One obstacle undergraduate philosophy programs in the United States face is student unfamiliarity with philosophy.
Students have studied history and English and math and science since elementary school, and are familiar enough from the broader culture with business and engineering and psychology, for example, to be comfortable selecting them as majors. But most US students come to college never having taken a philosophy course and not knowing much about the kinds of topics and questions addressed in the discipline.
This unfamiliarity hurdle is one factor contributing to lower enrollments, fewer course offerings, and smaller numbers of majors. In turn, these factors contribute to the vulnerability of philosophy major programs and the employment of philosophy professors when administrators decide to do some budget cutting.
Pushing for philosophy courses as curricular requirements at the college level is one strategy for protecting philosophy that makes students aware, to some extent, of what philosophy is about. But by then many students have already declared their majors, and in any event there is still the comparative unfamiliarity of philosophy.
What would be likely to help undergraduate programs in philosophy at the college level (and perhaps have positive effects on employment prospects for philosophy PhDs, and, longer term, grow the non-academic audience for philosophy, which is helpful for future budget fights, etc.) is more philosophy at the high school level.
So it was nice to read Travis Meier, opinions editor at The Washington Post, recently argue for replacing one year of required math with an introduction to philosophy and critical thinking—what he called “applied logic”. (It may be paywalled, in which case you might try entering the web address here.)
Meier argues that for most people, a year of applied logic would be much more useful than a third year of high school math:
Only 22 percent of the nation’s workers use any math more advanced than fractions, and they typically occupy technical or skilled positions. That means more than three-fourths of the population spends painful years in school futzing with numbers when they could be learning something more useful.
I’m talking about applied logic. This branch of philosophy grows from the same mental tree as algebra and geometry but lacks the distracting foliage of numbers and formulas. Call it the art of thinking clearly. We need this urgently in this era of disinformation, in which politicians and media personalities play on our emotions and fears.
He thinks there are myriad benefits to his proposal:
Logic teaches us how to trace a claim back to its underlying premises and to test each link in a chain of thought for unsupported assumptions or fallacies. People trained in logic are better able to spot the deceptions and misdirection that politicians so often employ. They also have a better appreciation for different points of view because they understand the thought processes that produce multiple legitimate conclusions concerning the same set of facts. They are comfortable with spirited dialogue about what’s best for our society…
Math advocates claim to be teaching complex problem solving, mental discipline and a better understanding of our world. Logic teaches the same things more directly. Geometry can’t teach me when an argument is manipulating my emotions, but logic can. Calculus doesn’t help me solve moral dilemmas, but philosophy does.
Those of you who have read posts here about the teaching of critical thinking (for example) may raise a skeptical eyebrow at some of these claims. We should be careful in our assumptions about how much competence in reasoning a year of “applied logic” will typically result in. The evidence is mixed. And we should probably downplay talk about solving moral dilemmas; perhaps it is good enough that people might better recognize and understand such dilemmas. Yet it may be that even the modest benefits of a year of high school philosophy are more valuable than the similarly modest benefits of a year of additional high school math.
Meier thinks now is the good time to push for such a change to high school requirements:
It’s reasonable to suggest that public schools all provide a standardized core curriculum. But what makes up a fundamental education? America has not thought through this question in a national conversation since the 1983 release of “A Nation At Risk.” The product of a presidential commission on education, this report warned of declining achievement in the country’s schools and diagnosed “the urgent need for improvement.” Among its recommendations were a minimum of three years of math for all high school graduates. Since that time, the digital revolution has placed massive computational power in the palm of every student’s hand. Should the need for a cube root arise in someone’ life, Siri is available 24/7 to provide the answer. That same revolution has given us a crisis of conspiracy theories and a polluted public discourse. What’s at risk now is our ability to reason together as citizens. Skills such as these might not be able to solve for X, but they could go a long way in the pursuit of happiness and the health of America. You can’t punch those things into a calculator.
It is heartening to see a major news outlet voice support for the benefits of studying philosophy, and it seems like an opportunity to develop momentum on this issue.
Given the significant role high school philosophy requirements could play in addressing issues the philosophy profession is facing, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the American Philosophical Association (APA), which does have a committee on pre-college philosophy, to develop relevant legislative proposals and lobbying strategies.