Student-Philosophers

Earlier this month, Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet,” published a guest post by Steve Neumann entitled “Why kids—now more than ever—need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy.” Neumann, to his credit, recognizes the seeming absurdity of his claim, opening his manifesto by acknowledging that “The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike.” But Neumann is not arguing for esoterica; his is a call for a more usable philosophy. As he writes, The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called ‘embryonic society.’”

Laughable though it may appear, in today’s hyper-partisan society, Neumann’s call is spot on. In particular, Neumann takes issue with political polarization and the “state of discourse” in our current political culture—an issue that shapes my own educational philosophy. Neumann states, “I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.” He quotes Frederick Douglass in support of this: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Central to Neumann’s article are the concepts of inquiry and dialogue—hallmarks, to my mind, of any good classroom.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:”

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Neumann argues for a constructivist classroom, or as he describes it, “a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing.” Although his focus is explicitly on philosophy, I think the idea holds for history as well. As he writes, “The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my own classroom. I even wrote an article about this a few years ago.

As I read the news about Antonin Scalia’s death and the partisan rancor that swirls around his potential replacement, I can’t help but think of the opportunity that exists for those teachers brave enough to wade into the controversy. What a wonderful opportunity this offers to help students ask important and relevant questions, and then converse about it. In an ideal setting, the classroom would contain a spectrum of opinions which led to strenuous—though civil—conversation.

We have an opportunity to help our students become philosophers or historians or whatever they want to be, but we have an obligation to help them become citizens worthy of the name. Neumann is right: the younger generation has the capacity to create a better, more civil politics, but they won’t do it unless we help them. Left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they will be socialized by the likes of Donald Trump and Michael Moore, and they will be trapped by our broken status. We, the Teachers, must help them become philosophers (in the sense that Neumann describes) so that they might envision a better way.

This is a great article and should be read by all teachers, but especially history/humanities teachers.

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