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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Save Our School Children: Give Them Philosophy

farina tour school

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The question of how to resume our children’s education safely has understandably preoccupied parents, educators, and elected officials. And because the difference between the various models being proposed (‘blended’ vs fully remote) may well be the difference between life and death for a fellow human being, we need to rely on the best available science. 

Yet the question of ‘how’ to restart school for the city’s 1.1 million public school students is not the only one we need to be asking. Two others that demand our attention are what they will learn and why. And because answers to these questions are essential to determining how well our children’s lives are to be lived, we need to turn to philosophy.  

What students need to learn is how to think. That may sound obvious but what most students learn in school is not how to think but what to think. Instead of exercising their minds by exploring the many possible ways to be human, they quickly learn the value of knowing what is expected of them, what to repeat back, and what they need to do to pass the next test.

Rather than finding school to be a safe space for young minds to try out big ideas, too many students come to see school as a purgatory they must pass through before they take their pre-assigned role in a rigged game where success is measured by material gain. To allow such cynicism to take root is not to educate young souls but to impoverish them. 

Learning how to think begins with the realization that the most interesting and important questions in life are not black and white but grey, not resolved with a google search or by asking Siri but are necessarily open-ended. That means not only that they can be answered in several, often incompatible ways, but that those various answers reliably raise a multitude of new questions of their own.

These include so-called ‘big questions’ such as “What is fair?,” “Do we have free will?,” and ‘What is truth?,” but quickly extend to what appear to be more pointed questions, such as “When is government coercion justified?,” “Is adequate housing a right?,” and “What is the purpose of an education?”   

These are philosophical questions and they are the kind of questions that humans have been asking in one form or another for ages. The different answers that have been given at various times and places have shaped our history and have helped define our cultural identities. The answers we settle on give meaning to our lives by framing the choices we make concerning ourselves, our families, and our communities. The answers we try to live by determine how we deal with our failures and how we face our deaths. It is by learning how to think through these fundamental questions that humans learn how to live.

As every parent knows, philosophical questions come naturally to children. Still new to the world, the young can’t help but wonder who they are and who they might yet become. They are desperate to know what is possible, what is not, and why.

We need to encourage them in their quest to understand the human condition. Besides being intrinsically enjoyable, their philosophical investigations will improve their critical thinking, deepen their emotional intelligence, and lead them to be respectfully open-minded about diverse viewpoints. Making time for philosophy will also increase their understanding in math and reading

Given the value and benefit of providing young minds the time and space to grow, we ought to be placing a philosopher-in-residence in every school to facilitate student’s intellectual journeys. We should be allowing them to ask if animals have rights, if robots can be persons, and whether prisons should be abolished. We should be encouraging them to articulate answers that make sense to them and to attentively listen to their classmates who do not agree.

But rather than make such discussions central to our children’s education, we too often dismiss their big questions as irrelevant and a distraction to the lessons we unreflectively think they need to learn. Little wonder that as children grow older they ask these important questions less and less.  

And this points to the most important reason why we need philosophy in our schools, to ensure that when our children grow up they will be less like ourselves. Most people only encounter philosophy in college, if it all, which helps explain why so many adults don’t know how to think either. If we did, perhaps we would be leading happier, more fulfilling lives than we currently do.

If we learned to contemplate different alternatives and perspectives about how to live, then perhaps we would be able to converse respectfully with each other about matters on which we disagree. If as children we had been encouraged to think deeply about the difference between wants and needs, then perhaps New York City and its school system for which we are now responsible wouldn’t be as inequitable and painfully unjust as they are. 

Our young people, certainly those of middle- and high-school age, are not so self-absorbed that they fail to realize that the way things have been is not only unacceptable, but that it is falling away. The arrival of the coronavirus and the tragic disruption that it has caused, coupled with a summer of social upheaval sparked by the killing of George Floyd and fueled by centuries of suffering and oppression, has forever altered the perspectives of this current generation of students. They want something better, something more just and more hopeful than the city and the lives they currently stand to inherit. We need to give them the tools to conceive what that something better might be, as well as the confidence to go forth and create it. Their lives depend on it. 

Joseph S. Biehl, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Gotham Philosophical Society and Young Philosophers of New York. On Twitter @jsbiehl.

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