Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments.

The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called “embryonic society”.

To see why this is vital, just consider the state of discourse in the current presidential election cycle. From issues of racism, economic inequality, gun violence, domestic and foreign terrorism to climate change, the inability of the candidates and their respective parties to engage in fruitful public discourse is a manifestation of our own adult dysfunction writ large.

Consider what Pew Research Center’s series on political polarization found last year:

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life”.

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”, as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As Strauss and fellow advocates like myself are at pains to make clear, teaching philosophy to young students does not entail diving into complex, metaphysical topics like Plato’s theory of forms or Kant’s categorical imperative. It is about instilling the root principles of philosophical inquiry, such as free inquiry, critical thinking, an openness to ideas and discussion, etc. — in short, the fundamental values that make for good, politically engaged citizens.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

There is already a good amount of evidence that this approach is both feasible and leads to positive results. Since 1972, the late Lipman’s Philosophy for Children movement, known as P4C, has shown that kids take to philosophy surprisingly well, bolstering Stephen Law’s argument that children are in fact “natural-born philosophers”.

Those who engage in philosophical dialogue about philosophical issues, even though they do not perform with the acumen of specialists, are indeed doing philosophy, even if they are very, very young, so long as their performances conform to the rules or standard practices of the discipline.

Moreover, philosophy confers a range of other cognitive boosts in fields as diverse, and seemingly unrelated, as math. As Quartz reports:

More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another’s thoughts and ideas.

Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students’ confidence and ability to listen to others.

[…]

The beneficial effects of philosophy lasted for two years, with the intervention group continuing to outperform the control group long after the classes had finished. “They had been given new ways of thinking and expressing themselves”, said Kevan Collins, chief executive of the [Education Endowment Foundation, which conducted the study]. “They had been thinking with more logic and more connected ideas”.

It is worth pointing out that the EEF modeled its program on none other than that of P4C’s, which has already been adopted in dozens of countries. The curriculum did not entail reading any actual philosophical texts, but instead focused on stories or films that touched on baseline philosophical issues, such as how one knows what is true or what is the right course of action in a given situation. The end result is getting children to “reason, formulate and ask questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop arguments” — all of which are good things to have in a citizen.

Now of course, as I have said before, teaching philosophy to children is not going to fix all of society’s problems. But one would be hard pressed to argue that trying to instill such widely applicable values as clear thinking and moral grounding is a waste of time. Whether it leads to more political engagement or better performance in other academic pursuits, a philosophically inclined mind is a good and necessary thing in this complex and troubled world.

What are your thoughts?

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