Thursday, January 03, 2008

More philosophy in schools

This is encouraging:
It was once described as "a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing", yet the popularity of philosophy in Scottish schools has seen a dramatic upturn in the past five years. The number of pupils studying the subject of thought has risen by more than 41% [i.e. 300 students]...

"Interest in the subject in this country is certainly growing. Philosophy teaches a range of transferable skills in critical and analytical thinking and we are finding a great deal of enthusiasm in both teachers and students," [Dr. Lisa Jones] said.

Though I'm less encouraged by the reader responses:
You don't need Maths or Science to do it, there are no wrong answers so everyone passes, newspapers ask you for you opinion on something you know nothing about, and you get called an "expert". Two words - "Dumb" and "Dumber".

Waste of time - what use is this worthless subject in today's world?

The hard working taxpayer is footing the bill for this rubbish. We see the same at some universities eg media studies. Every brain dead student wants a qualification, even if the subject is useless.

Great thing this philosophy --no right or wrong answers so your [sic] always right by default!

*sigh* I really wish people would get over the silly misconception that philosophy is 'all just a matter of opinion'. It would also be nice if they recognized the educational value of reasoning skills (and that there are issues that warrant rational reflection -- yes, even outside of math and science).

I guess much depends on how it's taught, though. It isn't difficult to imagine a class labelled 'philosophy' that instead contains mere fluff (or, perhaps even more likely, mere history by rote). The article notes that "Because there [are] currently no secondary teaching certificates for philosophy as a specialist subject, some schools are struggling to cope with the new found demand." Might ignorant teachers do more harm than good? Would online training help?
The situation has prompted St Andrews University to offer a new online course for teachers involving elements of philosophy such as ethical issues, reasoning and knowledge, mind and reality.

What do you think is the best way to bring philosophy into schools? (Another possibility, which I'm especially interested in, is for volunteers from academia - grad students and such - to lead informal / extra-curricular tutorial sessions.)

P.S. UNESCO has released a book-length study: Philosophy: A School of Freedom. Teaching philosophy and learning to philosophize: Status and prospects [PDF]. The buzzwords in the description ("innovative publication" - *shudder*) put me off, but I imagine the contents could be of interest nonetheless. If anyone can bear to check, do let me know what you think of it.


  1. At least in the US, the philosophy job market is so tight that I'm guessing many would rather teach philosophy in K-12 than work at McDonalds...

  2. I teach philosophy in primary schools and have developed my own approach as I was dissatisfied with the approaches already on offer. My concerns were 1) that it did not adequately resemble academic philosophy and was therefore not worthy of the epithet and 2) that there seemed to be no demand for the practitioner to know about philosophy.
    I also share the view that philosophy is often mistakenly thought to promote the idea that there are no right answers and that anything goes. It is fair to say that philosophy is not an empirical science and therefore does not provide answers in the way that science does. But philosophy can identify faulty reasoning and can thereby assess whether an answer makes sense before it is subject to empirical assessment. It is in this sense that philosophy can assess answers: it assesses candidate-right answers. Also, just look at the cannon of philosophical thinking - it is full of people providing answers!
    The problem is that 'philosophy' is a term that captures a great deal, some of which is highly disciplined and rigorous and some of which is quite the opposite.
    To borrow from Plato you need to know what it is you are enquiring in to in order to enquire into it.

  3. Hi all,
    Thought I'd take the opportunity to de-lurk.
    Last year I was in my third year of undergrad and I tutored year 12 philosophy students at a local high school. For the most part, this involved working one-on-one with students to help with essay structure and clarify concepts. It may be bias on my part, but I think we all got a lot out of it. I know that I got better at explaining concepts and arguments and the teacher seemed to appreciate the extra help. Also, the students that actively sought my help tended to do quite well, though I can't say how much of that was due to my help and how much was because of their natural interest in the subject.

  4. The Philosopher's Zone radio show here (Australia) has just put up a podcast/mp3 called 'philosophy in schools' that might interest:

    though I haven't actually listened to it yet, so apologies if the title/abstract is a lie!

  5. Thanks for that - there's a transcript here - it's very interesting. I especially liked the following:

    "I think they're surprised when they realise that there can be reasons behind holding a moral point of view. I actually think a lot of students just think, 'Well I think that because I do, or because my parents do, or because my peers do, or because it seems like that's the way to do it.' But a bit of a tenet with our classes is that we don't really mind what you think, but we're terribly interested in why you think it. And the notion that if you don't understand why you have a belief or opinion, then what are you doing having it, is something that I think they accept. They haven't come across it before and it sometimes shatters what can be a rather delicate web of opinions on the part of the students - but not that they mind that. They're very, very keen to be involved in discussions and it really is working it from base."

  6. Philosophy in the class room should start in the very early years. It enables all to understand things from their own piont of view, instructs teachers in the mis-match of given learning to the actual understanding received. Those in society who have no self esteem have often lost it by taught and not allowed to find the answers by gentle guiding. The skills of consultation are learnt too in this environment. Lets stop looking for an opportunity to devalue students at the bottom of the class, not by giving them an easy out, but by valuing their point of view. We may learn something.

  7. Speaking as a public high school student, I can think of three (perhaps less) capable teachers at our school who could teach the subject legitimately (less "fluff" and more substance), and only a handful of students who'd jump at the chance to take the course.

    I agree: one can attribute this Massive Bummer to a lack of teachers capable of effectively teaching so easily-warped a subject, and--more importantly--student's confused definition of the study.

    It'd take [a hell of] a lot of work, but the benefits would be immense. Sure, one can say Philosophy is a "useless" subject in isolation, but who can deny that it provides stronger ethical bases for other studies (Worley uses the sciences, for example)?

    Philosophers! Be not discouraged! Come teach at our schools! Philosophy would improve education across the board--were students to become properly aquatinted with it.


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