I was taken aback to discover an opinion piece in The New Yorker denouncing the teaching of philosophy in schools as ‘a terrible idea’. The author, Richard Brody, reflects bitterly on his own school years during which he read a lot of philosophy; he goes so far as to suggest (a tad melodramatically) that his youth was ruined by a devotion to books. It seems his philosophical interests deprived him of practical experience to the point that he later felt the need to catch up on lost time.
It’s a sorry tale, and one I can hardly quibble with: after all, Brody’s childhood experiences are his own to interpret as he sees fit. His ideas on public education, on the other hand, are fair game. And since his criticisms of philosophy education are so gravely misguided, quibble I will.
Firstly, Brody presents a misleading picture of the very character of a philosophical education. Learning philosophy is not about a devotion to books – at least not primarily. Reading the great works of classical or modern philosophy, if you choose to do so, serves a larger purpose: stimulating your own philosophical enquiry. At the heart of a philosophical education is learning to think philosophically, and this means developing the cognitive tools to question, to deliberate, to reason and to make thoughtful decisions concerning all aspects of your life.
Children are more than capable of insightful speculation, and take evident delight in philosophical enquiry.
Secondly, whatever else may be said of it, doing philosophy can’t fairly be accused of turning young people into ‘detached ruminators of life … theorists, critics, or…assholes’ (as Brody bizarrely claims). The temporary detachment needed for critical thinking and philosophical reflection in no way represents a worrying disconnection from real-life experience. On the contrary, philosophical thinking serves to engage young people more intimately in their everyday lives and relationships.
Philosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline, helps you make sense of your own experiences and the experiences of others. It sharpens your perception. It acquaints you with alternative possible ways of conducting yourself and your life, and encourages you to re-evaluate what you hold to be important and meaningful. A good philosophical education helps you develop curiosity, scepticism and the courage to think for yourself. At the same time, it helps you develop reasonableness, humility and open-mindedness – qualities essential for anyone intending to engage in a respectful dialogue.
Doing philosophy means approaching important questions with genuine curiosity – and learning to think clearly, seriously and with purpose.
That young people are capable of thinking philosophically continues to be demonstrated around the world wherever children and teenagers are encouraged to doubt, question and build on each other’s ideas. In the US, the intensely philosophical character of children’s wondering has been well documented in books and articles by Gareth Mathews, Sara Goering, Jana Mohr Lone and Tom Wartenberg, among others. My own experience leading discussions at The Philosophy Club has revealed that children are more than capable of insightful speculation and take evident delight in philosophical enquiry and reasoning.
Brody’s misconceptions are, unfortunately, commonplace. Philosophy is wrongly supposed to consist of memorising the doctrines of philosophers from bygone eras – clearly an activity of little practical relevance to students’ lives today. A far better understanding of what it means to do philosophy is approaching important questions with genuine curiosity – and learning to think clearly, seriously and with purpose. Far from being a terrible idea, doing philosophy in this way could be just the ticket.
The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.