Philosophy for the Young: Corrupting or Empowering?

Thursday, September 2, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

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 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. 

Comments (11)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, September 3, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Since about age 12 I have considered myself a "phi

Since about age 12 I have considered myself a "philosopher" much to the universal and monumental irritation of adults (interpret quotes around 'philosopher' as you will). Peers were entirely okay with this and were often intrigued. It's fascinating how many present thoughts and opinions date back to those times. My subsequent scientific profession emerged from this, curiously enough.
I was a voracious reader, but missed out on valuable other exposure -- such as "Philosophy Talk" which was unfortunately lacking back in those old days!

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I would strongly encourage philosophy courses at m

I would strongly encourage philosophy courses at multiple points over the course of an education. I would just as strongly encourage psychology education for every young person.
The inscription at the temple of the Oracle at Delphi said "Know Thyself". That sums up a lot of ancient philosophy and also is the mission of psychology.
Both promote critical thinking skills.
If I had to choose between philosophy and psychology I think I'd have to go with the latter if it helped give young people some insight into why people feel and behave as they do and the pernicious influence of cognitive biases.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

As a contractor, ethics constantly come into play

As a contractor, ethics constantly come into play in my job as owner of the company. It would be very easy to not do things right and cover them up. As a responsible person, and contractor, I believe that doing the right thing is the right thing. at http://www.dreamworksremodeling.com that is the only way we do our contracting work. We also use a majority of the skills taught to us in school, including Geometry and of course English (my weak subject).
Les

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 6, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

To your quote: "Of course, I don?t want to deny

To your quote: "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."
Umm, yeah! We do want people, young people included, to self examine their religious and patriotic beliefs; as an exercise and because we do not want them to listen to bad arguments for: going to war, making decisions about sex and birth control and many other examples. And I, as a parent, fully want my child to question me if I attempt to lead him astray and into unreason.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 6, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

What you say: "Done wrongly, philosophy can be hig

What you say: "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." I find it the most agreeable part & very conservative at that. Nevertheless, as 'Devil's advocate' (Or Devil advocate) I would say that it is not altogether bad to question life, catholicism, country et al. But KNOW HOW TO QUESTION. That would be the difference between common rebellion & crabby bickering and a philosophical stand. That is, avoid the problems of young (and also problems of older, which are no better): without conformity at any price, without presumptions, without superb pride. Young try to be & think like old and viceversa. The best example is Socrates. People won't burn you if when young you rebel and are against all, because you are young: you are entitled to be mistaken. It is when a serene, calmed but nevertheless reasonable critique is done when they will burn you, be you a child or an old man. Or maybe just give you a treat of a Hemlock cocktail. ¡Good (hem)lock! Life is to ask about things. it is not easy to do, but it doesn´t need to be done unpolitely and gross. Diogenes was a sage IN SPITE of his uncouthness and bad manners. Much I prefer Leibniz, Aquinas, Hume and others. Their humble deaths are an example. Knows to die he who has known to live.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Socrates the philosopher was concerned with Tru

Socrates the philosopher was concerned with Truth. Truth implies, like, avoiding falsehoods, explicit or implicit.
Now, Stanford has a reputation for...Nepotism (ie letting students in who are underprepared, but who may have financial or familial connections which ...allow them to be admitted) .
Nepotism involves falsehood (at least implicit), even of an egregious sort (and for that matter, the ancients opposed oligarchy...a classification which Stanford might fall under).
Thus Stanford does not uphold the teachings of Socrates
QED.
:|

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

To Freedom I can see that One day very soon the

To Freedom
I can see that One day very soon the lessons of truth will supersede or rise above all others, especially those uncertain lessons of theories or faiths that have led us so terribly astray. And rather than the truth showing us The Way to the Promised Land, we will become it.
Simply beautifully and truly just One,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 18, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth in

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? Should it be taught to teenagers?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 25, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Regrettably, I have had little interaction with mo

