The Washington Post Argues for Philosophy

Today The Washington Post posted an article discussing why students in K-12 need philosophy and the education of the First Science. Steve Neumann is the original author, but Valerie Strauss decided to share it in regards to the idea of pushing education further, specifically talking about Obama’s 4 Billion dollars for Computer Science education. The reality is that Neumann’s piece is quite truthful and philosophy is a necessary part that children need in their education.

I don’t mean that we should teach kids philosophy the way they would encounter it in college. Adolescents don’t need to dive into dissertations on Plato’s theory of forms or Kant’s categorical imperative. (That kind of study is valuable, too, and should be included in secondary education somewhere, but that’s an argument for another day.) The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called “embryonic society.

Agreed, children don’t need to digest all of the Ethics of Politics, or Metaphysics of Morals in one sitting, as many college students are forced to. But Neumann quotes an interesting idea, that of the embryonic society. Far better than explaining it first, here is the original author, John Dewey, on his own idea.

The great thing to keep in mind, then, regarding the introduction into the school of various forms of active occupation, is that through them the entire spirit of the school is renewed. It has a chance to affiliate itself with life, to become the child’s habitat, where he learns through directed living; instead of being only a place to learn lessons having an abstract and remote reference to some possible living to be done in the future. It gets a chance to be a miniature community, an embryonic society. This is the fundamental fact, and from this arise continuous and orderly sources of instruction. Under the industrial regime described, the child, after all, shared in the work, not for the sake of the sharing, but for the sake of the product. The educational results secured were real, yet incidental and dependent. But in the school the typical occupations followed are freed from all economic stress. The aim is not the economic value of the products, but the development of social power and insight. It is this liberation from narrow utilities, this openness to the possibilities of the human spirit that makes these practical activities in the school allies of art and centers of science and history.

The unity of all the sciences is found in geography. The significance of geography is that it presents the earth as the enduring home of the occupations of man. The world without its relationship to human activity is less than a world. Human industry and achievement, apart from their roots in the earth, are not even a sentiment, hardly a name. The earth is the final source of all man’s food. lt is his continual shelter and protection, the raw material of all his activities, and the home to whose humanizing and idealizing all his achievement returns. It is the great field, the great mine, the great source of the energies of heat, light, and electricity; the great scene of ocean, stream, mountain, and plain, of which all our agriculture and mining and lumbering, all our manufacturing and distributing agencies, are but the partial elements and factors. It is through occupations determined by this environment that mankind has made its historical and political progress. It is through these occupations that the intellectual and emotional interpretation of nature has been developed. It is through what we do in and with the world that we read its meaning and measure its value.

In educational terms, this means that these occupations in the school shall not be mere practical devices or modes of routine employment, the gaining of better technical skill as cooks, sempstresses, or carpenters, but active centers of, scientific insight into natural materials and processes, points of departure whence children shall be led out into a realization of the historic development of man. The actual significance of this can be told better through one illustration taken from actual school work than by general discourse.

What Dewey meant, and what Neumann is encouraging is the idea that we help children not only learn to become scientists, engineers, doctors, and lawyers, is to see how those roles and educations create opportunity for the children to define and effect the history and present existence of mankind. We no longer have a societal education where we teach children to see themselves as political movers, as societal shakers, and as community builders. By separating education and income from personal/social interactions, we have created a dilemma where our children do not know by the time they are adults, how to affect and improve their communities, save through money and time in education. The benefit of mankind is often spent through time and money, but its about the benefits outside of cash and manpower, such as the benefits of electricity in our lives. When we cease wondering and teaching wonder about the things we have found and discovered to benefit our people, our children slowly fail to understand the necessity and benefit of having those discoveries.

This is why Vaccines have become something hated, why government is purely hated by most, if not all, non-political elite. Medicine and Politics have escaped the purview of every man, woman, and child. They have become niche realms and that means that apathy and antagonism to their necessity are bound to increase.

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

When we do not teach children to wonder, they do not seek to investigate and ponder reality, which means they are weak to reality breaking. Why are so many youth disillusioned by the politics of our day post-Obama, after Obama told them nice things were going to happen? Why are so many youth back buying into Sanders saying nice things are going to happen? Because our youth do not understand that people are going to violate their naivete to exploit them for profit and benefit. Not to say Sanders or Obama are evil or manipulative, but when the promises failed to come through, a rational human would not say, “WELL SCREW POLITICS, everything is broken, why fight it?” They would instead say, “Well, that didn’t go how I wanted it, why? It must be because of something preventing it or not wanting to complete it. I should do something to remove that barrier or prevention.”

If our children truly were philosophers, ponderers, wondering minds, our youth would be running for office, seeking political positions, to change the agenda from the inside out. They would NOT constantly rely on the political class to do nice things for them, because rational humans realize that only good things happen when you do things with your own hands.

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Part of Dialogue is the open exchange of words and ideas, without hostility or paranoid denial of facts. Dialogue requires open-mindedness, trust of each other to honesty, and frankness in somber details. Without sincere dialogue, where we talk openly, lovingly, and honestly with one another, we will lose our society because we are educating our children to give up control of it. When children are not allowed to ask questions, not allowed to ponder reality, and when parents prevent them from pursuing end ideas, children will concede those thoughts eventually to the person who treats them best. We are educating our children into helplessness and mental insufficiency. Not mental disease or mental incompetence, rather we are teaching our children it is okay to be insufficient in thought and reason, and trust another human to do that for them. We are educating our children to be more like animals, rather than like men and women.


2 thoughts on “The Washington Post Argues for Philosophy

  1. This was quite refreshing. Even working in sustainability in higher education as I do, I am often alarmed by people’s failure to frame arguments in terms of civic-mindedness (which is how I think of the principles you are talking about). To me, that is the fundamental basis of operating in collective human society (which is the very thing that allows us the luxury of doing anything beyond subsistence). Like it or not, we all rely on one another, and that makes us responsible for one another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, and I think it goes beyond civic awareness (though that’s my personal argument). It goes to community building and strengthening. I grew up in a small town and it was important to know mostly everyone and everything going on. However, as we get bigger populations this becomes harder and easier to stop engaging in. However, when that hits critical mass, you get tensions like we see in New York and Baltimore, where civil strife occurs because our community has fractured and segregated effectively.


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