Teaching Philosophy in High School

Philosophy has been called “The Dead Science,” in fact back in 2011 Stephen hawking boldly claimed that “Philosophy is Dead“. And yet it has more need in modern culture than before. People forget that at its very base philosophy teaches the use of reason and logic in life. It is much more than just metaphysics and unanswerable questions about life.

So teaching philosophy causes a few things within a person. Firstly the person begins to start asking their own questions about the way things are, things they would never have noticed before. The person learns to make logical conclusions based on their own thought. In an essence it is learning how to think rather than what to think, such as most people are taught in school.

The Huffington Post wrote a fabulous article on the subject a few years back. A few of their arguments detailed how philosophy makes a person more whole, how rationality should be used in politics, and how ethics helps a person conquer fear and live a happier life. But sadly, this gives little incentive for schools to begin teaching philosophy. As we know the public school system is harshly underfunded and many times only focused on meeting state requirements. As a student I know this too well. The core classes are pushed down the student’s throat until the time they graduate, and by then they don’t know anything else besides math, English, science, and a few terms of history.

But, what I also know is that schools are worried about the student’s reading comprehension. Systematically reading and writing has been incorporated into just about every class in some way. Our students just aren’t very good at it. This is partly our fault, because with the country’s failing math and science scores most people don’t seem to notice the lacking reading scores either.

Traditional English classes have done little to help. English classes fail to push the student to critically think about a text and teaches no analytical or reasoning skills. What the school system needs are philosophy classes. Having students analyze a Socratic dialogue or treatises of Aristotle will force them to think about the piece and make their own interpretations of it. The reason is that you cannot simply just read a piece of philosophy and fully comprehend it without thinking about it, and that’s exactly what students need.

Philosophy will benefit in nearly all areas of school. Nearly all fields relate back to philosophy in some way, math, science, history, literature, language, psychology, ect. I fully implore schools to allow philosophy as a year long elective, or better yet a required course.

Realistically I know that a single course in philosophy will not turn people into super students, I know that it is a subject which you have to build upon as you go. I would love to see introduction courses as early as 5th grade, but I doubt that would happen. So what I propose is starting in middle school. A simple class taught in middle school covering the way philosophers reach conclusions, brief overview of a few movements, and some exposure to interpreting text would go a long way for those kids. Nothing too strenuous. It would serve as introduction for kids to explore deeper in high school.

Socrates coined the Socratic Dialogue, a method of conversing to stimulate critical thinking.
Socrates coined the Socratic Dialogue, a method of conversing to stimulate critical thinking.

What that middle school class would do is teach those kids to really think, not just do as they’re told. Since at that age students are still developing it would be enormously beneficial. For classes in high school it would teach more in depth beliefs of different people and how they affected history. The class would require more critical thinking and study. The use of class discussion and debate would help further the cause. Just as Socrates used. The role of discussion would encourage students to expand their ideas and critique other’s through reason. The key for a philosophy class is to not simply tell the students what people have thought, it is for them to think about it.

The most controversy this would cause would be on two grounds:  1) The teaching of philosophy interferes with religion.  2) Philosophy is useless and would waste school funding. Regarding the first point, philosophy and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. In many cases they compliment each other. While there is a good deal of atheistic and agnostic philosophy, there are also many philosophers advocating for a wide array of religions. The class would simply allow students to choose what is best for them. Regarding the second point, if the philosophy classes work as intended the higher test scores would give the schools more funding to use at their disposal. And I’d be willing to bet if an AP curriculum (the nationwide Advanced Placement program) were created, even more schools would jump on the chance to teach philosophy in the hopes to raise funds even higher.

But since their is a prevalence of science in schools I would also encourage the comparison of metaphysics to modern science. Some brief exploration of the subject would suffice without a deep understanding of the material.

After a student has undergone such a class they would develop their own views of the world, we would have a largely more educated population. The knowledge of logic would then enable the person to more effectively explore other fields not taught in school, such as politics or macroeconomics.

The younger the person starts, the better. Realistically some schools would only offer a single elective course in high school, but something is better than nothing. Teaching a person to think, or at the very least some common sense, is really invaluable. It would support the student’s reading comprehension and give them the tools to further explore the other fields of thought. It’s worth a shot.

