What High School Students need to know about Philosophy

It is a lamentable fact that in the American public school system there is no recognition of the value of philosophy. Even many private schools no longer consider the discipline of philosophy to be part of a comprehensive curriculum. It is also commonplace to find that many public colleges and universities have completely dispensed with philosophy departments, merging basic survey courses within a larger “English” or “Humanities” department.

All of these trends are part of the on-going repudiation of the intellectual heritage of Western Culture. The exclusion of philosophy from the typical high school curriculum does a great disservice to teenagers. Not only should the study of philosophy be revived in Western Culture, but if properly understood it should rank as one of the most important disciplines within any liberal curriculum.

Philosophy is more than “critical thinking.” Healthy critical-thinking skills are a natural by-product of a mind formed by philosophy. However, in contemporary society it seems as though the discipline of philosophy is just a fancy way of describing a sophisticated attitude of skepticism. Philosophy is much more, and can be much more even for high school students.

In the Western tradition, philosophy is the love of wisdom; the philosopher is literally one who seeks after and loves wisdom. One seeks it, precisely because one recognizes that they don’t have it, but it nonetheless is worth seeking because intuitively one has some sense of what it is and why it is worth seeking it. All cultures value wisdom, which according to Aristotle, allows one to “order all things properly.” The famous account of Socrates traveling far and wide in order to find someone wiser than himself, only to discover at the oracle of Adelphi that he was the wisest person on earth is a great example. In the end, the oracle affirms that Socrates is the wisest person on earthy precisely because he recognizes that he has no wisdom.

How is a high school student to assimilate the barrage of facts and information learned if not with the disciplined use of philosophy? By default, every curriculum, even every person uses philosophy. It is man’s nature to try and order things and give an account of the things that exist, and then to use them to his advantage. A curriculum that marginalizes and excludes the study of philosophy is itself adopting a philosophical position that values only the empirical on the one hand (math and the sciences) and the intuitive on the other (the humanities, English, poetry, art).

The impressionable student is forced to deal with a contradictory assumption: either real knowledge consists of empirical facts and mathematical deductions (math and science); or reality is synonymous with imagination. In the current arrangement of the typical high school curriculum, one is forced to choose, as it were, between her right brain or her left brain. If knowledge can only be empirical, how does one explain poetry? If imagination is ultimately realty, how do you explain the objective world around you? Is science real or is it the scientists projection of reality? How is it that the rules of mathematics seem utterly fixed?

The consequence of this prevailing division within the typical curriculum is to obscure any real continuity between the various disciplines studied by the average high school student. He or she cannot assimilate the various contents of these disciplines in a meaningful way. This has many consequences depending on the personality and intellectual strength of the individual. Some clearly are going to become bored by the constant barrage of canned information served to them in typical classroom. If there is no real purpose or meaning behind it, why bother?

Some of the more motivated students are more practical. They will go through the motions with the hope of getting a high paying job eventually and acquiring the things they want out of life. Like hamsters in a cage, they will run faster and be more obedient, and play along with the consumerist training that they are receiving, without any deeper reflection as to what really brings them happiness and the truth of their condition as “happy slaves.”

Last, some will resort to the escapism that follows logically from flakey creative writing courses. If we are only limited by our imagination, one might as well have some fun, drink, and be merry! It is not a stretch at all to see these different reactions within the typical high school class. Rare is the teenage mind that sees through all this fluff and yearns for something more! He or she perceives that something is missing but they are not given the tools to discover what it is.

The fact is that not having philosophy, particularly with reference to Western tradition in those schools situated in Western culture, is a very bad philosophy. It sterilizes learning and denies teenagers of their cultural heritage. It isn’t so much about the superiority of Western culture as such, but rather about the right of anyone, especially teenagers, to have access to their history, culture and tradition.

For high school students, reviving the following courses within philosophy within the Western tradition is recommended. First, it would be beneficial to offer an introductory course that surveys the development of Western thought from the pre-Socratics all the way up through the present phase. This course would simply introduce students to the key actors and their contributions, along with various trends and ideas passed along over the past 2500 years. There is enough to perhaps divide this survey course into two courses. 

American students should have some acquaintance with the classics if they are going to have any real sense of their cultural identity. A second course would be an introduction to logic. Logic is very much like a handmaid to all disciplines. Without logic, conclusions cannot be validly drawn in the empirical sciences and rhetorical arguments cannot be constructed. In such a course, students should be learn how to craft definitions for things, compose propositions, construct syllogisms, and recognize valid arguments. It may not be the most entertaining course, but it is fair to say that most high school courses are boring as it is anyway.

In addition, students should have some acquaintance with logical fallacies and how to recognize them. Last, students should be exposed to the study of virtue (as opposed to “morality” or “ethics”). The modern notion of “ethics” is very different from the classical notion; students should be able to make this distinction and decide for themselves which is is more appropriate for them. The emergence of “Character Education” seems to be a vague attempt at reviving the study of virtue, all though it is a curious phenomenon that one should try to inculcate “good” values without any reference to virtue at all! There is no reason why a teenager should understand the value of having a “good” character when there is no conversation at all about what “good” means in the first place. There is a sense that something is arbitrarily forced upon them, and teenagers will naturally resist this.

In a culture that has repressed the disciplined study of Western philosophy, the introduction of these three disciplines initially is recommended. However, there is room for greater development. Honors courses contrasting Eastern philosophies (although we can debate whether it is appropriate to categorize Eastern thought with Western concepts such as “philosophy”) with Western philosophies would be beneficial. Courses devoted to traditional Metaphysics and natural philosophy for honors students would help them further integrate the discipline of philosophy and the sciences. Epistemology courses could also help students explore the various ways of knowing and work towards finding unity between the various sciences.

Including the discipline of philosophy in a high school curriculum is itself a philosophical position. It implies that there is more learning than simply accumulating facts through empirical observation and engaging in creative writing and analyzing the creative writing of famous people in history. It implies a certain humanism, in which there is openness to a life that integrates knowledge with reality. High school students should know about this.