Teaching Opinion

Seeking Harmony: The Value of Precollegiate Philosophy

By Anthony Holdier — July 06, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Like a blast of audible punctuation, the beauty of a staccato note is in its brevity. Forcibly separated from the surrounding melody, the point of such music is precisely its pointedness: It highlights a song by jarring the listener with an abrupt, disconnected sound. But a song composed only of staccato notes would sound, at best, unsettling and, at its worst, cacophonous.

Sadly, this is the face of public education: Students spend roughly 12 years learning a jumbled, disconnected collection of subjects without the benefit of a guiding principle to tie them together into a holistic approach to life. As they wander the hallways of our schools without a unified sense of meaning or purpose for their efforts (apart from the escape that graduation offers), students may be able to pass a test, but find themselves ill-equipped to function in the real world. Our students must become more than mere graduates. They need to become the best citizens possible, capable of contributing to the public discourse and the common good. They need a workshop, a studio, an arena for critical thinking where they can integrate deep ideas into their daily perspectives. They need to be trained in philosophy.

In many ways, the value of precollegiate study in philosophy is readily apparent. Not only will students be exposed to challenging concepts, but they also will gain experience in asking thoughtful questions, rigorously working through arguments, and recognizing the importance of giving reasons for the beliefs they hold. Philosophy is not simply a habit of asking obvious questions draped in an aura of profundity; it is an exercise in analyzing the way we come to know everything that we come to know—and asking why we should care about it.

Philosophical education is a gift of confidence in one’s own beliefs and abilities."

While philosophy does sometimes focus on esoteric topics like the philosophy of existence (metaphysics) or the philosophy of knowledge itself (epistemology), we can just as easily discuss one’s philosophy of science, of history, of art, and so on by asking: “What is ‘science,’ and how should it be practiced?” The key is to approach each discipline with a sensitivity for the arguments at work within it; to see how each experiment, each text, each painting or performance piece operates implicitly from a particular perspective to communicate some collection of possible truths. An eye for these matters is what philosophical education helps to open.

In this way, studies in philosophy can help precollegiate students to begin integrating the disparate pieces of their education into a comprehensive perspective on how to act in the world: a philosophy of life. For example, consider the Academy founded by Plato. While Plato was concerned with topics ranging from moral purity to pedagogy to politics, legend tells us that an inscription above the entrance to his school read, “Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter.” Plato recognized that the functionality of arithmetic could only be consistent if there is something more fundamentally consistent about our universe that allows it to be so. Math, to Plato, was evidence for something like God. The point is that by thinking philosophically about geometry, Plato was able to draw deeper conclusions about reality. In a similar fashion, our students should be able to thoughtfully incorporate truths from each of their classes into their own approaches to life.

As teachers, the danger in leading such study is the necessity of teaching open-endedly, tailoring lessons to individual students as much as possible. Studies in philosophy cannot be allowed to devolve into acts of brainwashing, where views of the world are simply preached; the point of this type of class is to allow students the opportunity to begin processing how their other lessons fit together in meaningful ways. By equipping students with the tools to assess the accuracy and consistency of their own beliefs, we can provide them with the ability to begin drawing interdisciplinary conclusions that have real-world implications. The history of philosophy is rife with examples of men and women who, by thinking about deep questions, did precisely this. These exemplars can serve both as inspirational models and technical case studies for how our students can do likewise.

Moreover, philosophical education is a gift of confidence in one’s own beliefs and abilities. By teaching students how to draw well-founded conclusions from defendable premises, we help to assure them that they are on the right track about the things that they believe. The self-confidence that comes from such assurance can be a powerful motivator for further study—particularly in the face of external criticism or internal doubt. Philosophy offers more than simple things to believe: It provides students with the ability to figure out for themselves whether they should believe something—and why.

Incorporating philosophy into the standard precollegiate curriculum would be a powerful step in combating the disjunctiveness of the present school model. Education no longer follows an intentional narrative that leads students along the path toward becoming productive members of society. Instead, we are left with a meaningless collection of disconnected facts that are devoid of any overarching worldview. Philosophy can help equip our students to tie these loose ends together into useful perspectives that can shape them into responsible citizens. It is the study of philosophy, with the goal of forming a personal worldview, that can turn a student’s education from a blended mixture of staccato notes into something harmoniously symphonic.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion Best Practice on Making Learning Relevant, From Teachers
Including real-life experiences with instruction creates meaningful student learning and opportunities for their deep engagement.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Teaching 'Psychological Warfare': Teachers Sound Off on Classroom Management
Teachers on social media discuss the classroom disruptions they've faced, and what they think would help alleviate them.
5 min read
Classroom Disruptions
Liz Yap/Education Week via Canva
Teaching A Teacher Asked and Students Answered: What Motivates You to Learn?
Motivation is a key part of learning. But what sparks students’ motivation can be elusive.
3 min read
0624 student motivation hands raised prothero fs 522737859
FangXiaNuo, iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion How to Be a Better Teacher in 6 Words or Less
The best advice about teaching sometimes can be whittled down to a few simple words.
2 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."