Why Study Philosophy

Dr. Punita RiceTeaching

A personal essay on the value of Teaching Philosophical Thinking Skills in “the Classroom of the Future,” on Medium.com

I can pinpoint the “aha!” moments from most of the classes I’ve taken — the moment in English when I decided I was definitely pro-oxford comma; the moment in Social Psychology when I suddenly understood the concept of cognitive dissonance.

But when I reflect on the Philosophy classes I took in college, I can’t pinpoint any aha! moment of learning — instead, I remember the whole experience of taking those classes as this giant turning point ability to think (an entire semester devoted to asking if free will exists?!).

Yes philosophy has the really weird, cerebral stuff (and people), but the classes also really changed the way I think about the world. In other classes, I spent a lot of time memorizing facts and even theories. But in the Philosophy classes, I was developing my ability to analyze and dissect information… my ability to think. Teachers have to try to teach students to think by getting them to do what you get to to do in philosophy classes: question claims, construct arguments, analyze documents and stories with skepticism, and learn how to take a concept and apply it creatively to reality.

The nature of philosophy studies lends itself well to the nature of teaching students to think for themselves, to question ideas, and to learn more effectively. Using philosophy in the classroom is amazing, because the kind of thinking and reasoning philosophy coursework fosters allows students not just to learn particular content, but to learn different approaches to processing and making sense of that content. The same skills that can make students great budding philosophers also make them great learners of all content.

Students in Social Studies courses examine primary and secondary sources — ideally, they spend a lot of time focusing on whether there are multiple “versions of the truth” — and spend time really soaking up what multiple perspectives on history mean. We examine how reliable history really is (can a primary source account ever be 100% reliable?) and practice using our analytic skills, and walk away with a more nuanced understanding of how the world works. That’s very philosophy-ish.

To take it a step further, this also teaches students how to formulate and defend original ideas — and as a result, get closer to becoming independent thinkers.

The focus in the Social Studies curriculum is not just on hard facts, but on historical thinking skills — how to think (in this case, about our content). That means we encourage skepticism.

Using philosophy and its style of thinking into instruction can also help develop cross-curricular connections. As we move forward, and move toward teaching in a cross-curricular format, we want to improve student ability to make connections across distinct disciplines and content areas. Using philosophy in the classroom helps students to do this.

So how does this fit into the classroom of The Future?

The technologies we’re very close to developing are going to impact education. Not accounting for any major wildcards, technology is on a trajectory that is headed toward greater integration in our day-to-day lives (not to mention in our classrooms).

By the way — for the rest of this post, you’ll have to humor me and engage in a bit of a thought experiment with me, in which the singularity is coming, and education will be radically different than it is now.

The technological singularity (“the singularity”) is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature. It is a moment we can’t see past: since the capabilities of such an intelligence could be hard for an ordinary human to comprehend, the singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.

If the singularity is near (even if Moore’s law is wrong), everything, including education, is going to change, and when that happens, teachers will have a different (yet familiar), task in the future. In the coming decades, being a student (or a person, for that matter) may be a radically different thing than it is today: instead of just being dependent on technology, we will be committed to it, will respect it, will be in awe of it, will be equal to it, will be unable to distinguish it from humans, and might even be integrated or merged with it.

Maybe kids will even be able to plug in (or wirelessly?) download information to their minds.Even by modest estimation, the future of technology should increase our access to knowledge and information, and its availability. So what happens to teachers after the singularity?

Everything may change, which means more than just the role of teachers — what about schools? Right now, fully-online K-12 learning programs are controversial at best. Even the best fully online higher education programs have challenges, but at least these are typically populated with self-motivated and organized adults, and are not expected to provide those extra things that elementary and secondary education programs are expected to provide: socioemotional learning and growth, character education, civic education, etc. In some ways, online higher ed is still in its infancy (as is the internet, in general, if you think about it), while fully online K-12 programs are not yet able to offer the authentic learning that the traditional education structure offers, that might change.

Some day soon, as children become more immersed in evolving technologies, as virtual reality computing becomes more advanced, as information becomes even more readily available, as our use of technology as a learning and thinking aid evolves, as our social acceptance of technological enhancements evolve, and as our general relationships with technology as a whole evolves, immersive online K12 schooling may be able to provide a comprehensive and valuable experience.

When that happens, how will greater access to information impact tests? How will studying change? Will there be any impact on thinking and learning? Motivation? The role of teachers? Will we even need education as we know it?
I don’t think we need to worry that the need for teachers will disappear (I think this fear, along with the anxiety about robots taking our jobs, might be the wrong approach, especially in education). Instead, I think the future of education lies in a subtle shift in the role of educators.

“The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself.”

– Herbert Gerjuoy

Tasks of Teachers in The Future:

  • Teaching students to form Qualitative Hierarchies — Educators of the future will teach students how to classify/categorize information and ideas.
  • Teaching students to Evaluate Value — Educators of the future will teach students how to assess the importance, relevance, and qualitative value of evidence and information.
  • Teaching students to re-assess Categories and Classifications — Future teachers will teach students how to re-think pre-existing ideas, and re-form mental categories.
  • Teaching students to switch between Abstract Thinking and Concrete Thinking — Future teachers will teach students how to transition between abstract, theory and idea based thinking, and concrete examples and evidence, repeatedly and naturally, thus strengthening their ability to think independently.
  • Teaching students New Approaches — Educators of tomorrow will teach students how to look at problems with fresh perspectives, and offer applicable strategies to extend the reach of their analytical abilities.
  • Teaching students to Self-Teach — Educators of tomorrow will give students the tools, skills, and habits to teach themselves effectively, and to apply their learning and seek more.
  • What we teach is usually not important because of the hard subject matter itself (don’t we as a society regularly go back and rewrite textbooks?). Instead, what we teach is important because of the skills we impart to students, like learning, unlearning, re-learning, and thinking independently.

These are things we can, and should, already be doing. If we have students study philosophy, then they will already be developing these skills, and when technology revolutionizes learning entirely, teachers won’t have too huge of a transition to make.

Philosophy, and the kind of thinking and reasoning it fosters and demands, fits in the classroom because it enables teachers not just to teach content, but actual thinking skills — and to teach different approaches to processing and actually making sense of that content.

“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

– Herbert Gerjuoy

P.S. – A lesson plan about the singularity.