Always keep your thesis in mind in writing your essay. Don't get side-tracked from the main issue and wander aimlessly from point to point. Use an outline to keep yourself focused. Let it guide you, but revise it if needed.

Develop your ideas; don't simply repeat them. Explore their underlying assumptions and implications. Don't lecture the reader about your thesis in abstract terms, but discuss how your thesis is embodied in the topic you've chosen. Don't stay on the surface, but explore things in depth.

Struggle for insight. Live with your ideas to give them time to mature. Make your case with five strong arguments, and then give five strong objections, which you then rebut. This is the sign of a superior paper, because it shows that you also understand the other side of the argument and why it is weak.

Justify each word you write. Ask yourself continually whether what you're writing advances your argument. Don't be emotional. Step back from your essay to maintain perspective. Use formal English, and avoid colloquialisms. Always go to the heart of the matter.

Board Approval

All the foregoing, of course, assumes that the course has been approved by your board of education. Some districts actively encourage new courses; others are open to them on a case-by-case basis; and still others might find a philosophy course inconceivable. It's important, therefore, to know your district. Be sure to consult your district's procedures and deadline for submitting proposals. However, before doing anything, inform your chairperson and principal of your intention and ask for their help.

Assuming board approval, districts may vary about how to offer the course. They could offer it as a social studies senior elective, possibly even as an Honors course, or a pilot course within an already established Gifted & Talented program. There are other possibilities as well. Whatever format is chosen, I might suggest that the course be open to any member of the senior class who feels equal to the academic challenge the course would entail.

Junior Class Visits

Junior class visits a few weeks before scheduling time are highly advisable. These visits are often the decisive factor in creating a "buzz" of interest, since students take a new course more seriously if the teacher visits their class. These 10-minute presentations will give students what they want before choosing a course -- a sense of the teacher as a person, and of his or her teaching style in conducting a class.

School TV Interview

If your school has closed-circuit TV, you could arrange to be interviewed about your new course. Simply provide the teacher in charge with the course information, and the student interviewer will do the rest. The interview could then be posted on TV monitors throughout the school and on your school website. PA announcements during homeroom could also alert interested students about after-school informational meetings.

Guidance Counselors

It goes without saying that the school's guidance counselors are the indispensable recruiting agents for any new course. Counselors know their students and have a sense of which students would profit from taking a course. Send them the course information you'll be posting and visit each of them to discuss the course. It will be time well invested.

Teaching philosophy is an act of faith. It is like being a parent, who never quite knows what effect one is having on students. Yet one hopes to have opened young minds to reason calmly and courageously amidst the confusions of life; to have awakened a love for the life of the mind in a world that pays it scant notice; and to have instilled a confidence in what, with effort, can be discovered, and a sense of humility before what must remain life's eternal enigmas.