Don’t Know Much Philosophy

Philosophy classes are conspicuously absent from secondary schools' curricula

| January-February 2011

  • dont-know-much-philosophy

    Paul Hostetler /

  • dont-know-much-philosophy

It’s no secret that the American education system is in need of a serious lesson—or even a radical upheaval. There’s never a shortage of discussion about the shortcomings of the teaching profession, and most of our so-called experts can’t even seem to agree on what subjects should be taught in our schools, let alone how.  

Writing in the Indypendent (Sept. 8, 2010), Stanley Aronowitz takes all those gripes a step further and examines the conspicuous absence of philosophy classes from the curriculum of secondary schools. Aronowitz sees this as a “telltale sign that we don’t take critical thinking seriously as an educational goal” and argues that a philosophical foundation is an essential tool for discerning and skeptical students and citizens.  

Aronowitz acknowledges that some educational overhaul would be necessary for reform to take place. He proposes that education majors be encouraged to focus on subject matter with additional studies devoted to fostering critical thinking. Experienced teachers, he suggests, should be engaged in curriculum planning and encouraged to broaden their own interests. Given the current state of things, that all sounds like an academic’s pipe dream, of course, but Aronowitz gets an A for his willingness to dream big.

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

3/3/2011 1:30:30 PM

Today, the priority of the North Amerikan society is business oriented, the Amerikan way and the Amerikan dream that must serve these priorities. Hence, philosophie, cultural studies and all other deemed useless non business academic activities are being flushed on the wayside to better serve business needs. The lesson here is that all minion workers must now learn to serve and adore the new North American god: the invisible hand of the market. Obviously as the song goes: "Democracy is coming to the USA", but it hasn't arrived yet.

Melissa Moffett
2/20/2011 11:40:57 AM

I am a Humanities teacher at Tacoma School of the Arts in Tacoma, WA. ( This year our focus is on ancient studies/world civilizations and my co-teacher and I have opted for a philosophical approach. First semester we explored "What is piety?" and "What is moderation?" through an Eastern lens reading texts in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Students wrote their final paper on "What is the good life in ancient India and China?". They had to carefully examine the evidence presented to them (primary texts) and figure out what people valued in life in these two ancient cultures. This semester we are utilizing The Six Questions of Socrates by Christopher Phillips as a main text and are connecting the questions to Eastern, Western, ancient, and modern readings. My students are currently discussing and writing about piety in The Ramayana. This is my favorite curriculum so far! We are addressing state standards through material that is interesting to us and to our students. I will admit that I work many, many hours beyond my already lengthy school day to prepare for this AND am initiating standards-based grading at my school, but the rewards - students thinking critically about their world and maturity in the classroom - are worth it. I would love to be paid more, but I also love my job. Melissa

2/18/2011 1:54:09 PM

As a retired teacher, I can tell you that there are no incentives for teachers to push the envelope. I shared a job teaching "gifted" middle school humanities classes for years in a public school system near Seattle. My teaching partner and I always emphasized critical thinking. Two examples of our curriculum choices toward this goal were Socratic Circles (in which the students were guided to ask leading questions, listen actively, and base their own comments on the comments of the last speaker); and the scrutiny of political cartoons for the identification of their logical fallacies. Our program was recently eliminated (it was not popular with the other teachers or counselors, as parents were clamoring for their children to be placed with us). As our classes were filled with students of mixed abilities, we were "encouraged" to bring our curriculum into line with that of the other humanities teachers. Aligning curriculum seemed to be code for dumbing down our classes. Maybe if we had been younger teachers we would have stayed and fought, but we felt it was time to go. The ethic was: don't stand out, you're making the rest of us look bad. Or: of course you can do exciting curriculum -- you have all the "good" kids. [Note: any parent of a gifted child will tell you that their gifts don't often translate into docile, obedient behavior!] So -- we're trying not to be bitter!

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