Making a Case for Pre-College Philosophy

“We assume that certain kinds of questions are only for advanced students, and I think that the irony is that, in many cases, not encouraging all students to ask those questions is why some are not advanced.”

That’s Claire Katz, professor of philosophy at Texas A & M University, quoted in an article on the work she has done to introduce philosophy to pre-college students and to learn about the effects of doing so.

Professor Katz teaches a course at Texas A & M in which her students, making use of Philosophy For Children (“P4C”) materials and methods, “lead thoughtful philosophical discussions and interactive activities among youth in local schools, after-school programs and summer camps.” She also conducts workshops for school teachers and administrators on teaching philosophy to children.

She and her doctoral students are conducting a longitudinal study of the thought processes of students that take part in the philosophy summer camp she runs. The idea is to develop further evidence of the benefits of teaching children philosophy (see earlier discussion here and here).

Such evidence is needed if philosophy is going to make inroads into pre-college curricula, where there is a scarcity of opportunities for introducing new material, owing in part to increased use of class time to prepare for standardized tests. Katz knows that it is not enough that parents notice their children are more thoughtful and that their “dinner conversations are never going to be the same.”

Why should we care about philosophy having an increased role in pre-college education? Well, apart from the educational benefits that accrue to the students, there is also the thought that it will increase interest in philosophy at the college level.

Not many people major in philosophy. In 2014 only 0.42% of the roughly 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States were in philosophy, a figure which has been in decline since a recent high, in 2006, of just 0.51% (see data here). One commonly offered partial explanation for these low numbers is that philosophy faces a hurdle of unfamiliarity: unlike disciplines such as history, English, or biology, philosophy is not usually taught at the pre-college level, and unlike disciplines such as psychology, political science, or business, there is no widespread cultural understanding of what philosophy is. That sounds plausible. (If anyone is aware of research on this point, please share it in the comments.)

The low number of majors is worrisome to those who think that the study of philosophy at the college level is valuable for students, and to those who are worried about the continued existence of philosophy programs, especially at smaller schools. We have seen over the past several years many instances of college administrators sacrificing philosophy programs to save money—or at least trying to do so—and one reason philosophy programs are targeted is due to their low enrollments. Overcoming the unfamiliarity hurdle is one element in a strategy to increase enrollments.

You can read more about Professor Katz’s work teaching and researching pre-college philosophy here.

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