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.

UPDATE: Myfanwy J. Williams responds here.

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Edward Teach
Edward Teach
4 years ago

I’ll just anonymously add that (as someone who initially wrote a piece supporting SAPEREs work) their previous study claiming to add 2-6 months to children’s reading ability didn’t properly randomise the students to a control. One person pointed this out in the comments on my piece (out of about 100, with 20k views) and it largely went unnoticed by everyone else. Upon checking, I found it to be correct. I wasn’t able to get the original piece taken down. My point is, I’d love for philosophy to result in the benefits we want it to, but beware conformation bias and the selection effects that have informed your experience with undergrads, which may not generalise.Report

Amy Reed-Sandoval
Amy Reed-Sandoval
4 years ago

I second the call for more empirical research on the benefits of teaching pre-college philosophy. I would hasten to add that such research need not/should not only be directed at the question of whether P4C improves people’s ability to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs. Advocates of pre-college philosophy also frequently highlight things like (1) the ways in which it enhances student self-confidence and public speaking skills; (2) how it improves student willingness and ability to listen (really listen!) to others in a “community of inquiry”; (3) how it encourages young people to challenge oppressive social norms; (4) how it trains students to ask questions (lots of questions!), and much more. Empirical research that supports these sorts of claims about the value of pre-college philosophy would also be extremely valuable. And in the meantime, we shouldn’t abandon the idea that doing philosophy at all levels (including at the pre-college level) is intrinsically valuable.Report

Jon
Jon
4 years ago

This is a great post. It also flags a more general problem with philosophy that people go around making empirical claims without empirical evidence. It certainly “sounds plausible” from the armchair, but go out and run some experiments, get some data, etc. To grab a word bandied about on other posts this week, it’s also just lazy.Report

E
E
4 years ago

As a former philosophy professor and current high school English teacher, I see the value in giving high school students a more-than-cursory look at philosophy pre-college. I do a fair bit in my courses, including Plato’s Apology and the cave analogy, a brief survey of early modern metaphysics and epistemology leading into Candide, and some basic ethics and political philosophy.

One place where data might be available-the AP Language and Composition course, which covers rhetoric, argument, and critiCal thinking is the best indicator (of all AP tests) of overall college success. Students who take AP Lang (or Lit) earn more credits, have a higher GPA, and stay in school at a higher rate than students who don’t take those courses.Report

Brian
Brian
4 years ago

Of course. Only in philosophy will you find a discussion of professionals being so skeptical, so as to demand empirical evidence to illustrate the virtues of the very subject they’ve dedicated their lives to studying. Pretty sad and ridiculous. Have some pride and confidence in your own discipline.

I think the benefits of teaching philosophy at the high school level, or earlier, probably would indeed cure much of the stupidity (as Nadler means it) we see so rampant today in this country. I agree with Nadler completely.

Certainly it couldn’t be any worse than some of the subjects they teach now as part of the core curriculum that is believed to be so important and crucial. But that’s being too generous, philosophy would be BETTER (more beneficial to the student long term) than most of them, with the exception of perhaps basic mathematics and fundamental physical/life sciences (so people can count change, calculate discounts at the store, and not take baths with plugged-in toasters).

I can’t provide some scientific study, but I can say that philosophy changed my intellectual life in the best way. It wasn’t until I found philosophy (much later than i would have liked) that I actually felt I was able to think critically about reality as a whole and apply it to broad aspects of my life. This will sound extremely cheesy but it’s philosophy that gave me the genuine confidence that I can excel at studying just about any subject out there and succeed at it, because nothing else really matches the demand that philosophy places on careful and critical thinking, logic chopping, making important (even non-important) distinctions, thinking about concepts that pretty much push the limits of what the human mind is capable of considering and in the most careful way, etc. Once you’ve gone there and back (regardless of how “useful” one thinks some of the particular topics are) everything else should be easy. And that’s exactly my own experience. I’m too far down the rabbit hole to become something like a doctor now, but were I to have found philosophy much earlier in life, and reaped the benefits that I’ve gained from it, I would have had much more confidence in myself intellectually such that more career options would have seemed viable for me to consider. But maybe not, as my confidence today has come from studying philosophy for years, but at the least my critical thinking skills would’ve been much better.

For those arguing that one can learn the proper critical thinking skills from other subjects, like math, I really don’t think so. At least it wasn’t my experience. Certainly not the kind of critical thinking skills that can be applied to the various aspects of my everyday life and society, such as evaluating a political argument, not buying into a various false claims made all over in advertising, examining and putting my own religious beliefs (and those of others) under scrutiny, etc. Such skills can much better be developed from well designed philosophy classes which mix basic symbolic logic with the examination of arguments hidden within language, than in some round-about way from another subject. It is something much more applicable and helpful (for most) in everyday life, than say, AP calculus which was basically a waste of time for me and most other people who will never use it ever again. Any critical thinking skills gained from say, math, is going to be so round-about and half-assed so as to feel non-existent outside of the classroom (where it has the biggest impact). At least this was my experience.

