Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth. In America, youth below college age are usually not exposed to philosophy in the classroom. Is philosophy all that dangerous?
Our topic this week: Philosophy for the young – corrupting… or empowering? We asked that question in front of an audience of high school at Palo Alto High School, in Palo Alto, California. We record this program there last May, at the invitation of a teacher, Lucy Filppu, an English teacher by training, who teaches a special humanities course. We had a blast and we’d very much like to thank the students and teachers at Paly, as it is affectionately called, for having us. We’d love to go back sometime.
Now the charge that philosophy actually corrupts the young is nearly a old as philosophy itself. Over 2,400 years ago, in one of the most famous trials of all times, Socrates, one the founding fathers of Philosophy, was condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Now I have no doubt the young men who followed Socrates all around Athens being tutored by him were royal pains for the authorities. But Socrates didn’t corrupt the young; he empowered the young. He empowered them to think for themselves, to question received wisdom, and not to be cowed by authority. No doubt, they made the authorities uncomfortable. But making the authorities uncomfortable isn’t the same as being corrupt.
Of course, the attitude that the wisdom of your elders is something you can take or leave, that no one has authority over you unless you grant them authority – that’s a dangerous attitude for a young person to have. No doubt Socrates instilled that attitude into his young pupils. And you could say that’s a dangerous thing. But it’s more dangerous to those who claim to be authorities than to the young themselves, I would think.
Of course, I don’t want to deny that philosophy has to be used carefully and that it can be dangerous if used wrongly. Done wrongly, philosophy can be highly corrosive to one’s life. It can lead you to doubt everything. It can cause you wonder whether life has meaning, to question your religion, your country, your parents, and even your teachers. Do we really want to cast the young out onto the sea of philosophical doubt and uncertainty? Don’t we want to teach them to how to thrive and succeed in the world? To do that, they sometimes have to accommodate authority, not question it or reflexively rebel against it.
Of course, we really shouldn’t be promoting reflexive rebellion against all authority, just because it’s authority. But that sort of rebellion wouldn’t display a philosophical attitude; it displays an adolescent attitude, and an arrogant one at that. Philosophy isn’t about intellectual arrogance; it’s about intellectual honesty and humility. Philosophy demands that you subject not just the beliefs and prejudices of others, but also your own beliefs and prejudices, to the light of critical reflection.
Socrates himself actually exemplified that kind of intellectual humility in fact. He was a seeker of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. He didn’t claim to possess them already. Of course, there’s the paradox that his intellectual humility actually made Socrates the wisest man in Athens, according to the Oracle at Delphi. He didn’t know anything, but unlike all the other supposed wise men of Athens, he knew that he didn’t know anything. They, on the other hand, thought they knew it all, but actually knew nothing.
Though our schools don’t, in general, do much teaching of philosophy to the young, it seems to me that the young are natural philosophers. Given where they are in their lives, the young are bound to be gripped by philosophical questions. Young people are in the business of trying to figure out who and what they are. Philosophy is devoted to answering just the sorts of questions that will grip any reflective human engaged in such a process: “Who am I?” “What's right, and what's wrong?” “What things are worthy of my deepest allegiances and affections?” “What is my place in the social world?
Moreover, we adults sometimes pretend, like the supposed wise men of Athens, that we have all that answers and that all the young need to do is listen, learn and obey. But by the time they're in their mid-teens, they see through that pretense. Young people are going to experiment with philosophizing. We just have to live with that fact. I certainly did when I was young. And I have no doubt that many of you who are reading this did it when you were young too. Since it wouldn’t do us a bit of good to avert our eyes and pretend that it isn’t happening, it’s our job as the older, wiser, more experienced ones to make sure they do it safely.
What better, safer way for the young to philosophize than out in the open, on the radio, in the company of a couple of experienced practitioners like John and me? But we also wanted someone younger and cooler to help us out, someone with more experience speaking directly to the young. So to help us out we invited someone who fits that bill exactly -- Jack Bowen, author of the best-selling novel The Dreamweaver, who also teaches philosophy to high school students.
It was fun time. Hope you give a listen.