Vatican City, Vatican Museum, Vatican Palace, Room of the Segnature.  A group of philosophers and scholars within a building.  (Getty Images)

We hear a lot about things kids “must” learn. Indeed, President Obama just announced he was going to ask Congress for $4 billion to fund an initiative to bring computer science to more students. Here’s an argument that there is a more immediate issue that schools should tackle. It was written by Steve Neumann, a writer and philosophile, who says he is interested in doing for philosophy what science journalists do for science — “preparing the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public.” His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Philosophy Now and other outlets. He blogs at Notes Toward a New Chimera at Patheos.

 

By Steve Neumann

The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike. The latter will question whether kids can even do philosophy, while the former likely have only a passing familiarity with it, if any — possibly leading them to conclude that it’s beyond useless.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, nothing could be more important to the future well-being of both our kids and society as a whole than that they learn how to be philosophers.

I don’t mean that we should teach kids philosophy the way they would encounter it in college. Adolescents don’t need to dive into dissertations on Plato’s theory of forms or Kant’s categorical imperative. (That kind of study is valuable, too, and should be included in secondary education somewhere, but that’s an argument for another day.) 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.

When people hear the word “philosophy” they might think first of something like a set of guiding principles or a general worldview. The New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick may have a coaching philosophy, for instance, while someone like the rapper Drake encourages us to have a YOLO attitude toward life. But academic philosophy is that discipline of the humanities concerned with clarifying and analyzing concepts and arguments relating to the big questions of life.

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.

While teaching philosophy to undergraduates at Columbia University in the 1960s, Lipman saw that his students were passionate to change the world but deficient in their ability to reason soundly and exercise good judgment. He also realized that college was a little late in life to learn to think properly, so he created the Philosophy for Children movement, known as P4C.

By the early 1980s, the results of Lipman’s new curriculum were promising and, just as important, it showed that kids took to philosophy with alacrity. For the first time, there was a proof-of-principle that children could become philosophers, in a certain sense. Kids are actually natural-born philosophers, as Stephen Law has argued. Lipman further observed in his essay:

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.

Other philosophers since Lipman have refined his original Philosophy for Children pedagogy, but the priority is always kept on dialogue. Under this model, kids go through a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing. The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.

K-12 education in America can be the petri dish in which a more promising and enduring approach to living in an increasingly pluralistic society can be cultivated. Experiencing (and, yes, enjoying!) the participatory, communal manner in which philosophers argue their positions will enable our kids to evaluate the myriad issues that come up in social and political life and, to the extent possible, respectfully engage those who disagree with them.

If we fail to turn second-graders into Socrates, our kids may end up becoming expert at making a living, but they will be incompetent at creating a civil society.