Philosophy in Schools? Yes, Please. (Subtitle: Why The Common Core Isn’t the Devil, Either.)

lincolnAs a Catholic school girl (even through college, where Logic I, Rhetoric I, and Philosophy 101 were baseline freshman courses), I got a severe dose of syllogisms.

There is nothing I learned– nothing— which was more empowering.


(By the way, don’t you love this new use of the period for emphasis? Almost as good as our new prepositional form “because/noun.”  English rocks, because creativity.)

Logic, rhetoric and their leafy green branches, philosophy, are an electron microscope. They are a scimitar.

They are the Defense Against the Dark Arts for Muggles.

And they used to be foundational in our schools. So what the heck happened to them?

Their classical formation disappeared right around the turn of the century, as the purpose of our schools shifted. They enjoyed a renaissance in the Progressive Era in public life and universities, but with the flowering of industrialization and mass technologies for persuasion, they have all but died away. (For a more detailed and nerdy take on rhetoric’s general history in the US and elsewhere, check this out.) Indeed, in February 2013, an article in Scientific American by Dennis Bartels argued that schools have gone so far past the point of no return that it is useless to even try to teach critical thinking in them.

And not for nothing– and I’ve saved this for last, since this is one of those topics that can derail Thanksgiving Dinner entirely– but this is one of the reasons I was attracted to the Common Core. I don’t believe Dennis Bartels. (Because critical thinking.)

The Core, insofar as I know, is the first concerted effort since the 19th century— and arguably the first concerted national effort ever– to introduce the idea of teaching the building blocks of critical thinking to everyone, not just privileged Catholic school girls.

You think the Common Core sucks? You’re not the only one. And yet, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, logic gives a lovely light. In fact, in one of the greatest ironies of the Common Core conversation, it is precisely the Common Core’s strengths in logic, evidence, and reasoning which creates the strongest means by which to constructively criticize the Core’s weaknesses.

I’m going to continue to make this baby-bathwater point in future posts.

For a really good article (and the piece which inspired this post), please read The Guardian’s “Teaching Philosophy to Children? It’s a Great Idea,”  published this past Wednesday.

“While academic achievement, career advancement and financial success are no trifling things, they’re simply visible husks that may grow around a philosophical life. The hidden kernel,” says this lovely piece,  “is made of freedom, clarity of thought, and a professional mastery of what it means to be human.”

I might rephrase a bit. The teaching of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy is the clarity of thought, and a professional mastery of what it means to human, that results in freedom.


4 thoughts on “Philosophy in Schools? Yes, Please. (Subtitle: Why The Common Core Isn’t the Devil, Either.)

  1. I have a colleague who squeezes every bit of time out of lessons so she can dedicate time to philosophy. She has made it her mission to get students to think critically about various issues. Her students are absorbed in the process of thinking and really like the fact that they are devising a variety of responses, creating their versions of reality and most importantly sharing ideas. Yes, the push to rote learn is apparent in today’s educational setting, especially with NAPLAN (Australian National Testing for Year 9s) at the forefront of agendas in schools. Indeed, I work with those students who struggle with a systematic curriculum – I would like nothing better than to ignore the assessment/National testing and redefine their learning; at this stage, I don’t see how this would be possible.

    If critical thinking was at the forefront of educational outcomes, then perhaps students could learn to think ‘outside the box’. Solutions to real World issues do not necessarily arise through excellence in academia. Philosophical guidance may well assist a student to successfully combine abstract thought processes with ethics, knowledge and academic awareness. At this juncture, for many teachers in secondary schools, severe time constraints and a somewhat politically driven curriculum, have severely truncated available time requisite for exposure to philosophy. In a perfect World, this would not be the case; time should be allocated in the curriculum.

  2. Forgive my tardiness in responding to this, Sarah. It does seem like we’re always in a battle for time, doesn’t it? There has to be a way to embed a triage-type “how to think” into our curriculum, no matter what the curriculum is– resources are few and far between, sadly, and often limited (surprisingly? maybe not?) in the States to those working from a strictly religious or homeschooling context. Check this out– it might be a springboard that would work for you.

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