Imagine for a moment the first day of a first-year college English class in which none of the students had ever read a novel.
They’d of course have heard of novels. Could they tell you the names of any famous figures in literature? Perhaps they’ve have heard of Shakespeare, but never read anything by him. Imagine that they didn’t know what nouns, verbs, and adjectives were, or subjects and predicates. And let’s say that all of this was not happening in a remedial class at a community college, but at every college in America, no matter the prestige or rigor of the university, and that it was expected and implicitly accepted.
This is the state of philosophy in America. Most first-year students know the names Plato and Aristotle, but not a great deal more. There are lucky exceptions who may have read a passage from “The Republic” in a high school course, but is there any reasonable chance that any of them might know anything more esoteric — say Wittgenstein, or Anselm? Absolutely not.
There is no expectation that entering college freshmen know the difference between analytic and synthetic truth, or essentialism and nominalism, or consequentialism and deontology, all of which are as fundamental to philosophy as nouns and verbs are to grammar, and probably no harder to teach. We are expected as college professors to start from nothing.
Philosophy in High Schools Around the World
I say this is the state of philosophy in America, because it is not universal. A high school student in England can do her A-levels in philosophy. In 2016, Ireland is making philosophy a basic part of the secondary school curriculum, joining France, Germany, Greece (of course), Italy, Portugal, Spain, and a great many other countries. Philosophical study in secondary school is standard across Asia and many parts of Africa. The American philosophy on philosophy is the exception, not the rule. Is this a part of our education we can afford to neglect?
Our minds need philosophy. We need to think about what our picture of reality is like, what knowledge itself is and how we acquire it, what value is and how it works, what kind of people we should be, where our skepticisms should lie, and how to unlock the paradoxes of the world. And we can no more expect students to do this in a vacuum than we could expect a student to invent physics in a vacuum, without a teacher.
There is, in philosophy, an entire world history of thought on these subjects: rational, ordered, inviting criticism and response. Philosophy forces us to examine our most fundamental beliefs and see whether they hold. No questions could be more practical or more important.
Another Reason to Study Philosophy: Philosophy Majors Get Higher Test Scores
Education today is especially focused on outcomes, so let’s talk about outcomes. Since there are no secondary-level philosophy courses in America, we have to turn to college for some measurable data.
It is a well-established fact that philosophy students consistently score higher than those of any other major on standardized tests. Philosophy majors have the highest overall GRE scores of any college majors, for instance, just ahead of physics and math. Philosophy majors have among the highest acceptance rates to law school, far ahead of any other liberal arts major.
Consider the GRE, a test that almost every Ph.D. student in every subject in America takes, and look at the breakdown. Philosophy majors are first in Verbal Reasoning, and it’s not close: Every other college major is clustered from 150–157; philosophy is at 160. Philosophy majors are first in Analytic Writing, and it’s not close either: Every other major is in a group from 3.2–4.2; philosophy is at 4.4. Even in math, the philosophy majors are second only to economics among all liberal arts majors. Similar numbers hold for the LSAT (average LSAT score for philosophy majors: 157.4) and GMAT (average GMAT score for philosophy majors: 587).
Beyond Test-Taking Outcomes
Philosophy is teaching students how to think, and this skill is valued in a great many futures. In a world in which graduate school is increasingly essential, and in which every graduate school tests its students’ reasoning skills, philosophy turns out to provide an extraordinary preparation for a great many futures.
None of this should be surprising: Philosophy is the art and science of thinking well; there are experts in the subject; and common sense dictates that those who devote themselves to thinking would become good at it. We don’t have similar data for high school students, because high school students in America don’t study philosophy.
And that’s the problem. To the extent that we care about testing and wonder why we stand where we do, we have a solution: Train students in philosophy. We trail the rest of the world in so many respects in just the areas in which philosophy students do so well, and we wonder why. Isn’t this worth an experiment? Isn’t it worth a change in our methodology?
But, of course, all of this is profane. Education is not about outcomes on standardized tests and in the marketplace. To think this is to miss the entire point. Socrates, by his own account in “The Apology,” used to bother passers-by in the agora by reminding them how ashamed they should be that they cared so much for money and reputation and so little for the care of their souls. They, of course, killed him for it. Do we educate ourselves only for money? Which is worth more to you: your mind, or your things? How much is your mind worth? How much would you sell it for?
There are instrumental goods, valuable only as a means to an end: Money is one. Money would cease to be a good at all if it didn’t lead to something beyond itself. And then there are intrinsic goods, valuable for their own sake, like pleasure. We don’t ask what you want pleasure for: Other things done for its sake, rather than it for theirs. If our instrumental goods don’t lead to something intrinsically good, then they are pointless.
So, why study philosophy? What kind of good is it? Well, ironically, it is exceptionally valuable in economic terms to be a good, clear thinker. We should want that for our children, even if we only care about money for our children. But we all want more for our children than that. We ought to care about their minds, for their own sakes, and we ought not to wait for college to introduce our children to the subject of how to think properly.
Agree? Disagree? Ask Prof. Brownson a question about his argument for philosophy in the high school classroom.
Choosing Your Major for Prelaw. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2015, from Law School Numbers
LSAT Scores of Economics Majors: The 2008–2009 Class Update. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2015, from Potsdam
O’Sullivan Signals Philosophy to Be Taught in Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2015, from The Irish Times
Table 4: General Test Percentage Distribution of Scores Within Intended Broad Graduate Major Field Based on Seniors and Nonenrolled College Graduates. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2015, from Education Testing Services
Teaching Philosophy in Europe and North America. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2015, from UNESCO