One Front in the Fight for Philosophy’s Survival in the US: High Schools


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.

Discussion welcome.

 

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Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
5 months ago

Start earlier.

I don’t have anything other than intuition to back this up, but I strongly suspect that habits of mind are like languages in that they are more easily absorbed and adopted by young brains. Some form of introduction to logic and critical thinking (probably under a different name) should be developed for the elementary school curriculum.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 months ago

The framing of this post gets everything exactly backwards. If we should have more philosophy in high schools, it’s because we need more places and more opportunities for people in our society to learn and practice philosophical thinking and dialogue.

If there is to be a greater place for philosophy in high schools – and in earlier grades – it needs to be because philosophy offers a way of engaging with fundamental questions and values that are central to our experiences as human beings and as members of our communities. If philosophy is, by implicit definition, an academic discipline tied to a particular mode of university research and education, then why should anyone outside of that academic discipline care to spread it into our high schools?

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 months ago

Completely agree. I don’t see this initiative succeeding unless it is demand-driven.

I have long thought we could get younger generations interested in philosophy and critical thinking with a pitch along the lines of “Wonder how previous generations managed to screw up the world so badly? Well, here’s one thing they neglected: teaching themselves how to think. If you want to be different, to have any hope of succeeding where they failed, you need this. And you need your schools to offer it.”

There’s already enough intergenerational resentment in play that this might resonate.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 months ago

Fair enough, Justin. It just struck me as an odd inversion of means and ends. The purpose of having university philosophy departments is to teach and provide space for philosophical activity. So it struck me as a bit weird to say, in effect, ‘we should create more opportunities to teach and engage in philosophical activity, so we can better promote university philosophy departments.’

highschoollowpoint
highschoollowpoint
5 months ago

I flunked out of the philosophy job market awhile back and, as a result, cold called at least 40 private high schools in the American west pitching them to hire me to teach philosophy.

I have a fancy PhD, an excellent teaching portfolio and sent along a data-driven cover letter explaining why the addition of philosophy to their curriculum would be to the good (nothing about this being a way of resuscitating the higher ed job market in philosophy, obviously).

Not a single school I contacted expressed any interest in adding philosophy to their offerings.

Tom Baranski
Reply to  highschoollowpoint
5 months ago

I contacted 25 public and private high school superintendents about 5 years ago in the state of New Jersey suggesting (vigorously pleading for, really) the inclusion of philosophy courses in ALL grades, K-12.

In my letter I briefly discussed the several very important benefits of studying philosophy at all levels (critical thinking, discussion of ethics, aesthetics, etc.) and received 1 (one) response, thanking me for “a good idea,” and suggesting that I look into P4C (philosophy for children) then taught at Montclair State University in NJ. I don’t think that program exists there anymore.

I believe most school superintendents (who usually have PhDs or EdD’s nowadays) don’t have a clue as to what philosophy is about, despite their having to have taken required courses in “theories of education.”

So, selling philosophy as a “core course” is going to be a tough and essential challenge…but, WE GOTTA DO IT!

Noah
Noah
5 months ago

One potential avenue is to pitch the College Board on an AP Philosophy program. If an AP Philosophy curriculum and exam were developed, high schools would be much more likely to offer the course than they are to independently develop their own program. Many subjects that don’t have a place in most high school curricula get into high schools in this way (e.g. psychology, micro- and macro-economics, music theory, etc.).

Billy
Billy
Reply to  Noah
5 months ago

This seems like a very good idea to me. On the contact page at the College Board, they have an AP-related phone number for higher ed professionals. I’ll paste it below. Someone from the APA could give the College Board a call and ask how the APA could go about creating an AP Philosophy program. Even if the person who answers the phone doesn’t know the answer, they probably will know who at the College Board will know the answer.

AP: For Higher Ed Professionals
Phone
877-274-6474

AP Services for Educator Hours: M-F, 9 am – 6 pm ET

Noah
Noah
Reply to  Noah
5 months ago

Interestingly I just found a thread from here in 2016 and it looks like there were some discussions in the APA about this. I wonder if it ever got to the point where there were talks with the College Board. I’d be interested to hear from anyone involved what was learned from this, how far the process got, what the obstacles were, etc.

https://dailynous.com/2016/02/19/ap-philosophy-for-high-schools-input-sought/

David Velleman
David Velleman
5 months ago

If only an organization like the Sanders Foundation would invest in a campaign to get philosophy into high schools instead of handing out prizes that benefit only a handful of well-salaried philosophers.

