United States / Philosophical Education

The Baby’s Beard: Our Philosophical Youth

In my experience, a frequent barrier to conversations about some of the most important issues can be the narrowness of the path on which we find ourselves as adults. Understandably engaged in the progression of their own education, health, or career, us adults have a tendency to dismiss fundamental philosophical and political questions if these questions do not appeal to the immediacies of everyday living. I believe that this tendency to prioritize narrow relevance and immediate goals determines the predominant educational models that we see in the U.S., yet is not very conducive to human happiness or fulfillment. In response to the resulting problem of educational discord, I propose that philosophical inquiry can serve as a remedy.

We should not wait to teach philosophy; it should be an integral part of every elementary and middle school curriculum — an exercise in cultivating the mind. In today’s society, children are typically better at practicing philosophy than adults are. We should be encouraging the youthful curiosity of children, not suppressing it.

This past summer, I taught speech and debate classes to students ranging from rising third graders to rising ninth graders. In order to encourage effective argumentation, I taught my students basic tools of philosophical logic: the relationship between premises and conclusions, valid arguments, sound arguments, syllogisms, and logical fallacies. My students seamlessly embraced these structures. Without much instruction, they were even able to point out subtleties such as the fact that many valid arguments for racism and sexism exist, whereas most of us would agree that similar arguments would not pass a test for soundness. (A valid argument merely suggests that a conclusion follows from premises, regardless of whether or not those premises are erroneous). We were able to have debates on sophisticated topics such as free will and the nature of evil.

Of course, the students’ success in my classes could largely have to do with the fact that they constitute a small and affluent sample. But I noticed other things that piqued my curiosity. My younger students embraced philosophical methods more readily than my older students did. In our discussions, these younger students displayed a greater willingness to challenge views — from the moral permissibility of eating meat to the existence of school as a seasonal institution —  that most of us take for granted. My fourth and sixth grade students were far less likely to, as their final justification, proclaim, “that’s just the way it is,” or “but I just think this is wrong,” than my seventh and ninth grade students were.

I do not pretend to have conducted a thorough study during my time teaching this past summer. But upon further reflection, my observations have started to make more and more sense to me. Kids seem to have an innate curiosity about universal principles, unexplained questions, and the nature of reality that often depreciates as they become adults. Kids long to ask “why?” and to question the status quo, oftentimes because they are ignorant of the hegemonic view.

All of this makes an educational model around philosophy seem appealing; shouldn’t we, as Margaret Mead declared, affirm that “children must be taught how to think, not what to think”? Shouldn’t kids focus on understanding their place in the world before forming their beliefs or goals? Shouldn’t we teach the fundamentals of meaning and argument just as we teach the fundamentals of math or grammar? I’d like us to take the affirmative position on all these questions, but in order for us to do so, we have to examine the prevailing educational model and start to convert the theoretical appeal of a philosophical model to practical ideas.

 

A Model Made to Constrain

Joel Rose of The Atlantic wrote in 2012 that we still treat our classrooms in the United States as if they were preparing students to work in factories, basing our approach on the models that Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843. Here, Rose gives us some background for how Mann rationalized wanting to adopt such a structure:

The Prussian model… was designed to build a common sense of national identity. Applied back home, Mann thought, large groups of students learning together would help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society. And as that model became the American blueprint, Mann’s vision ultimately became the foundation for our national system of schooling. Mann’s vision also made sense for the industrial age in which he lived. The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. Factories weren’t designed to support personalization. Neither were schools.

Mann’s system was driven by the economic need for uniformity at the time. The industrialized economy required jobs that focused on repetition, attention to detail, and endurance. In short, much of the workforce was best off, for production purposes, behaving robotically. From textile mills to the transportation revolution and urbanization, the economy of the 19th century (transitioning from the First Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s to the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s) centered on manual-labor. Correspondingly, the educational system prepared soon-to-be workers for factory life.

Kyle Smith of the New York Post wrote in 2015 about law professor Glenn Reynolds’s book, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He explained that the book asserts that our educational system has made far too few changes to keep pace with the evolving economy. Reynolds asks the question: “How many 19th century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?” Yet the same 19th century methodological model of schooling remains heavily entrenched in modern times. Classes in the U.S. still primarily feature one teacher lecturing to around thirty students. As Smith points out, “the bell rings, you move to where the schedule puts you, the bell rings again, you do as you’re told. Everyone gets processed in the same way, and at the end of the line you emerge with a certificate of quality.”

