Philosophy in School

Not something done as a rule here, but according to this the study of some philosophy in schools could, as may be expected, have benefits.

What? Teaching kids how to think instead of just what to think? I didn’t realize you are quite that subversive… :slight_smile:

Problem in South Africa of course is that we simply do not have enough people who would at all be able to teach the subject. Plus, I have serious doubts as to whether most people ever learn how to think.

I know: I’m a cynic.

Really? For some reason I was under the impression that there are scores of philosophy post grads just waiting for an opportunity to say something more profound than “do you want chips with that?” …


They will first have to do a post-grad diploma in education. Anyone willing to go through that shouldn’t ever stand in front of a class… :slight_smile:

I think not, therefore I teach. :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:

On a more serious note: we are in error when we think philosophy graduates necessarily know much about anything. At the last school where I taught the English teacher’s other major was philosophy, and he just loved the subject, so he was constantly using his English classes to supposedly teach the kids how to think.

Not necessarily a bad idea, except every time I passed there and heard him lecture, he was talking pseudoscience. By the end of the year, the kids could still not read or write but they all believed in the Bermuda Triangle (it has a perfectly mundane scientific explanation, you see: strange magnetic fields!)

When I was a student myself, many of my friends were philosophy students, and not one of them knew how to think. Last but not least, my father was a very clever man with a master’s degree in philosophy, and his opinion was that much of philosophy is utter bullshit. Well, he did his thesis on epistemology - go figure.

Still, being exposed to all manner of weird and wonderful ideas might not be a bad idea for kids. But it would be essential that in school philosophy, we get away from the notion of the teacher teaching kids what to think. All classes should be open-ended, and kids can think whatever they like as long as they can make some sort of argument for it, and can meaningfully defend obvious weak spots (or, if they can’t defend it, be prepared to admit that their idea has weak spots.)

And the courses should perhaps include not just scientific thinking, but also morality and ethics. We are currently raising generations of utterly amoral kids - I have seen them in action, and it’s pretty scary.

On the whole, I remain cynical about the ability of schools to actually educate anyone, as opposed to schooling them in basic skills.

Rational and somewhat believable metaphysics and epistemology is but a small part of philosophy. You are, as the fashions of our day dictates, far more likely to end up with a bunch of post modern Marxists.

My favorite quote wrt philosophical education: I would like to study philosophy so that I can think deeply about being unemployed.

We have a high school programme at UCT’s Philosophy Department, although I would in time hope to see philosophical education in primary schools. As much as I’m sympathetic to concerns about the batshittery you can find in academic philosophy (it’s one of the reasons I left it!), it should be noted that these sorts of educational interventions can focus on basic critical and scientific reasoning, a non value-laden introduction to various key ideas in moral philosophy and the like. If one sticks to foundational stuff like that, what Rigil says above is true - we do have scores of people who could teach it.

Well, you are in good company it seems! :wink:

Heh, indeed. For those interested in the non-soundbite version of what he’s saying there, it’s from his 2006 paper about chmess (pdf link).

While these are good ideas in principle, my own past direct experience of their application doesn’t bode well for their success.

At school, a significant part of my Mother Tongue language classes, the syllabus of which was set by a European educational authority, was spent dissecting, analysing and interpreting assorted philosophical tracts and critiques, often ones dealing with complex questions of ethics or aesthetics. These exercises were very different to the more familiar language comprehension efforts. At the time, the limitations and encumbrances of this activity were of course not obvious to me. All I knew was that there was a “formula” for handling these activities, a “formula” you had to discover for yourself, and once discovered, it was fairly easy to get good marks consistently. That’s the first spate of problems: There is a standard approach and process for something that doesn’t easily or manifestly bow to such rigour, but let’s not tell the kids because they absolutely must find it out for themselves–and those who don’t, well, they’ll just remain frustrated and vexed by poor marks until their schooldays are done.

The next problem is that the kind of grasp one would hope that pupils have of the material requires a certain minimum life experience. Without such experience, many of the ideas can do no other than remain entirely opaque to many students because they cannot relate to them, and you may as well be talking a foreign language when you expect them to engage with them meaningfully. The usual response, viz. that the syllabus and standards take this into account, rings hollow because those parameters are set by people who appear to suffer blanket amnesia concerning their own formative years.

Yet another problem lies in the subjective biases of the teachers and examiners, particularly in open-ended topics where there is no single “correct” answer. It seems to me that teachers, especially those who have been in the profession for a long time, are not very good at recognising their own prejudices, let alone acknowledging them. Too often I have seen well-reasoned arguments shot down purely because the ideas or conclusions didn’t sit well with the assessor, and, conversely, poor arguments lauded mainly because their subject matter resonated well with the assessor.

None of the above is to deny that some philosophy basics as part of basic education would be a boon, as long as these basics are clearly circumscribed and largely uncontroversial.


You captured most of my own misgivings about the whole thing. Well, as you may know, I am no longer in the industry anyway - got laid off last year. In the meantime I heard a little bird whistle that financial troubles were just an excuse - it was in fact my unconventional methods and lack of formal qualifications in education that sat increasingly uncomfortably with the school management.

The result is that I have gone a bit passive-aggressive on the issue of education: it simply ain’t my problem anymore. Society can look after its own little brats now. Another generation of this, and South Africa will either have to import its engineers, doctors and managerial staff from China, or start appointing (by then) ancient and withered old White Afrikaner Males like me again. Oh, the horror.

Of course, I’m still partially stuck in the thing: to try making ends meet, I still give drawing lessons on a weekly basis at a school around here. A Montessori school, no less, and supposedly better than others, but I notice the exact same problems I have noticed everywhere else. For one thing, a complete failure to recognize and nurture talent. Almost all schools, by their very nature, are cookie cutters rather than intellectual sculptors. As such, one could argue that schools should actually do the very minimum that we can get away with, and parents should do the rest. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Those would be the same narrow-minded numpties who took nothing away from Dead Poets Society?


Not sure most South African schools have much to learn from Dead Poets’ Society either - that kind of teaching only works in an environment where at least some of the kids actually want to learn something, and all of them possess reasonable amounts of self-discipline. Ole’ Keating wouldn’t last a day in a township school. What with SA’s national motto being “Carpe Omnia” and all… :slight_smile:

All the talk about teaching kids/people to think made me think: "I wonder how Aristotle/Socrates/Plato et al learned to think? or did they just thunk without thinking?