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61 thoughts on “Teaching Philosophy in High School

  1. I think a lot of it comes down to the intended goals of the education system. You can break the benefits of education into two classes, career preparation and personal cultivation. It seems like the vast majority of what is being taught in schools has to do with the former, while completely ignoring the character traits and cultural awareness that comes from simply being an educated person. The beauty, I think, of education and the ability to think critically is that not only does it make you more valuable as an economic resource to society, but it also encourages that society to make better decisions about its governance, its character, and its morality. Teaching philosophy early on would go a long way towards making us a smarter nation as a whole.

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    • Having been a student and a teacher in a variety of settings education has changed in several ways over the years. Until recently for the last 30 years or so, education was focused on a liberal arts curriculum. Student’s were provided with a difficult though well rounded education which included the d dreaded Latin, the sciences, etc. The endgame being to develop individuals who could think across a wide variety of subjects. One’s career education started when they were hired in their desired field. It was then the responsibility of the business to teach them about the work environment. Now, business expects the PUBLIC education system to provide them with workers who already know about how to work in a chosen field. Hence, we have student’s being educated to standards instead of being taught how to think. As well taxpayers now subsidize business by removing their role as teachers and burdening public institutions with the responsibility of training to professions instead of a solid liberal arts education. I believe we fail ourselves by not expanding people outlook with a good lib arts education. When did hiring, I would always choose people who were smart and could think. You can ALWAYS teach smart people a job. You can’t always teach narrowly educated people.

      Liked by 2 people

    • “Cultural awareness” is a good point too. Luckily, people seem to be getting that with an expanded look and connection to other people’s lives via the internet. You can tell that cultural awareness is a dangerous and valuable learning tool just by witnessing the oppressive countries who keep trying to shut it down or control it heavily.

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  2. Philosophy means a ‘schemata’ of the world or a ‘desired’ or ‘just’ society by scholars! However, due modern science, need of ‘imaginary’ world is over and as far as society is concerned, it too moves due its own laws and not one ‘made’ laws by some brilliant scholar!
    So, need of our time is to discover more and more laws, hidden or open, working in our world and know how to use it; like electricity in thunder storm and electricity in our house! If Capitalism has replaced feudalism, which was born from the womb of feudalism itself and not ‘planned’ by any economist or philosopher; will it to be replaced by some new social or economic order?
    I am for teaching “Philosophy”; not to inculcate reasoning in humans(Which is there due many other reasons) but to teach them the evolution of it & how it merged with science; at least till the human society remains barbaric due production for profit, which breeds unemployment, hunger, war, oppression on women & children, yet accumulation of mammoth wealth in hands of few, which remains unused & gets even destroyed!

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    • Philosophy is more than a relic of imaginary thinking. Science was once a branch of philosophy that split, philosophy did not merge into science. We cannot rely on the scientific method (epirisism) to reveal all laws any more than we can rely on intuitive religious ideas. As you say, humanity is in need of the next step of evolution, but pure natural science is not going to get us there.

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  3. Good points!
    I’m afraid that in many cases “their” is not a prevalence of science in schools, though. Science education is lacking, too, especially in certain states. More philosophy and more science would both be helpful. Of course, that’s assuming that those in charge WANT students to learn critical thinking– often not a valid assumption.

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  4. For a long time, student (at least in the boarding schools) were taught “the classics” of Greek thought. I was in a generation after the shift was made to a more “relevant” curriculum. When I finally took up political and ethical philosophy in college, I found myself filtering much of what was said in the ancient texts against what I knew about science. With modern philosophy, the problem is the accumulated baggage of academic writing – there’s so much context to learn before one can understand it.

    But I agree heartily that we should teach some form of critical reasoning and rhetorical skill in school. My sons (now in college) had weekly “Socratic seminars” in English and history. These were student-led discussions.

    But I think that relevance is still an issue to be resolved. When my younger son decided to narrow his honors work to STEM, he was disappointed at the resistance shown by many students to learning. It wasn’t that the teacher didn’t try, they just didn’t want to participate.

    I tried to address this with my sons with the claim that I was “introducing” them to ideas much as I would introduce them to a potential friend. I don’t know how much of an effect the emotional strategy had, versus just hanging out with a wonk every day.

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  5. “Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and a fool.” -Plato

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  6. Awesome blog post! I took philosophy classes during my university studies, and I am thankful I did. The advantages of taking such classes have benefited my life in so many ways. It saddens me to know that schools have put aside discussion periods in classes in the name of performance. The exchange of ideas is the basis for human growth. If this is absent from our lives, we are simply going through life without questioning our purpose, our lives, our surroundings. What a frightening notion!