I am not even advocating for the study of all branches and sub branches of philosophy in pre-college education. But at least classes that teach basic logic and how to evaluate and tease out arguments from language, and perhaps some ethics classes that discuss social justice and animal rights. In general, the more obviously practical aspects of philosophy. I think a shift in curriculum to at least incorporate something like the above suggested would certainly be more beneficial to students in the long term than say history, “social studies,” micro/macro economics, and other crap that’s being taught at the K-12 level that is deemed so important. Not to put down other subjects, but to be so skeptical of philosophy’s use when the aforementioned is being taught is just hilarious to me.Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Brian
4 years ago

Not *only* in philosophy would people wonder whether their teaching imparts the virtues they hope it does:
https://xkcd.com/552/Report

Wendy Turgeon
Wendy Turgeon
4 years ago

ICPIC (International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children: http://icpic.org) can show some studies that support philosophy in the pre-college curriculum as valuable but one would still need to ask “what does philosophy mean?” and “what pedagogy is being used to introduce it?” The more interesting question to me is the need to justify quantitatively that a particular form of study, inquiry, literature, is worth doing. Does this mean they will make more money? Get higher SAT or GRE scores? Are we falling for the assessment industry standard of value as measured by direct and present outcomes?Report

Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Thanks for putting this up Justin. Along with David Hoinski and Justin Humphries, I ran a philosophy course at Woolslair Elementary in Pittsburgh in the spring of last year, and a summer course at the Ellis School (also in Pittsburgh). They were well-received, and Woolslair asked us to come back and teach two courses for the full year this year.

In response to an essay Neven Sesardić put up at Quillette against the widely-touted claim that philosophical instruction benefits university students by way of standardized testing scores (the kind of thing usefully collected here: http://dailynous.com/value-of-philosophy/charts-and-graphs), in July of this year I sent an essay to Leiter’s blog on similar claims made for elementary instruction in philosophy.

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2017/07/teaching-philosophy-outside-the-university-by-preston-stovall.html

I’m currently working on an essay for Quillette that responds to Sesardić, and I think it’s right to query the basis for some of the claims people make about the supposed benefits of philosophical instruction. But there are a number of controlled and randomized studies that claim to show philosophical instruction has an impact on learning indices at the primary and secondary school levels. Here is a review article of 10 studies published in 2004:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0267152042000248016

The authors of that article ran their own study in Scotland, the results of which were published in 2007:

http://www.thinkingschoolsinternational.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Topping-and-Trickey-Collaborative-philosohpical-enquiry-for-school-children-2007.pdf

A follow-up two years after instruction ceased:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1348/000709907X193032/full

claims that:

“The significant pre-post cognitive ability gains in the experimental group in primary school were maintained towards the end of their second year of secondary school. Higher achieving pupils were somewhat advantaged in sustaining these gains. The control group showed an insignificant but persistent deterioration in scores from pre- to post-test to follow-up”

That study was not totally randomized, however, as the schools that were selected for the first phase of the intervention were those that had space free in their curriculum. The Scotland study was replicated (without that obstruction) by a team in Texas:

https://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/jps/article/view/1100

A follow-up after three years also showed persistent gains:

https://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/jps/article/download/1268/833

So there is evidence that philosophical instruction prior to university not only has an impact on learning indices, but that the impact persists for years after the instruction as ceased. Still, these are early days to be concluding anything definitively, and I hope more people take up an interest in measuring the supposed benefits of philosophical instruction.

At the same time, I hope more philosophers take an interest in philosophical instruction outside the university. In a time of dwindling tenure-lines, increasing numbers of PhDs, and an apparent crisis of self-perception, philosophy for children looks like something of a growth-industry for the profession. I’ve talked to a few people in local government and the school system, and it seems there’s a genuine interest in having philosophers teach in primary and secondary school classrooms.

Finally, it may be worth pointing out that Mathew Lipman’s work on philosophy for children in the U.S. was a result of his experience teaching at Columbia during the student unrest of the late 60s. At the time, he believed that American citizens were in need of early and prolonged exposure to the sort of critical thinking and reasoning skills that philosophical instruction provides. It looks to me this need is as strong now as it ever was.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Sorry, that should be Justin Humphreys, not Humphries.Report

L
L
4 years ago

Italians are taught philosophy in high school and according to this (https://iq-research.info/en/page/average-iq-by-country) their average IQ is higher than that of Americans.
Of course this proves barely anything, but it can be used as an argument to push for philosophy in high school.Report

Michael Burroughs
Michael Burroughs
4 years ago

The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (https://www.plato-philosophy.org) is working on this question as well, among many others related to philosophy prior to college/university. I currently serve as VP of PLATO and chair our Research and Advocacy Committee and other projects. Our organization is also a member of the National Humanities Alliance. A few items relevant to this discussion include our advocacy paper (https://www.plato-philosophy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/plato-white-paper-why-philosophy-why-now.pdf) that includes citations for relevant empirical literature (including survey papers on a range of empirical studies showing positive impacts of philosophy with children and related pedagogical approaches). In addition, I would draw those interested in high quality research to several current scholars in this area, including (but certainly not limited to) M.F. Daniel, S. Trickey, and S. Topping. There is no lack or even shortage of empirical research on educational outcomes and benefits of precollege philosophy. It is not a new question and plenty of good evidence already exists. This does not change the fact that more can and should be done, but it is to say that our community continually overlooks all the research that is already in place and that rivals empirical support for many other forms of pedagogy and schooling. Our energy would be better spent tapping into the empirical work that many have already done. Those interested in learning more can contact me via my site, which also includes research on pre-college philosophy: https://michaeldeanburroughs.comReport

Gary
Gary
4 years ago

I keep coming back to this article, because I keep ‘bumping up against something.’ Is it baiting? Is it a test to see if we can claim, “Aha! Argumentum ad Ignorantiam!” I agree that studies on impacts (one, I know for certain is coming – it is in the publishing process) are certainly important. I’m not certain how the conclusion that lack of data means philosophy is not important follows, however.Report