Regrettably, I have had little interaction with modern day youth, so I am ill-equipped to opine much on the pros or cons of exposing them to the intricacies of philosophy. I can only comment on my own OEOs, regarding my own philosophical evolution. (OEOs=Observations, Experiences and Opinions) Like one or more of your other commenters, I must have fancied myself a philosopher early on. I did not know that my thoughts about certain things might fall under some named category. Philosophy was not taught in either primary or secondary school and would not be addressed formally before university study.
Mostly, my thinking and actions vis-a-vis, right, wrong, good, bad and indifferent got me into trouble, with peers, superiors or both. This happened to anyone who thought and acted differently from the mainstream.
I abandoned much of this aberrent thinking and behavior, and have only re-embraced it in the last ten years or so. I am happy to have done so and hope that something I say, between now and the entrance to eternity, will have some relevence.
There is nothing corruptive about philosophical thought and discourse. But it will not buy food or pay the mortgage. And, if history teaches us accurately, it will not save the world from itself. It might encourage some of us to regard others with more respect and compassion. Perhaps this is all it was ever intended to do. If it was intended to do anything at all.

matthew's picture

matthew

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Just recently discovered this

Just recently discovered this show driving on HWY 1 and was thrilled. I majored in Philosophy as an undergrad and this question of making philosophical inquiry available in high schools is something I've considered a great deal since graduating. Perhaps the most readily applicable class I took was symbolic logic which offered me a useful structure for analyzing the structure of arguments and assessing their validity in everything from newspaper articles to formal philosophical texts. This knowledge has proven exceptionally valuable both as a support for effective self-reflection and critique of media, politics, cultural values, etc. I am indebted to Prof. Dale "Danger Cat" Jacquette for being a phenomenal teacher and making this knowledge accessible and showing its practical value.
Is it other people's experience that Philosophy runs the risk of moving too far into the abstract, intellectual realm, obscuring its pragmatic value for everyday living? When this happens, students miss the gift of honest, rigorous inquiry that has the power to change their mind and so their living experience. This seems to be the critical point of philosophy -- when it is used well it can lead to the experience of understanding, offering genuine, embodied knowledge which will change the way the philosophic practitioner sees and acts in the world.
Two challenges to Philosophy in public schools immediately present themselves here:
1) Is it possible to teach such a discipline in a public school where, one might argue, questioning minds are discouraged in favor of grinding out high standardized test scores to help secure school funding, and where teachers may not be prepared to address difficult questions that may have no ready answer and may lead students against the grain of their culture? It would be challenging to quantify the benefits of philosophical training.
2) For all its power, do we have a ready discipline for analyzing WHO is doing the philosophy? I was once asked, after failing to complete the seemingly simple, straightforward task of counting 10 breaths without thinking anything else, what it felt like to know that I was not in control of my own mind. The implications for my philosophical education were significant -- indeed how do I know any philosopher I was studying was in control of his/her mind? For all its power, are we prepared for and capable of addressing the deeper questions of WHO/WHAT engages in philosophical inquiry? If I am not in control of my mind, then what is? How does it shape and inform my philosophical inquiry, the questions I choose, the viewpoint from which I begin? Can we help students navigate these fundamental questions of self and thought?
I received little to no practical training in my philosophy education for engaging in a really penetrating analysis of the thinker itself. I accepted the thinker as the do-er of philosophy, operating with a presumptive faith in the ability of thinking itself to lead to truth. I received some exposure later in college to questions about the nature of consciousness and how does it arise, but nothing that really prepared me to look at the nature and operation of emotions, habitual thought patterns, the perhaps mutually dependent subject-object relationship between knower and thing-known, etc. The nitty gritty of the WHO does philosophy and how it operates--- WHAT is this tool, the intellect, that engages in philosophical inquiry, how does it function, and what else is in the mix?
If this was something we could teach students, that would be potent indeed though I imagine charges of corruption of youth would be waiting under the modern guise of a prohibition against "religious/spiritual" inquiry in secular education. In its most potent and practical form, isn't philosophical inquiry, another method of spiritual inquiry, i.e. the search for Truth, taking the discerning capacity of mind as the tool to excavate whatever truth we can? Do we understand the tool itself and can we teach students to understand this tool and use it effectively and beneficially?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Philosophy encompasses many

Philosophy encompasses many subjects. Some of the topics are very relevant to the youth such as logic, ethics, environmental and political philosophy. I believe also that studying the history of philosophy captures the history of ideas and may broaden the horizon of the young and their openness and flexibility.

 
 
 

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