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  7. While I wholeheartedly agree that teaching philosophy would enable children to develop a whole host of life skills, our educational approach is career-focused, which for many is not a bad thing. And while there is an argument that liberal arts are increasingly set aside for career studies, it’s noteworthy that the study of philosophy has never been in the mainstream. It’s all of liberal arts study, not just philosophy, that concerns me: too many college students majoring in marketing or business, and then entering the workforce with no analytical skills or imagination (not to mention their total lack of grammar skills). Bring back the focus on liberal arts in general!

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  8. Thank you for the like. My perception of how to teach philosophy differs from yours but I think that is due mire to the constraints the public school system would attach to your methods. Our intent is the same, critical analysis is a prime concern.

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  9. I love the concepts and ideas here, and agree wholeheartedly that children (and dare I say even ADULTS) need to learn HOW to think, as opposed to being told WHAT to think. (Especially when formulating common sense!) Unfortunately, that goes against the constructs of population control established by the “hierarchy”! It’s truly sad, at least here in the States, the whole dumbing down of society to keep everyone oppressed; just so the greedy ones in power can maintain their control and tyranny. (They definitely want to keep it that way, telling everyone WHAT to think!!!) Freethinkers are essentially “underground”… Does that add more mystique, allure, secret delight, pleasure, and desire to pursue the subject? Freethinkers are exactly that~ and somehow need to unify to overthrow the regime. Thank goodness for the world wide web and blogs to help facilitate finding each other! 😉

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  10. What a wonderful article! In an era when educators are always talking about the importance of “critical thinking skills,” it’s odd that philosophy isn’t a staple of middle and high school curricula. I explore philosophy with my homeschooled teens through discussing science fiction movies. Many of them touch on issues like the nature of reality, free will, and ethics.

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  11. What a lot of scientists (Dr. Hawking included) forget is that science STILL IS a branch of philosophy. To many scientists I’ve encountered, science has become almost Almighty to them (although I won’t say all scientists feel that way), and, as such, they believe the need for philosophy and religion is dead.

    It reminds me of Nietzsche’s proposal that science can’t explain WHY the universe works, but only HOW it works. The “why” belongs to religion primarily and philosophy as well. Therefore, science can never truly replace religion and the humanities. (I often disagree with Nietzsche, but I think this is a really great point.)

    Science is great, but philosophy (and religion, as you say they can go hand-in-hand) is positively necessary both in the educational system and in life. All the schools’ scientific exaltation needs to stop…

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    • Nice comments. The sentence coming from Stephen Hawkins is indeed quite strange. What is science ? Equations and symbols like philosophy. Different symbols for sure, with different organizations and logics, but still symbols. How can ever the best scientist summarize the totality and diversity of the Universe in a few symbols ? It seems quite an irrational project. The power of philosophy is maybe to point out that truth or knowledge about the Universe can only be reached through silence.

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  12. It is a dark era indeed when subjects such as philosophy, analytics, psychology, the cognitive Liberal Arts, along with even physics now, are under threat from funding cuts and complete deletion from university curriculum. I think Plato rang true when he spake:

    “Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and a fool.”

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  13. I agree with you. Philosophy is part of the core curriculum in schools in France. However, it is not clear how effectively it is taught. Available also and reaching millions of people by radio, in books and face to face is the ‘philosophe’, Michel Onfray, who established the Free University of Caen in 2002 to fight the ascendance of the National Front in France, now supported by at least a quarter of the French voting public. Perhaps you know of him.

    Would that the French idea of the free university spread to Anglo-America for the teaching of philosophy and of other subjects so poorly handled in our schools……………
    http://vindevie.me/2015/06/29/vin-de-vie-wine-of-life-michel-onfray/

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  14. What people forget is that what has become known as “science” is a method. It is The Scientific Method. That is a philosophic technique for determining truth. People are blinded by the wonders of technological advancement, and are somehow deluded into thinking that merely possessing the power to manipulate solves any existential problem.

    I am a major proponent of bring back a classical education that included Logic and Rhetoric. I believe one of the main reasons why so few college students pursue a STEM degree is because they have a fundamentally diminished ability to think. Thinking is a skill, and The Scientific Method is only one of them. This is coming from a person whose major was Biochemistry & Molecular Biology then went on to professionally become a metallurgical & structural engineer.