And that just has to do with the structure of the day. The methodological model of schooling is in some ways less practical now than it ever has been. Throughout the majority of the 20th century, many schools retained elements of fact-based education that drilled job preparation into students. Courses in agriculture, economics, and the like provided students with the skills that they would need later in life (even if they left much to be desired in terms of providing a comprehensive education). However, today one of the most common complaints about our education system is that we do not teach life skills or practical issues. The fact that our educational system is failing to teach both practical skills and creative approaches is a dual tragedy.

A move towards more Mann-ish uniformity exacerbates our dual problem. Except now this uniformity has seen its economic basis fade away. A 2013 Oxford University study concluded that fourty-seven percent of U.S. jobs will be eliminated by automation and replaced by robots in the next few decades. The traditional manual-labor jobs that the “factory-model classroom” used to prepare students for are rapidly disappearing. Instead of teaching skills for manual labor, teachers now teach students basic facts — mathematics, grammar, geography, etc… — often in an attempt to get students to meet standards established by standardized testing.

Many prominent thinkers have opined about the shortcomings of this kind of system. Noam Chomsky has observed the incompatibility of schools with the ability to question authority, claiming that our schools “reward discipline and obedience, and…punish independence of mind.” Our system may not be any better for the scientific mind either if Carl Sagan is correct in his proposal that: “every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them.”

It is an overarching philosophical curiosity, however, that children are most likely to lose by drudging through school. This is true to such a great extent that school can often seem like a common, boring, stifling, and dehumanizing struggle to kids, who band together in exuberance when a snow day is announced or the summer draws near. The instant relatability of the inadequacies of our educational system makes a school a prime object of comedic and social critique. Comedian George Carlin, for example, has a theory on why issues of education remain unsolved:

Governments don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. That is against their interests. They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept it.

While Carlin adopts a somewhat conspiratorial tone here, I think his statement is funny and effective because it contains more than an inkling of truth. He seems to be describing a factory-model classroom — a model made to constrain not only students but also reformers who seek other alternatives. There are many critics of our current educational model. Although education in the U.S. is rewarding for some, the charge that it is less rewarding and practical than it could be has a factual basis.

Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement found that two out of three students reported being bored in class every single day. Only two percent said that they were never bored in high school. The changes that students most desired (eighty percent of them) were moves toward more classroom discussions and debates.

Earlier this year, Pew Research Center found that “internationally, the U.S. stands in the middle of the pack on science, math, and reading scores.” Additionally, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the most important things employers look for in prospective employees are leadership, the ability to work in a team, and communication skills.

The fact that students and employers desire some of the same things in terms of more interactive and communication-based skills and experience suggests that our dual problem may have a dual solution. An educational model that improves how rewarding the “factory-model” is could also improve how practical it is.

 

The Philosophical Model

So what do countries do to make education better? Amy S. Choi writes for TED.com about the success of the Finnish model of education in her article, “What the best education systems are doing right.” She claims that in Finland, school is integrated into student life to such an extent that the two are not compartmentalized. As a result, students are more successful and less likely to see school as a dull limitation than as an extension of their development and interests. This approach manifests itself in many school-sponsored extracurricular activities and a broad selection of electives for students to take. As schools better reflect their students, students hold school in higher regard and thrive. As Choi explains, in Finland “school provides not just educational services, but social services. Education is about creating identity.”

The U.S. and other countries have also implemented the Montessori Method of education, pioneered by Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori, to varying degrees. This style promotes learning from other students whose ages differ greatly. Students also have a great degree of choice in their activities and are permitted flexible time periods in which to work (which offer a great contrast to the rigid school-bell schedule).

A philosophical model of education could build on these freedoms in education, providing even more improvements. This section, however, will focus on why a philosophical model would be better, not on how it could be implemented. An investigation into the political forces behind a significant policy shift in education warrants more than one article can afford. Nevertheless, pointing out an overlooked educational goal has value in that it may direct attention towards a potentially beneficial solution.

