Philosophy in Schools

Barack Obama, from yesterday’s YouTube conference:

And I’m a big believer that the most important thing that a kid can learn in school is how to learn and how to think. If Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, are asking questions, know how to poke holes in an argument, know how to make an argument themselves, know how to evaluate a complicated bunch of data, then I figure that they’re going to be okay regardless of the career path that they’re in. And I think that that requires more than just rote learning — although it certainly requires good habits and discipline in school — it also requires that in the classroom they’re getting the kind of creative teaching that’s so important.

I think the two things that could do the most to promote this aim are (a) a really good statistics course, to give people a feel for working with data, and (b) a really good critical thinking course, of the kind the best philosophy teachers deliver to college freshmen. If those courses were integral parts of the high school curriculum, then we’d see many more people who can make and evaluate arguments, especially arguments based around numerical data.

There have been intermittent attempts to bring philosophy in high school in various Australian states, but it would be great to see something similar attempted in America.

UPDATE: Via Larvatus Prodeo, I just saw this link to an article about teaching philosophy in schools in Queensland. It seems there is much more philosophy going on in pre-tertiary education than I’d realised.

7 Replies to “Philosophy in Schools”

  1. My knowledge is pretty local but there are a number of Chicago area public high schools that offer philosophy courses. It’s typically some kind of survey, not critical reasoning, but it is moderately common (primarily in more affluent suburban schools). I’ve no idea how common this is in the rest of the country. I’ve made guest appearances in the course at my local high school and it’s a popular and well taught course. There’s a session at the Central this year on teaching philosophy to high school students.

  2. I hadn’t realised philosophy in high schools was so common. Apparently there is something similar in New Jersey high schools as well, though I only found out about it through responses to this post. There’s a possibility that Rutgers will be getting more involved with these high school courses, which would be great.

    Personally, I think I learned more about reasoning from survey courses than through courses directly about critical thinking, but I’m probably not a normal case in this respect. Still, any kind of philosophy course would be I think helpful for any student in developing the kind of skills Obama is talking about here.

  3. I am glad to see this issue coming up here. And even better to see it coming up in connections to an interview with Obama. I do think this is very important.

    In the New York City area some philosophy department have recentaly started outreach programs to promote the benefits of pre-college philosophy education. We all stress the benefits for critical thinking as you point out, Brian.

    We at Columbia University now have 20 volunteers and are in 8 schools throughout NYC. And in October there will be a conference on philosophy outreach and pre-college philosophy education at Columbia University. The program so far has been a great success: the children and teenagers love the philosophy clubs etc, and get a lot out of them. NYU has a similar program.

    Check out our website:

  4. 19% of US four-year colleges now offer Statistical Literacy courses. They involve critical thinking about statistics as evidence in arguments. They generally focus on helping the 40 percent of college students in non-quantitative majors read and interpret summary statistics in the everyday media. For more information, check out this website:

  5. There are a lot of different pre-college philosophy initiatives here in the US. I’m part of one being developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (run by Stuart Gluck), with funding from the Squire Family Foundation. Our aim is to produce a nationwide philosophy curriculum for high school.

    On a personal note, I’ve been taking philosophy into schools for years now, and it’s my view that we want a pretty diverse curriculum, starting as early as possible. Most kids are inoculated against philosophy by the time they get to college.

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