January 13, 2006

Can High School Students Handle Philosophy?

Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas Austin, points to an LA Times article about a lawsuit against a California public school district over an attempt to introduce an elective course entitled "philosophy of design." The suit charges that the course is about promoting a particular religion, rather than looking at the issue in the sort of balanced way a permissible "comparative relgion" course would. Now, if the charge is true and the course teaches only one viewpoint and seeks to convince students of that viewpoint, then it is a bad philosophy class (the constitutional issue is, of course, also somewhat important, but I tend to ignore it since the federal deparment of education is unconstitutional anyway). However, evaluating the course is not my primary interest. What I'm interested in are Leiter's comments. He says,

Of course, there are real philosophical issues about naturalism and intelligent design, but they have nothing to do with the proposed course in California, and, indeed, they are far too hard for high school students. ( ... It would be a marvel if there were high school students prepared to sort through the issues about substance dualism, antirealism about material objects, and the theory of perception that are implicated in genuine philosophical discussion of the issue.)

Are high school students prepared to handle these issues? Can they be taught on that level without doing more harm than good? The thing about philosophy, in my view, is that, at least historically, the questions have been more important than the answers. This is certainly true pedagogically (consider the "Socratic" method). Furthermore, the questions philosophers consider are the questions that any deep thinker will eventually get to, with or without actually studying philosophy. If you start from any observation and ask "why" enough times, eventually you will get to philosophy.

Nevetheless, there is a strong temptation toward elitism in philosophy, and it is very understandable. For instance, I can personally attest that the more I study philosophy the more I become irritated with people who refuse to think. Also, because of the universal availability of the questions, there are a lot of people out there who want to call themselves philosophers but have had no schooling, and this is something of an affront to someone who spends 8 to 10 years studying to become a philosopher (I guess I belong to the former group, since I call myself a philosopher after not even 3 full years of school, but I'm working toward that latter). However, I hold that this usage of language is legitimate. A "philosopher" is just that - a lover of wisdom. The term was used by Socrates/Plato to contrast with the sophists who claimed to actually have wisdom. The philosopher claims only to love and pursue it. Now, some people have pursued it farther than others, and they want a little credit, and they deserve more than a little, but does that mean that no one else is competent to think about philosophical issues? No! In many cases, the same evidence is available to all of us, so it would in fact be a logical fallacy to believe something just because some philosopher says it; everyone has to think about it for himself.

Now, back to the issue at hand: Leiter asserts that it is highly unlikely that any high school student could grapple adequately with the issues involved. Do they need to grapple adequately? Is it not of pedagogical value just to have them start thinking about it, and wanting more information? Intelligent design might even become an entry for a general introduction to philosophy since it has bearing on issues of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language (via questions of whether religious texts are consistent with evolution), and so forth.

Leiter lists three issues as examples of things that intelligent design is related to, and I say that they are all things that high school students could benefit by asking questions in relation to. This is not to say that everyone is equally good at answering this question, or that there is no priveleged place for professional philosophers, it is merely to say that high school students could benefit from being trained to ask the right kind of questions, and to start looking at a few possible answers, and anyone willing to put in the work is capable of accomplishing at least this much under a competent teacher (or perhaps just with a good book on the subject).

The first issue is "substance dualism." This view is also known as Cartesian dualism. It is the view that there are two completely different types of substance in the universe: the physical and the spiritual (or mental). That is, the physical world is one type of substance, and minds or souls are another. This is a question everyone is capable of understanding. When you ask "do I have a soul?" you implicitly ask the question of substance dualism. Descartes' Meditations are not difficult to read; motivated high school students with good teachers could easily get through it. That is not to say that there are not difficult problems in the text that have been debated by philosophers for centuries, and that people have devoted many years of scholarship to solving, but the basic outlines of Descartes' thoughts are within the reach of any thinking person. So is the question of substance dualism. Now, the contemporary philosophical literature on the subject is much more difficult, but that does not mean that high school students can't "sort through issues about substance dualism." They won't do it as well as professional philosophers, but then they don't understand Newtonian mechanics as well as professional physicists, but no one thinks they shouldn't be taught Newtonian mechanics. In fact, in many high school physics or chemistry classes the very most basic principles of quantum mechanics and relativity are at least mentioned in a qualitative sort of way, and these are extremely difficult issues! But that doesn't mean high school students can't start trying to wrap their minds around ideas like superpositions or wave-particle dualism or "warped" space. Likewise, high school students are equipped to start asking questions about substance dualism, if they are sufficiently motivated and well taught.

Leiter's second issue is "anti-realism about material objects." What he means, I think, is basically the same idea as "representation dualism" (there are a lot of "dualisms"). This is a concept which I personally believe (a) to have been pioneered by a favorite of mine, Parmenides, and (b) to be the really foundational question that makes it possible to start doing metaphysics as something distinct from physics. Representation dualism claims that the world we see (the representation) is not identical with the "ontological ground-floor," as it were, of the universe. That is, if the world we see is real at all there exists something that is more real. If one takes the description of the universe from, e.g., particle physics to be fundamental, one is already endorsing representation dualism, because the particles are not the things that we are aware of experiencing in every day life. In fact they are not even similar. This issue really isn't that hard to start inquiring about either, as you can see.

