The history of Western education is deeply rooted in philosophy. The very first academy in Ancient Greece was Plato’s school of philosophy, the first in a long line of educational institutions stretching through Antiquity and the Middle Ages right up to modern schools and universities.
The original academies were completely devoted to higher learning, and were therefore the preserve of adults – and almost invariably men. Perhaps this is where the idea of philosophy as a mature or adult school of thought first developed: today, philosophy is almost exclusively taught at tertiary institutions such as universities and colleges, very rarely in secondary schools, and hardly ever in elementary.
Tradition aside, the reasons philosophy is not more widely taught among pre-adolescents, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, are twofold: firstly, that many believe children are incapable of the kind of higher thinking demanded by philosophy; and secondly that schools lack the time and resources to adequately teach the subject, which may distract students from their other lessons.
But increasingly these lines of reasoning are being dismantled by a group of academics and educators who believe that philosophy has an essential place in the elementary school curriculum. Groups such as Philosophy for Children (P4C) advocate for the inclusion of philosophy in the early stages of education, arguing that the subject enhances the overall experience of education and provides students with important life skills that are currently being neglected.
The current educational system, writes Steve Neumann, is vastly skewed towards preparing students for only one aspect of life after school: work. For decades the dominant view has been that the role of schools is to prepare students for college and then for work, such that the original name of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 was the Every Child Ready for College and Career Act of 2015.
The idea that children are incapable of critical thinking until the early stages of adolescence stems in part from the work of developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget, who hypothesized that the capacity for abstract reasoning did not begin to appear until the “formal operational stage” of development at age 11 or 12.
Piaget’s findings had a massive impact on educational pedagogy, but they’ve since been criticized for their bias, contentious methods and narrow scope. Many philosophers, such as Gareth Matthews, have argued that Piaget underestimated the children he was studying and often failed to recognize their philosophical thinking.
The P4C movement claims that not only are children capable of philosophical thinking but that studying philosophy in the classroom on a regular basis significantly improves cognitive and academic abilities as well as important life skills such as empathy and confidence.
As for the argument that teachers simply do not have the class time to devote to an entire new subject, many proponents argue that philosophy does not have to be taught separately: it can reasonably be incorporated into existing lessons. Philosophy can provide a holistic framework that unites and connects the self-contained subjects students are currently taught, helping them “make better sense of their educational experiences.”
This recognition of the relationships between different areas of study can enhance the entire educational experience. In Educational Psychologist, Dr. Maughn Gregory writes that students’ disciplinary knowledge is enhanced through philosophical dialog, “Students build more nuanced interpretation of a story character in a reading class, gain more sophisticated perspective on totalitarian societies in a history class, or develop deeper understanding of the concept of negative numbers in a math class.”
While the reported results of teaching philosophy in elementary classrooms seem to be overwhelmingly positive, it’s important to note that some of the current findings are anecdotal or conjectural. What is clear, however, is that the movement towards teaching philosophy to children is growing rapidly, and something you’re certain to hear more of in coming years.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.