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
5 months ago

I can’t access the article, but the idea of getting philosophy courses in high school is a no brainer. It will be so much more useful for students than many of the courses they are required to take. The APA, PLATO, Sanders, and all of us should find ways to get the ball rolling, though it will indeed be very challenging to break the bureaucratic hurdles.

I hope to work on it more. I think the best strategy is to create a good AP course (there is already a good IB course in addition the IB’s Theory of Knowledge requirement), and make sure it satisfies a state requirement, probably as one of the electives in the social sciences (I think that makes more sense than math or English, though those might be possibilities too). Then create a less advanced version that would satisfy the same area requirement.

The course would ideally be taught by people who have an MA in philosophy, though a BA would be better than people trying to teach it with random degrees in history, English, psych, etc. And they would need to be able to teach other subjects, at least until demand grew.

The course should cover critical thinking and (baby) logic, but it should ideally integrate those skills into discussion of interesting topics and readings (including film and literature) to make students love it and see the value of confronting the questions we deal with. And of course, it should include ethical reasoning and help students learn the skills that we should all be telling our universities philosophy teaches that are highly valuable for any career (the NACE list: “critical thinking”, “ethical reasoning”, “communication”, “perspective-taking”, “cultural competence”, etc.).

Students taking this course will want to create a HS Ethics Bowl team, coached by the teacher.

PhilMouse
5 months ago

I am not sure if it is just me. But another factor that contributes to the “student unfamiliarity with philosophy”, other than the lack of philosophy courses in high school, is the misconception of philosophy.

In academic world, people tend to think of philosophy as analytic philosophy and ignore other traditions. The high school students I have met seem to have the exact opposite impression of philosophy: they are unfamiliar with analytic philosophy and tend to think of philosophy as existentialism, literary theory, critical theory, etc. I have met many high school students who were passionate about philosophy and then were disappointed to learn that we did not offer courses on Nietzsche or Simone de Beauvoir (just for example).

So, while I agree that “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,” I am less and less sure about whether we actually have “the kinds of topics and questions addressed in the discipline.”

Last edited 5 months ago by PhilMouse
Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
5 months ago

To be fair to math I think that some of this has to do with how badly it’s usually taught in high school. If math were taught well, then I feel like students would learn quite a bit of logic in their math classes, but of course it isn’t taught well. I remember when I was in high school it was all plug and chug calculation until we got to geometry and then they started throwing proofs at us, which was utterly mystifying, and then we want back to plug and chug all the way through trigonometry (which is where I stopped since I found our math classes painfully boring). I think that the author is very much right that we ought to start with quite a lot of logic early on. Not only would it be useful in and of itself but it would almost certainly better prepare students for real math than would our current methods. (If you think math is well taught in high schools then go listen to math professors gripe about students in calculus classes having deer in the headlights panic when asked to prove say if a > b and c > d then (a+c) > (b+d)). I do think a long course in informal logic followed by some formal deductive and inductive logic would be an excellent thing to teach in primary schools.
But let’s mention the elephant in the room here and one of the things I suspect keeps philosophy out of high schools: Even logic classes are going to walk all over controversial issues. The matter gets even worse when you consider ethics classes or other philosophy classes. That’s all the more reason that they would be taught in high school in an ideal world. It’s also the reason that even in the best of times they’d be a hard sell to many administrators and school board members. And we are not living in the best of times. That’s not to say we should just give up on getting philosophy in more high schools, but we do need to be clear eyed about the main challenge doing so faces.

Maria
Maria
4 months ago

Of interest on this score: https://p4kchannel.wixsite.com/home/about

Professor Kaye’s home institution, John Carroll University, has established partnerships with at least a dozen schools in Greater Cleveland. I don’t know to what extent this has translated to increasing the number of philosophy majors/minors at JCU, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!