What if we required philosophy?


School of Athens

The Boston Review has a great article up about Brazil’s new policy to require high school students to learn philosophy. From my experience, some people would look at this and think, “What a waste of time.” It wasn’t even that long ago that Stephen Hawking ignorantly stated that “philosophy is dead” (apparently unaware that such a statement is a philosophical statement…perhaps it would be better to say that Stephen Hawking is holding the memorial service for Philosophy and having her preach at the memorial).

Of course, having philosophy drilled into the minds of young people is always a good thing. After all, it used to be (prior to the 19th century) that people received liberal arts degrees not for a vocation, but to become better people. After gaining their degrees they would either take up a trade (and then apply their knowledge as they saw fit) or pursue an advanced degree where then they specified their vocational training. The liberal arts (which included philosophy, or reasoning) was always meant to round out an individual, to teach him how to think and not what to think. We have certainly lost that; one of the most common questions brought before anyone getting a degree in philosophy is, “But what are you going to do with that?” It never dawns on people that focusing four years of your life on nothing but thinking actually prepares you better for the world than getting a vague degree in business or management or even pre-law.

Studying philosophy opens people up to a world of ideas. It forces people to be open-minded because they must constantly be subject to changing their minds. They must evaluate everything they see and think through all possible solutions for problems they encounter. We can look to some of our political problems and see that good ole’ American pragmatism has ended up an abysmal failure. Thus, we must go back to our roots (our nation was founded by men trained in the classical arts) or accept the fact that our government will not last.

With that said, in some hypothetical world where I was allowed to develop a four year program for students in high school focused on philosophy, that they were required to take, I would make it look something like this, using the following books (as a side note, this list will also be helpful to anyone who wants to get into philosophy on his or her own):

First Semester

Textbooks: Socratic Logic: Socratic Method, Platonic Questions and Philosophy 101 by Socrates, both by Peter Kreeft.

The reasoning behind these two choices is very simple. The first book deals with proper thinking (logic, reasoning, etc). In order to study the history of ideas, one must first know how to think properly. Thus, it only makes sense to help students learn how to think in a logical manner. The reason I would pick Socratic Logic is that (1) it’s a very easy read since Peter Kreeft is a masterful writer, (2) it comes with built-in homework, but in an easy to understand format, and (3) the appendixes cover how to dialogue in a Socratic manner as well as how to properly structure an essay – all tools that are essential for the development of every student.

The second book is a very simple introduction to philosophy. The book doesn’t really present the various ideas, but instead shows the importance of philosophy. Kreeft finds a way to demonstrate to everyone why philosophy is important to study. This would help ground the student and answer the inevitable question, “Why do I need to know this?”

One research paper would be required. The paper would be the student’s explanation of why the study of philosophy is or is not important. After getting comments and grades back from the teacher, the student would be allowed to rewrite the paper, either changing his thesis or defending his thesis against his teacher’s critiques. The purpose of the papers, however, would simply be to help the student learn how to structure an essay and to think critically – the content wouldn’t be all that relevant.

The quizzes in this class would be more in the traditional multiple choice, short answer format as the majority of the semester would be dealing with reasoning and logic (leaving little room for open-ended questions).

Second Semester

Textbooks: The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics 

The second semester would essentially begin the student’s leap into the world of philosophy by beginning with the Greeks. Before anyone says, “But this is Western!” it should be noted that Plato was influenced by Pythagoras, who was influenced by early Eastern philosophy while he was off in India studying. Thus, the hard line between East and West isn’t really all that hard; much of what we get from the Presocratics and even Plato matches up with Eastern thought.

That being said, it is important to understand the ideas that really shaped our modern world. Since we are dealing with Freshmen in high school, only exerts would be selected from each of these books (preferably the most important parts, with the other parts being summarized in lectures – but it would all be up to the teacher’s discretion). The overall goal would be for the student to learn the foundations of Western thinking.

In this class, one position paper (6-8 pages) would be required, with the focus being on anticipating objections to the student’s position taken in the paper. This too would help foster critical thinking. The tests would need to be more open-ended questions allowing for more short answers and essays; this is to ensure the students don’t simply regurgitate the lectures, but are in fact wrestling with the ideas.

Third Semester

Textbooks: Fountain of Knowledge by John of Damascus, City of God by Augustine, The Metaphysics of the Healing by Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and the Philosophical Writings of Duns Scotus

The objective would be to introduce students to Western Christian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, and scholasticism. These three branches have influenced the Western world tremendously, so it’s good to study their origins. While all three works cover and assume the existence of God, these books are meant to challenge the student into evaluating and interacting with the ideas, not necessarily accepting them.

In this class, one position paper (8-10 pages) would be required. The tests would be more essay based.