Finally, he mentions "theory of perception." Now, I don't even want to begin to discuss theory of perception, because there are so many issues and I'm not sure which ones count as "basic," but clearly we all know what perception is, what it means to perceive, and we are all equipped to at least start asking questions.

I hold that asking these questions is greatly beneficial to intellectual development, even if one doesn't arrive at a good or satisfactory answer. However, there is the issue of whether the students can apply these issues to intelligent design. I think the answer is yes. Going from "are there non-physical substances?" to "is there a God?" is not hard. Seeing the difficulty of interaction between substances, particularly unlike substances, is also not hard (but solving the difficulty is; that's what makes i a "difficulty"!). Asking questions like, "if the world has a Creator, what kind of being is it?" is also not hard (but, again, answering them is). Asking whether the world we see is the fundamental reality, and understanding the arguments of Berkeley and Hume that it can't be, is not hard. Answering that question is. Asking all these questions, and making first halting attempts to at least understand what the possible range of answers is is of great benefit to one's intellectual development. If the class was taught well, I don't understand how anything other than excessive academic elitism could motivate an educator in the field of philosophy to oppose it.

Now, Leiter does go on to charge that "this course is obviously just masquerading as philosophy in order to present crackpot theories as though they had scientific support or standing," and perhaps he is right. Perhaps the course doesn't exist for the purpose of an examination of the philosophical issues surrounding intelligent design. Perhaps, instead, the "philosophy" label is merely an excuse to push religious indoctrination into public schools. If he has good reason to believe that this is the case (and, as I said, I haven't investigated this issue), then Leiter is quite justified in his opposition to the course. As I said, IF it is taught well, there is no good reason to oppose it. However, given the degree of knowledge about philosophy found in most public school teachers (and most people, in general), and given the (lack of) availability of good textbooks, it may be highly unlikely that the class will be good. I merely hold that Leiter greatly overestimates the amount of difficulty there is in bringing difficult philosophical issues to high school students.

Posted by Kenny at January 13, 2006 10:12 PM
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On Public Education
Excerpt: In the comments to this post on recent attempts to insert intelligent design into public high schools as philosophy, Ed Darrell and I have been having a discussion about more general questions of public education. I thought it would be a good idea to w...
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Tracked: January 20, 2006 9:11 AM

Comments

You should investigate the issue. The course is not a philosophy course. It is to be taught by one of the athletic coaches, and its syllabus shows that it is a not-concealed attempt to endorse creationism as religion.

Leiter gives the view from the philosophy department. He's right.

But the view from the proponents of the class doesn't get close to philosophy. It's pure religion, and not great theology at that.

Yes, high school students can handle difficult questions of philosophy. Yes, it would be good to teach them such a course.

No, the proposed course is not that course, nor is it even philosophy. The course as proposed and scheduled is illegal advocacy of religion. As proposed, if taught well, the kids would take up creationism and abandon whatever faith they may have, Christianity, Judaism, Islam . . . that's patently illegal.

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 14, 2006 3:17 PM

Ed, the following facts from this article make it appear that this will indeed be a very bad philosophy class (if it even qualifies as a philosophy course in anything but name):

  1. It is being taught by a social studies teacher with no science or philosophy background

  2. The teacher is married to a pastor (not that this disqualifies her from teaching philosophy/science, it merely indicates a particular type of bias)

  3. The course description says the course "will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects [of evolution] that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid." This seems to say that the whole purpose of the course is to argue against one particular viewpoint. Good philosophy classes do not do this.

So, I agree that it looks like a very bad class. My comments above were merely directed at Professor Leiter's analysis. All I mean to say is that it would be possible to teach a good class on this subject to high school students (although it may not be politically possible in our current environment).

As to the legal issue, as I mentioned, as a constitutional originalist, I think that the existence of the federal department of education is "patently illegal." All education necessarily involves a degree of indoctrination - the younger you start, the greater the necessary degree is. For this reason, I don't think the government should handle education. However, in the present system, we compromise by trying to minimize the indoctrination as much as possible, encourage students to think for themselves, presenting evidence rather than asking students to accept things on authority, etc. On a few issues, this approach doesn't make everyone happy, and then we fight about whose viewpoint should be taught, which is what's happening now.

Because, in my view, this is all just an uneasy (and unfortunate) compromise, I choose to evaluate the issue in this case just as I would if it were happening at a private school, and I say the following: someone could teach a good class on this subject to high school students, but this isn't happening here. In this case, it appears that the class is very bad. If I had a child going there, I would be unhappy about it, and if I was on an admissions board at a college, it would make me less enthusiastic about admitting students from that school than I otherwise might be.

Now it is true, in the realm of the legal controversy, that if the government does fund the propagation of certain viewpoints, then there is a legitimate issue of what viewpoints it can fund, but it is my view tha this is just none of the government's business to begin with.