The philosophical model includes a shift in both content and methodology. The content shift merely touches on the questions that remain in the forefront of our minds (and that are granted even more primacy in the minds of young people). An exploration of these questions either formally or informally is probably necessary for the happiness of any young person. A simple breakdown of the areas of philosophy includes logic (the mathematics of argumentation), metaphysics (the nature of the universe), epistemology (the exploration of knowledge), and moral philosophy (theories of the good life). These areas should all be taught at a young age primarily because they naturally mirror the interests of young students.

The three major branches of philosophy all have uniquely practical applications for the real world. Attempting to address arguments about the issues of the day without any understanding of basic logic is analogous to attempting to solve problems in multivariable calculus without knowing what a variable is. The study of metaphysics deals with such pertinent issues as religion (which I’ve heard might still be a source of some significant global conflict) and our place in the world. This discipline is especially conducive to personal health. In the modern world, our lives are often lonely and impersonal, as monotony and technology increasingly takes the place of traditional social interaction (which typically provides some sense of purpose and happiness). Kids from elementary to middle school grapple with the daunting task of “finding their passions” and “finding themselves” so much that oftentimes traditional schoolwork takes a backseat to flailing attempts to cultivate identity. Injecting a study of metaphysics into the curriculum of kids in this age group may have an immediate effect on the well-being of children; they would no longer have to compartmentalize their studies and their pursuit of self, but could combine the two through discourse (another area in which middle schoolers have been known to struggle to evade awkwardness).

We may not need to establish a strict procedure for the education of philosopher-kings as Plato envisioned, but epistemology and moral philosophy could inject our political landscape with some welcome thoughtfulness. In the midst of growing concerns over the egregiously overused term “fake news,” it might not hurt our youth for them to devote some attention to the study of recognizing truth. Much of philosophy is about trying to universalize one’s beliefs and escape the binds of custom and culture. If more of us could learn to step outside of ourselves for perspective and perhaps even realize, as Atticus Finch says, that we can “never really understand a person” until we “climb into his skin and walk around in it,” we would probably be better off. Our youth might even stand a chance of eluding the minefield of toxic, ignorant ideas that so called “political parties” have inoculated them with.

The importance of moral philosophy, or ethics, is self-evident. In a world currently devoid of it, consideration of morality should be considered the most important area of philosophy. Many schools currently separate philanthropy or community service from the classroom, but moral philosophy combines theory and action, compelling us to pursue the good life.

Philosophy is also an underrated key to unlock more traditional measures of success. Despite former Presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s declaration that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers,” (Perhaps we also need a greater number of politicians who know grammar and fewer politicians who make the love of wisdom the object of their attacks) during a plea for practical education, philosophers typically make more than welders do. Politifact found that the median salary for a philosophy major is significantly higher than the median salary for a welder is. Additionally, “The top ten percent of welders earn $58,590 or more. That’s significantly less than the top ten percent of philosophy professors, who earn $190,000 or more.” In fact, philosophy majors make more money on average than majors of any other humanities subject do.

While there may very well be a need for practical jobs such as welding, that does not imply that there is not a need for philosophy or that studying philosophy precludes financial success. Prominent cultural icons who majored in philosophy include Wes Anderson, George Soros, Steve Martin, Phil Jackson, and Ricky Gervais (yes, philosophy might also have a white-male problem. This, again, is a problem for another article). Someone once asked me, upon learning that I planned to major in philosophy, “So which McDonald’s will you be working at?” insinuating that philosophy does not pay well. In philosophy, we refer to this kind of argument as “unsound.”

The study of philosophy is unique in that it includes more than learning about the content of a subject. Philosophy is its own method of learning. Perhaps one of the most important feelings that a student of philosophy can gain is uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, in the excerpt, “The Value of Philosophy,” from his book, The Problems of Philosophy explains why doubt is so important:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation and from convictions that have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts that it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities, which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Recall that the number one change high school students desire in school is an increase in classroom debates. By its very nature, philosophy can help facilitate the changes that students most desire in school. It can break the monotony of the school day, encourage our propensity to reason, push us to discover our place in the universe, challenge what we think we know, and give us a path through which to pursue the good life. There are millions of eager young philosophers around us. We should do our best to promote their youthful wisdom and the benefits that come along with it.