Teaching High School Philosophy

Why do philosophy in high school?

The better question would ask why not? Philosophy is routinely taught in Europe as a standard feature of the secondary school curriculum. Rigorous summer institutes, such as Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth and Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, have long enjoyed great success in exciting students about the discipline. In recent years, a growing number of high schools, public as well as private, have developed highly successful philosophy electives, as well as philosophy clubs and ethics bowl teams.

Philosophy can and should be taught in high school because this is the ideal time for students to engage its questions, arguments, and methods of thinking. High school students have not yet fully formed their habits of mind. They remain open, inquisitive, and intellectually playful. For many adolescents, the perennial questions posed by philosophy have urgency and personal significance. At the same time, high school students have developed the skills that enable them to begin serious work in reading philosophical texts, identifying and evaluating arguments, and constructing arguments of their own. They learn how to pose a good question, how to inspect and  scrutinize their deeply held beliefs, and how to work out their own ideas with care and rigor.

From a school-wide perspective, philosophy can be invaluable because the skills it imparts are transferable to every part of the curriculum that emphasizes clear thinking, reading, and writing. Philosophy also supplies connective tissue, since its fundamental questions apply to all disciplines and address the full range of human experience. For example, questions about ethics and free will deepen students’ appreciation for great literature, and analysis of the mind-body problem and free will afford students a critical perspective when they study the brain in psychology.

What are the objectives of high school philosophy?

The chief objective of a high philosophy course is to engage students in the activity of doing philosophy. In keeping with this description of philosophy as an activity rather than a subject matter, the class should encourage critical inquiry, debate, and reflection upon the discipline’s fundamental questions. Because philosophers work with one eye fixed on their own traditions, students also should become familiar with important historical figures and texts that contribute to our intellectual heritage. A further, important objective is to sharpen students’ critical thinking and ability both to analyze and write arguments with clarity and precision. Finally, the course should encourage shared inquiry through good will, careful listening, and thoughtful conversation.

Courses vary in scope and emphasis, but the fundamental questions or central themes tend to include most, if not all, of the following:

  1. Ethics
  2. Political Philosophy
  3. Free Will and Determinism
  4. Philosophy of Mind
  5. Epistemology
  6. Philosophy of Religion

How should the course be taught?

Although philosophy can be taught as an historical survey or structured around a set of texts, these approaches are less appropriate or effective for high school students than a topical course organized around a set of key questions that invite conversation, analysis, and debate. Each teacher must find his or her own way of motivating the philosophical question at hand. A carefully chosen thought experiment, case, story, or film clip can work effectively and excite students’ interest in demanding readings or arguments. Some teachers also assign journal entries that enable students to explore philosophical questions independently before they test their ideas in class or in a formal paper.

Assessment of student performance is typically based on the quality of written work and class participation. Teachers vary in the kinds of writing expected from students. Here are a few other examples: a thesis-driven, formal essay that uses multiple sources in response to a question; a dialogue that uses multiple sources but investigates alternative points of view without defending a particular thesis; and an in-class assignment in which the student explicates a short primary source excerpt and explains its role in the philosopher’s larger argument.

What practical considerations need to be addressed?

One obstacle to the introduction of philosophy in high school is the perception that it is either frivolous or better suited to college. Teachers should be prepared to defend the importance and rigor of the course as well as its appropriateness for high school. Examples of effective programs and evidence of excellent student work should strengthen the case.

A second concern is whether the class should be tracked and, if so, for what student population. Although some teachers have enjoyed success teaching the course to a wide range of students, they find themselves limited in the depth of inquiry and use of primary sources so essential for philosophical argumentation. If teachers can make the course available for honors credit, they may wish to investigate the possibility of college credit through their local community college.

Teachers also should consider the question of age. Philosophy, though generally appropriate for seniors, is accessible to mature, capable sophomores and juniors.

What texts are appropriate for a high school philosophy course?

Teachers new to teaching a philosophy course are fortunate in that they can draw from a wide range of philosophy texts and readers. What follows are representative titles from each major type.

Primary source readers

Louis Pojman, Philosophy: The Quest for Truth (Oxford, 2008).

G Lee Bowie et al, Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Thomson 2004).

Annotated primary source reader

Laurence Bonjour, Philosophical Problems: An Annotated Anthology (Pearson Longman 2006).

Two-volume set of primary source reader and secondary source on the topics

Nils Ch. Rauhut, Ultimate Questions: Thinking about Philosophy (Penguin, 2004).

Nils Ch. Rauhut, Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2007).

(Note: both texts are available in paper.)

Secondary source with short primary source readings

William Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach (McGraw Hill, 2006). (Note: includes excellent questionnaires on philosophical questions.)

Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments, third edition (McGraw Hill, 2006).

Pedagogical approach to introducing philosophy

Adam Morton, Philosophy in Practice: An Introduction to the Main Questions, 2nd edition (Blackwell 2004).

Collections of thought experiments

Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (Headline, 2004).

Peg Tittle, What If…Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (Pearson Longman, 2005).

Julian Baggini, The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten: One Hundred Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (Plume, 2006).

References for teachers: handbooks and texts for philosophical methods and structure of arguments

Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).

Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners (Prentice Hall, 1996).

Elliott Sober, Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings (Prentice Hall, 2005).