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Perspective | Is your high school missing a philosophy class?

People are often amazed when they learn that I teach philosophy to high schoolers. After all, not many public high schools offer a course in philosophy. For many, this course offering inspires many questions, and sometimes concerns.

In a perfect world, all high schools would offer a course where students were encouraged to ask big questions, read great books, and engage in deep discussions with their peers. 

Although it is rare for public schools to offer courses of this type, many top private schools require a philosophy course for students. Where I teach, the course sequence is called Humane Letters and is taken all four years of high school.

Starting their first year, students learn basic grammar, focusing on skills for effective research and writing. Throughout the year, they gain some basic introduction to philosophical thought and key figures like Aristotle, Quintillion, Locke, and Smith. In their second year, students complete a course in logic that has heavy writing components and a deeper dive into some of western history’s greatest minds. Juniors spend the year in a traditional style philosophy course that reads from primary sources, and finally, in senior year, write a senior thesis that grapples with a complex subject of their choice. 

The International Baccalaureate program requires the completion of a two year course sequence called Theory of Knowledge, in which students are introduced to basic philosophical concepts, invited to ask deep questions, and study and implement concepts from rhetoric in their own writing. In this program, students also produce a lengthy research paper based around a central question. This course is designed to help students understand the reason for different subjects, and develop critical thinking skills who are capable of asking great questions. 

In some rare instances, public schools are already offering courses in philosophy that invite students to spend a semester or year going through a general philosophy curriculum similar to that of an introductory course at the collegiate level. These are, of course, taught at an appropriate learning level for the students. A recent episode of the Philosophy Bakes Bread podcast features a conversation with one of these innovative educators. 

A course offering in philosophy is feasible — but is it beneficial? As evidenced by these programs, philosophy classes can help students develop as critical thinkers, become excellent writers, learn to engage in cross-cultural dialogue, and grow into well-rounded individuals. 

Increasingly, K-12 schools are encouraged to invest in STEM and Career/Technical programming. With budget cuts affecting arts funding and limiting the number of traditional elective programs, does it make sense to add another program right now anyway?

As a subject, philosophy is beneficial to scientists and artists alike. The skills developed in a basic philosophy course help students develop as critical thinkers, writers, and conversationalists. For some students, philosophy could help with behavior, as courses in this area often invite students to think existentially and practically and consider the effects of their behavior. 

Some teachers have even found ways to engage their students in practical exercises like keeping anger journals as they discuss the virtue-vice tradition, or developing a personal philosophy that helps guide them through their teenage years. This kind of critical thinking and reflection are incredibly beneficial for young learners who are facing a range of difficult, life-altering decisions, making sense of trauma, and discerning their vocational calling. 

Amid recent education controversies, it is understandable that some administrators or school officials could have reservations about offering programs that invite students to ask deep questions about deeply held values, ways of knowing, and ethics. After all, teaching philosophy to the youth of Athens led to the death of Socrates.

These classes are not free-floating discussions about controversial topics, nor do they encourage students to abandon their family or traditional values. To the contrary, they involve deep reflection on personal values and convictions which enable students to develop a deeper appreciation for the world they live in. 

Even so, philosophy is not always appreciated as a course of study, even if it is personally rewarding. Is now the best time to invite further criticism into our schools?  Ask any college philosophy major the number of jokes they have heard about post-grad opportunities and the likelihood of becoming a Starbucks barista (which have great benefits… we’d all be so lucky!). You’re likely to get a good laugh. 

Reality is pretty different from perception in this case. Philosophy majors in college are more likely to have advanced critical thinking skills that are invaluable to the job market and score very well on standardized tests. This major leads to a variety of interesting careers, and boasts some of the coolest alumni, like John Lewis, MLK, Pete Buttigieg, Malala Yousafzai, Rashida Jones. (You can see a great list here.) Philosophy is a subject that not only builds great employees; it inspires people to be more virtuous, respectful, and thoughtful. 

A high school level philosophy course is likely to produce some of the same results. Students will develop as people and thinkers, test scores will increase, writing abilities will improve, and they might even find inspiration in the great minds that have built our world.

Many of my close friends are current or former public high school teachers. They tell me that their students are more capable, interested, and inquisitive than the public often gives them credit for. They ask deep questions and enjoy thoughtful discussion with their peers, but there is not enough room or intentionality in a traditional course to make the space required for deep, sustained engagement. Alongside many other benefits, a philosophy course could help provide this meaningful opportunity for students.

Is this a course you’d be willing to consider offering at your school?

Chris West

Chris West teaches philosophy and economics at Thales Academy in Apex, NC. He holds degrees from Campbell University and Duke Divinity, and a professional certificate in Faith-Based Nonprofit Leadership from Wake Forest University. West has a background in education policy, nonprofit leadership, and social enterprise.