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  15. I just wish my friends and me had known enough to be passing around Sartre and Dostoevsky after class the way we did video games and scifi novels. We never really paid attention to our classes… 😛

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  16. I like the points of this post. I do not want to conform to the notion that philosophy is dead; conversely, I would like to adhere to and prop up the idea that we need more of philosophy today. We should not let it die. I am with Alain Badiou when he insists that philosophy must be ‘infinite’ and not be lead to death. As he wrote in Infinite Thought, “This time, it is on the side of affirmation and infinity that philosophy must select and accumulate its resources, its tools and knives” for the emancipation of human society.

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  17. Thank you for visiting my blog; I am delighted that you are bringing an artist into this discussion. I am a reader of Kant’s aesthetics, and like to bewilder myself with Plato every so often. Schools rarely teach in the way I prefer to learn, but books reach across time and place to the heart of my seeking.

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  18. I am very behind in my reading, and time constraints didn’t permit me to read everyone’s comments, so if I reiterate something already said, I apologize. Although I agree with you and many of the commenters I did read, and as admirable as I believe your argument (and theirs) to be, I tend to wonder if perhaps the biggest reason why it isn’t taught and why the subjects that are available are taught has more to do with control and power than merely not thinking this subject would or would not benefit classes or individuals. After all, if a person started thinking, they start questioning and if they start questioning, a ripple effect of possible and/or probable change could occur. My other concern is that, although I noticed quite a few philosophy majors (advocates), how dwindled is that reserve that trying to replenish it would be in and of itself a losing battle. Yes, it isn’t a difficult subject, but those who would instruct aren’t, and have been for a long time, properly prepared to extend their knowledge to others. And how many of those who would receive this much needed information would already be tainted by closed-mindedness of their parents/guardians/elders – most of whom no longer wish their children to be better off than they (or at least not better of educationally) but simply to get by enough that the children will be around to merely care for the parents when they grow old. I may have diverted, and if so I apologize, but basically what can be done, who can be convinced in order to make this desire more than a dream – a wishful thought.

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  19. I kind of wish more emphasis was placed on philosophy at my high school. Honestly, too many kids are trained to learn and regurgitate what they’re taught instead of wondering why things are the way they are. Some of the journalism kids could use a course on philosophy too *sighs*

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  20. Very good points. I would just like to add that Western nihilism is growing (don’t you agree?) due to the fact that instruction in philosophy in most of the Occident has virtually ceased.

    However, the teaching of philosophy suffers from far more than from a lack of it. Since at least the Enlightenment, the dominant historiography was to propose a Socrates with his two disciples, Plato and Aristotle. However, history is more complex than that (sometimes those whom we call “pre-socratic” actually survive Socrates) and has many different alternatives (the historical influence of Epicurus 500 years after his death) that are completely lost even to contemporary students of philosophy. Why? Because many people (Plato) and institutions (Christianity) had an interest in deforming history for personal ambitions.

    What we really need is to revamp our history lessons so that we dispose enough of a historical culture that our philosophy classes are meaningful. Otherwise, we’re stuck in an eternal present where we can only ask ourselves how can a given idea make sense today? when “today” needs to be put into a particular perspective. I have a few posts concerning this last point on my blog.

    Out of curiosity, do you read French? If so, I have a few reading suggestions for you then.

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    • Hi there, francilien. I am piqued by your remarks and i would like to pitch some of my ideas too. I’d like to think that I am with you in your observation that “Western nihilism” is growing and for me, this is enormously attributable to the fad of post-structuralism whose transmogrification into postmodernism as a “cultural dominant,” following Jameson, has been scarcely questioned. I am also with you when you call for a “revamp” of sorts but explicitly for me, this should be done not just with the history of ideas but also with the history of the social totality. Heck, those two ‘histories’ do not need to be considered apart even!
      Cheers!!

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      • I agree with the first half of what you say, although I tend to think that the “fad” of which you speak is a consequence of nihilism and not a cause.

        However, you introduce the concept of “social totality,” which is interesting, but I don’t see exactly what you mean by “social totality.” Do you mean to say that one can teach the history of different movements as existing at the same time in a given period?

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  21. I like the subtlety of this post notwithstanding its strong message.

    Well, what can I say, philosophy in today’s world has the allure of ‘organised knowledge’, truly no different from religion (organised belief). And why do you organise something? So that it can serve many people. That’s the point. These schools don’t want to teach people how to think, that’s too much time because people seem these days to be blocked-head. They just tell you, “Hey, this guy and that guy said this and that, and you must read to pass your exams.” more or less.

