Questions about the real value of philosophy seem forever in the air. Most of the debate focuses on philosophy as it’s taught in universities, but recent work undertaken by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) seems to show that philosophy can benefit even young children in unexpected ways. The study involved 3,159 students in 48 schools. According to the EEF, “Teaching children as young as nine and ten to have philosophical discussions around topics like truth, fairness and knowledge can improve their progress in maths and reading by an average of two months, while the academic benefits seem to be more pronounced for disadvantaged pupils.”
The study has not been published yet, so I haven’t seen it, and I’m not sure what to make of it. But I was struck by something one of the participating teachers had to say: “In the playground, [children] can talk about their disagreements. They now respect other children’s points of view. In the classroom, their ideas are far more developed as they are better equipped to understand how others think and accept that these opinions are all valid.” Philosophy may or may not improve reading and math scores, but I’m not surprised to hear that it can change the way children interact with one another, that it can make them more sociable and civil.
You might think that’s a bit rich if you’ve ever heard a philosophical discussion get heated, but by and large philosophers can and do see one another as people with views up for consideration. Most of the time they really do try to understand one another, usually charitably, and sometimes even honestly – and when it goes really well the aim on all sides is nothing less than the discovery of truth. Compare that to what argument has become on Twitter, in comment streams, late night radio, and what Michael Sandel has memorably called “ideological food fights on the floors of Congress.”
If we as a culture put philosophy to one side, teach less of it and devote our resources to more practical courses of study, we’ll have something, but it won’t necessarily be the ability to listen to reason. That’s an ability in short supply anyway, and as it continues to dwindle, we lose our capacity to understand ourselves and those around us. There’s a lot about teaching philosophy in this issue of tpm. I hope you approach it with all this in mind.