OPINION: Teach philosophy in elementary school and beyond

Philosophy, much to the chagrin of the scientistic intelligentsia, is inescapable. The study of life’s animating questions protects the mind against the tyranny of common opinion, certainty, and the pitfalls of post-truth politics. Philosophy should be taught in the elementary, middle, and high school curriculum.

It’s an inexpensive way to equip burgeoning students with the mental fortitude to prevail in their pilgrimage from delivery to dissolution. But it’s not sexy.

Unlike science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — philosophy is less concerned with tangible results. Whatever benefits people accrue from a life of the mind, society still prioritizes material advance. People, induced to think in concrete terms, eschew what’s abstract.

This dynamic is particularly potent in the United States. Democracies are, as the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville understood, agitated. A porous class system requires that people make something of themselves, so the Yankee ethos tends toward pragmatism.

Yet, intellectual life often belies such inclinations. In this vein, philosophy is typecast as a baseless inquiry at worst and entertainingly ruminative at best. Progress, goes the dictum of convention, belongs to scientists and engineers.

Students are encouraged to study practical subjects because their return on investment is more immediate and outperforms the humanities and social sciences.

But the narrative surrounding education is insidious. The essentialist, teacher-centered model revolves around a core curriculum and the belief that institutions of learning should focus on preparing students for life beyond the classroom. In theory, the notion is attractive.

In practice, the intrinsic worth of education is superseded by the exigency of cultivating a livelihood. As a result, curriculums accommodate in vogue professions so their students are better prepared for the workforce.

Technology and society change at a frantic pace. So, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist. However, learning to break large, complex problems into smaller, more manageable components; to locate and clarify ambiguity and logical inconsistency; to argue and communicate ideas effectively will always be in demand.

Rigorous, nuanced thought that develops the capacity to focus on what’s important takes practice. This is where the liberal arts cliche about “learning how to think” comes into play. Granted, it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it unveils a profound idea: Immunity (to the degree it’s possible) from the angst of death and suffering requires the ability to wrest meaning from experience.  

To study literature, history, philosophy, and art is to appreciate the human condition and its context within the development of civilization. A narrow focus on STEM fields leaves people bereft of a holistic perspective and the capacity to construct meaning.

Sure, philosophy may not offer anything immediately recognizable as practical in the way mathematics, science, and engineering do. But that’s a shallow appraisal of value — of what makes human life sustainable, worthwhile.

In this regard, philosophic instruction is too important to delay until college. The earlier students are introduced to its content and method, the sooner people and society benefit. Consider that nine and 10-year-old children who studied philosophy once a week performed better in math and English.

For those who share an affinity for the subject, this is not surprising. Math is a form of logic. English is reading, writing, and speaking. Philosophy, essentially, confers an amalgamation of the skills math and English teachers impart.

To talk about truth, justice, beauty, knowledge, mind, and being requires a dispassionate, logical approach. To do it well, students need to listen and reason with their peers.

To avoid the calamitous consequences of rhetoric and emotional appeal, a healthy appreciation for skepticism and the Socratic method need to be taught early. Intelligent thought is, for better or worse, a public as well as private endeavor.

Though the philosopher is often portrayed in lonely contemplation, this is only partly true. While isolation is requisite, philosophy always occurs in dialogue. As a species, we are too prone to bias.

Here, two or more heads act as a bulwark against the limits of atomized intellectualizing. Reason, Aristotle thought, was a natural inclination. But he was wrong.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell was more correct when he quipped that “most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.”

To avoid that tragedy, we should keep Marlboro in mind and hook ‘em while they’re young.

Children are insatiably curious. Philosophy is a means to reward their innate inquisitiveness and introduce them to the weighty topics they’ll invariably contend with as adults. What’s more, it better prepares students to study STEM in college and grapple with the unsettling fact that our technology develops far faster than our moral compass.

Technology will continue to disrupt society in unforeseen ways. Enduring the turbulence requires, in part, the aid of navel gazing wisdom seekers.  

In 2011, at Google’s annual Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, England, the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking proclaimed philosophy dead. He was dead wrong. Philosophy is perennial and belongs in the elementary, middle, and high school curriculum. A life well lived isn’t found in equations or regurgitated answers. Instead, it’s realized in the questions people learn to ask themselves.

Christopher Salazar PZ ’20 is a philosophy major from La Verne, CA. He’s not one to proselytize, but he believes whiskey on the rocks is sacrilege.

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