    I don’t think Philosophy should be taught at school, it defeats the purpose to teach philosophy. I think what is being taught at school is in fact the “history of philosophy”. A clear distinction should be made. This school thing is just a way to make the masses feel among, you know, “I have a degree in Philosophy.”

    Real philosophy isn’t taught. I often stress that ‘Philosophy is a lifestyle’, a “lifestyle”. A way of life. You don’t teach that, you can’t teach that. It is one’s “choice” to implement a lifestyle. The human being asks some curious questions every now and then, “Why am I here? Who am I? What is here? Is there God? Who’s God’s God (ad infinitum),” and so on. Some mind choose to block this introspection, and society at large presents many options for that; all sorts of religions aimed at blocking the philosophical signals.

    So, the downgrade of philosophy today is indeed of social cause with political ties even. Teaching the little ones ‘how to think’ isn’t society wants, in fact, society needs them dumb. I guess a father could teach his children how to think, but school at large won’t do so. Ask yourself, what’s the essence of “schooling”? When someone is schooled, he/she is drilled with “organised” knowledge. School has never been for thinking, ever, school is an institution with a social obligation; to teach a range of things, specific things.
    Being philosophical, if you ask me, is a personal choice, you can’t teach that at school.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Couldn’t agree more. I have to give credit–my school system did a really great job in incorporating philosophy into its history, English, and science classes. It was subtle–most of us probably didn’t realize we were even learning it, but it was there. I went on to minor in it as a supplement to my English degrees, and I have to assume that without the exposure in high school I may not have. I wholly agree that schools should do more of this type of teaching. It made the classrooms more than lectures. Socratic seminars, for example, allowed the students to have control over the class for a week at a time. It was an opportunity to have a say, and it forced us to really read the material. Skipping that homework was definitely not an option if we wanted to sound remotely informed. Great article. I hope some decision makers in the various education systems see it and consider the option.

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  23. Students should be taught to think and to question as early as possible. Our education systems fail students on many levels and you make some great points here,

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  24. Its a great article that raises a great topic for discussion, which has the ability to inculcate real values in human beings if started exposure at an early age. I also feel that philosophy is something to which exposure can be provided at an early age but must be left to individual choice, as the primary tool i.e the intellect and bend of the mind towards it would contribute to understand and connect to the rich view of the world and universe provided by philosophy. It could be available in basic forms in general curriculum and could be made available to be added as an optional course to be pursued upon choice, but then one can always read the marvellous works on their own outside the curriculum, it doesn’t have to be forced in the curriculum.

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  25. Old age outmatches youth in treachery,
    While youth populate penitentiaries,
    Or maybe it seems
    That’s the way things have been:
    Old age just outdoes youth in lechery!

    (Whew. You made me work for this one, friend. I only passed college Ethics because I could compartmentalize ideas, not because I understood them.)

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  26. nice blog and rejoiners. As a physics teacher, I try to cause critical thinking to occur as often as I request they put away their cellphones. it is a struggle. thanks for the read and follow

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  27. I fully understand and agree your viewpoint, but let’s not forget that the education system does not aim at having students able to do their own thinking, but students who would accept the status quo without questioning the way things are in the world.

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  28. As you no doubt know Stephen Hawking also predicts AI will destroy humanity. Scientists are often wrong they just reserve the right to change their minds come new evidence. Wonderful post on teaching and the “science” of philosophy.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. This is a really great idea. I am all for it. I think that the points that you make would be used to fight the idea, but unfortunately is not the real reason that it would be unwelcome by the government. It is easier to control sheep. And since the government is paying for it, it gets what it wants.

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  30. An Insightful and reflective statement, if only humanity retained the desire to lean and the literacy to do so, we wouldn’t see the social decay we are witnessing now.

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  31. I teach writing and illustration, but I always try and include some philosophy. I constantly refer to Aristotle’s poetics in the writing classes, and refer to Plato, Kierkegaard, and Barthes in illustration classes. I believe it helps give the students some sense of why they are here on this planet.

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  32. Sociology is also an important but discarded part of school curriculum – as is art and music appreciation. I wonder if one of the reasons for the concentration on the base classes may be that there is so much more to learn with fast changing and ever- evolving new technology?

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  33. Unfortunately schools have spend the last thirty years (keep in mind I am speaking about Canada) moving away from philosophy while introducing more ideology. The two are very different. Part of philosophy reaches us about the importance of research and fact finding while the ideological approach teaches us to just accept and not question. Good article and glad to see some younger minds questioning… http://terrywiens.com/2015/01/11/and-yet-we-judge/

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