Fourth Semester

Textbooks: A Shorter Suma of the Suma or On Being and Essence by Thomas Aquinas, The Prince by Machiavelli, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Essentially this semester would serve as the break in the history of philosophy, covering the major philosophers up to the Enlightenment. It would show where scholasticism and classic philosophy ended up, with the thinking of Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. The students would need to write a position paper (10-12 pages) explaining how one or all three of these philosophers were influenced by those who came before them. It provides the student time to see the connections between everything they’ve read up to this point.

Fifth Semester

Textbooks: The Second Treatise on Government by John Locke, Discourse on Methods: Meditations on First Philosophy by Renee Descartes, Ethics by SpinozaDialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

Here is where students would be thrown into the Enlightenment (beginning with reading Sarte). They would learn the beginnings of it with Descartes, the influence it had on ethics (via Spinoza, where they would also learn of Spinoza’s opposition to Descartes), the influence it held on the government (via Locke, where they’d learn about the beginning of democracy), and the impact it had on religion (via Hume, where they’d learn about modern-day atheism). Here students would be required to take a position (10-12 pages) on one of the Enlightenment issues presented, either arguing for a certain philosopher’s viewpoint or against it. The tests would be completely essay based.

Sixth Semester

Textbooks: Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche, Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Soren Kierkegaard

This class would be interesting because they would read the last great Enlightenment thinker (Kant) and begin with the post-modern period (via Nietzsche). Kierkegaard would introduce the students to existentialism while Freud would introduce the students to modern philosophy. The class would serve as a transition from the ideas of the Enlightenment into postmodernism.

The students would need to do a position paper (12-14 pages). The tests would be essay based.

Seventh Semester

Textbooks: The Plague by Albert Camus, Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, The Essential Zizek, by Slavoj Zizek

The beginning of their senior year, the students should be prepared to cover modern continental philosophy from Camus and Heidegger to Derrida and Zizek. The objective would be for the students to evaluate the beliefs, understand why those beliefs exist, and then to critique those beliefs.

No paper would be required as they would begin on their senior thesis paper. This paper only applies for the class and does not hold the majority grade for the class, thus there is no fear of failing to graduate if the paper is less than stellar. However, the paper would be a project that dealt with a subject in philosophy that they wanted to research and take a position on. They would need to research other philosophers for this paper as well as utilizing the ones they’ve already covered. All told, the paper would need to be 20-30 pages long.

Eighth Semester

Textbooks: Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, God and Other Minds by Alvin Plantinga, Practical Ethics by Peter Singer, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

Their final semester would cover two of the biggest issues in analytic philosophy – theism and ethics. Both sides of theism issue would be presented, with students reading about how God doesn’t exist (or how it’s irrational to believe God exists) and about how God does exist (or how it’s at least rational to believe God exists). On ethics, one of the more popular ethicists would be covered (Singer) as well as a counter to Singer via MacIntyre. The main objective of this class would be for the student to take everything they’ve studied and apply it to modern philosophical problems, whether it be over the existence of God, ethics, and so on. They could even take this chance to develop their own political philosophy, ethics within business, vocations that need philosophers and why, and the list goes on. This could even be their senior project. So long as they could demonstrate that they held the ability to synthesize and evaluate everything they’ve read up to this point.

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Now, of course the above is a pipe dream, and not an ideal one at that. However, it’s just what I’d like to see at some point. Of course, if such classes were added, it’d only make sense to offer electives for students who are highly interested in philosophy. Those electives could cover metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, social institutions (government), anthropology, economics, and law. This would allow students who are interested in philosophy (or in vocations impacted by those categories, which is almost all vocations) to hone their studies. It would also introduce them to other thinkers, such as Plotinus, Cicero, Anselm, Blaise Pascal, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Renee Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Swinburne, and the list goes on.

Some may debate the practicality of having this in a high school and certainly there are legitimate arguments against it. Perhaps I’ll never see anything like this instilled in a high school. Even so, there’s no excuse for this current program not to exist across college campuses. Whether one is going to be a doctor, a lawyer, or anything else, he should understand philosophy as philosophy guides everything we do. To be ignorant of ideas is to be ignorant of the self; ignoring philosophy is like ignoring one’s need to eat healthy food. And if our society is to last, we need to go back to our roots, otherwise we’ll have nothing to stand upon.

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4 thoughts on “What if we required philosophy?

  1. This looks eerily similar to a curriculum I’m quite familiar with. If it were up to me, I’d have a curriculum just like this only, the first reading in the first semester would be Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, and the last reading of the entire course will be Orthodoxy by the same author. Also, I’d have Pascal to balance Descartes.

  2. I think teaching philosophy and critical thinking skills in schools is a great idea. Maybe not al the books you mentioned, but that’s an idealized list you said. I also really like the idea Philosopher Dan Dennett mentions in his video response to Rick Warren. In his video at about 4 minutes he makes a proposal to teach religion in schools as well. All religions, no bias, and no doctrine just the facts.

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