The Benefits of Pre-College Exposure to Philosophy: Data Needed

Occasionally philosophers make claims about the benefits of teaching elementary and high school students philosophy. 

For example, in a recent column in Time magazine, boldly titled “How To Fix American Stupidity,” Steven Nadler (Wisconsin) decries the prevalence, in the United States, of the kind of person who

has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face but it makes no difference whatsoever. They believe what they want to believe. Not only do they have no good reasons for thinking that what they believe is true—there are often good reasons for thinking that what they believe is false. They are not acting in a rational manner.

What’s the solution for this kind of stupidity? Nadler writes:

Changing people’s cognitive behavior will not be easy; it may even be a fool’s errand. By young adulthood, we naturally become stuck in our ways of forming and abandoning beliefs. I like to think that the key lies in more philosophy, and more of the humanities overall. Most people, if they study philosophy at all, do so only in college—typically to fulfill some distribution requirement. But what if we start exposing young people to philosophy well before they become undergraduates? There is no reason why high school students, even children in elementary school, cannot absorb the basic lessons of rationality and critical thinking that come from studying the great thinkers of the past and of today, and the problems in ethics, politics, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics that they address. If there is a cure for stupidity, I am convinced that this is it.

In short, if anything can diminish American stupidity, it’s exposing young people to philosophy.

Why should we think this?

We’ve touched on related matters here before, in regards to a proposal to teach every first year college student logic. As with this earlier proposal, the idea that teaching pre-college students philosophy is valuable has intuitive plausibility and is attractive to philosophers (these programs really do sound great). It reinforces the notion that philosophy is important and makes a difference. It would likely improve enrollment figures in college philosophy courses, too (overcoming the “unfamiliarity” hurdle that topics like history lack), which would be good for us.

And so, as with the earlier proposal, we should be suspicious.

What’s the evidence that pre-college exposure to philosophy improves people’s ability “to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs”? What’s the evidence that there isn’t a better subject to teach in order to achieve this goal?

As we’ve discussed before, the evidence is not that great:

  • The most prominent study of the benefits of primary/elementary level education in philosophy I know of faced serious criticism.
  • A meta-analysis found that while students’ critical thinking skills improved during college, it found “no differences in the critical-thinking skills of students in different majors,” including philosophy majors.
  • Another study suggested that students need to have taken roughly the equivalent of a course in logic before further instruction in it actually improves their logical reasoning skills, but made no case for instruction in philosophy as opposed to, say, mathematics. This seems to also be the finding of an earlier study by Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz.

SAPERE, the organization that sponsored the first study, recently received a £1.2 million grant to conduct further research on the effect of teaching children philosophy, and I look forward to hearing from them.

If you are aware of other relevant work on this topic, please share that in the comments.

In the meanwhile, I’d like to call for more empirical research on the benefits of pre-college instruction in philosophy. Given its importance to the profession, it would not seem unreasonable for the American Philosophical Association to encourage and provide support for it. We need evidence.

Also, while we wait for such evidence, I’d like to call for temperance when considering making grand sweeping public pronouncements about how philosophy can save the world.

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