Posted by: Kenny at January 14, 2006 3:45 PM

The course violates California's Constitution, not to mention that the federal constition protects us from the religious views of others.

I'm not sure why you think the U.S. Department of Education is illegal, or why you even mention them here. They have no dog in this fight. What about handing out scholarships to college kids strikes you as illegal?

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 16, 2006 9:27 AM

I don't know anything about Callifornia's constitution. The US Constittuion doesn't "protect us from the religious views of others." What about the phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" says "protection from the religious views of others" to you?

Now, it may be that you merely chose an unfortunate phrasing. Perhaps you mean, "the federal Constitution protects us from having religious views pressed upon us by the government" - and it certainly does do THAT, and the school IS part of the government.

The 9th and 10th amendments make it clear that the Constitution is a list of things the government CAN do, not a list of things it CAN'T. Some people, at the time of signing, didn't want to include a Bill of Rights because they thought that this would cause people to think the government could do whatever it wanted as long as it didn't violate those rights, and this is why the 9th and 10th amendments were included. What the government CAN do is listed in the main text of the Constitution. In particular, the types of things Congress can regulate are listed in Art. 1 Sect. 8, and education is NOT THERE, nor are regulations regarding public education "necessary and proper" to "regulating interstate commerce."

The reason I keep bringing this up is that my commitments in the realm of political morality force me to be opposed in principle to government involvement in education. In practice, I think it is so important that everyone have access to education that I would not want it abolished all at once or anything like that - I would want to make sure that there were sufficient private charitable funds to take care of what the government now does (but if not enough people care enough about education to give voluntarily to such a degree as to allow everyone to have access to education, then there is no morally permissible action we can take in order to ensure that everyone can get an education - that's what I get for being a non-consequentialist...). Because I think the whole system is wrong from the perspective of the US Constitution and the perspective of political morality, I prefer to set aside questions of the legality of certain parts of the system and simply ask the question "are the students receiving a good education." As you have pointed out, it appears that the way this class is going to be taught will cause them to receive a worse rather than better education (although this is not due to the topic of the class, but merely due to the fact that it appears it will be taught in a one-sided fashion by people who are ignorant of the real issues), therefore I must oppose the course. From a political perspective, I oppose in principle not just this course, but the entirety of the public school system. Due to the nature of the situation, in practice I oppose the particular course but would choose the system which I in principle oppose over the alternative.

Posted by: Kenny at January 16, 2006 11:24 AM

So, since the U.S. government has almost no role in education at the primary or secondary levels, I'm still confused about what your beef is. The U.S. Department of Education writes no curricula, by tradition, and by law. Below the college level, the federal government basically provides money to help out kids with special needs.

Political morality is fine -- but what does that have to do here? The U.S. Department of Education hands out grants to college educations, chiefly. That's a valid purpose under the Constitution, and it leads to none of the harms you hint about.

Public education in the U.S. still is the acme of education in the world. It's not perfect, but you're not exactly proposing anything better. What is it you actually favor?

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 17, 2006 8:59 PM

I favor not confiscating the money of some to pay for the education of others. I favor people giving their money voluntarily, yes, but if they refuse to give it voluntarily they are within their rights, and no one has the right to take that money for that purpose. This is why this is not a legitimate function of government: the government's confiscation of money for this purpose is not morally legitimate. Furthermore, since No Child Left Behind, the federal government DOES mandate curricula.

How would giving scholarships be constitutionally legitimate? Where is it in Art. I's definition of the powers of the legislature?

Posted by: Kenny at January 17, 2006 9:20 PM

Paying taxes to education children is not confiscation. Government by consent of the governed is not despotism. Democracy is not dictatorship.

Grants for college qualify as providing for the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, for starters. Don't forget the purpose clause of the entire document. For Article I purposes, it's Article I, Section 8, paragraphs 1 and 18 -- see "necessary and proper." Commerce clause powers probably cover it, too.

All of which also rather drops the original complaint about federal action in primary and secondary schools. You started out complaining the feds shouldn't interfere with local schools, and when I pointed out they really don't, you switched over to complaining that you don't think there's an adequate foundation for the federal government to contribute to higher education.

The reality is that exactly that sort of education support is among the very first and oldest powers of our government, predating the Constitution with the Northwest Ordinances prior to 1787.

We enter the compact willingly -- it's not confiscation.

Is there some rational basis for a complaint aginst the feds?

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 18, 2006 7:58 PM

Ed, I've now written a more general discussion of the question of public education here.

Posted by: Kenny at January 20, 2006 9:12 AM

Kenny:
I am a big fan of the radio program emanating from SF, by two Phil. profs from Stanford.
I am of the belief, as you seem to be, that Phil. should be a part of everyone's h.s. curriculum.
I am working to encourage educators here, in SF, to have this as a part of their students' work..

Cheers to you, for your efforts.

jack barry, SF

Posted by: jack barry at February 20, 2006 4:50 AM

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