The Educational Role of Philosophy (with a new commentary by Phillip Cam)

Mat Lipman

Abstract


The history of the relationship between philosophy and education has been a long and troubled one. In part, this stemmed from the problematic nature of philosophy itself, but this difficulty was compounded by controversy as to the age at which training in philosophy should begin. Although Socrates seemed indifferent to whether he conversed philosophically with young or old, his pupil, Plato, was inclined to restrict philosophy to mature students, on the grounds that it made the younger ones unduly contentious. Since philosophers in those days had the reputation of being ‘friends of wisdom,’ and since being a friend of wisdom seemed to require extensive experience, it came to be taken for granted, generation after generation, that philosophy was not for the young. It has sometimes been made available, on a limited basis, at the secondary school level, but almost never to students in the lower grades. To the suggestion that this prevented children from having access to ideas, theories and abstract concepts, the stock response was that children were mired in the ‘concrete’ level of experience and had no interest in abstractions. To the report that very young children almost invariably greeted opportunities to discuss philosophy with joy and delight, the standard reply was that this proved that the children could not be doing philosophy, since the study of philosophy is a serious and difficult matter. The recent career of philosophy in elementary and secondary education has been a matter of overcoming precisely these objection and misconceptions. Unfortunately, a listing of the advantages to be derived by the young from the study of philosophy—its strengthening of reasoning and judgment, its fostering of concept-formation skills, its clarification of values and ideals—is likely to obscure the intrinsic satisfactions that children derive from their classroom communities of philosophical inquiry. But even here there are signs of change, and a new appreciation of the educational possibilities of philosophy is at last beginning to surface in the schools.


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