U.S. students need more philosophy education By DANIELE STRUPPA / CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY CHANCELLOR
Jan. 18, 2016
By DANIELE STRUPPA / CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY CHANCELLOR
Daniele Struppa, professor and chancellor at Chapman University in Orange.MARK RIGHTMIRE, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Just a few weeks ago, in a hidden camera sting that received much attention, we were treated to the rather depressing spectacle of Ivy League students signing a petition to abrogate the First Amendment. The actor presenting the petition found it very easy to obtain the required signatures, through simplistic arguments to the effect that we should not be offensive when we speak. Not surprisingly, plenty of journalists, professors and politicians have commented on this bizarre turn of events.
The comments that I have read tend to blame political correctness and the media, and characterize the students as immature. But I think that the real responsibility lies with the systemic failure of our K-12 educational system to train our youth to think and argue rigorously.
What is the root cause of this failure? Young Americans are as intelligent as any other youngsters, and our teachers are not, in any way, less prepared or less committed than teachers in other countries. So, where do we turn to understand the reason why so many of our most talented students (such as the kids at those Ivy League institutions) appear so unprepared for intellectual discourse?
My response is that to understand this failure, we must take a critical look at how and what students learn in their formative years. When we compare our schools with their European equivalents, we can identify a fundamental hole in the American curriculum: Looking at what happens in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the most striking difference is the lack of philosophy among the mandatory subjects to which we expose our students.
“Wait a moment,” you will say. “Philosophy is an abstract discipline, mostly written by a bunch of dead white males, and so terribly alien from the needs and impulses of the modern world. Why would we waste our kids’ limited time on something that irrelevant?”
But that’s where you would be mistaken. The entire point of philosophy is not so much to study what these philosophers said over the last 2,000 years, but rather to understand that the questions we ask today are not new, and that many answers have already been tried, discussed and dissected. Thus, any discussion on these issues should not take place in a vacuum, but should instead be guided by this conversation that spans many centuries and covers many continents.
When we speak of democracy and civil disobedience, we cannot ignore what Plato wrote in “Crito,” when Socrates’ friends were asking him to escape an unjust punishment. When we speak about the nature of knowledge, we cannot ignore what Kant wrote in the “Prolegomena”; when we discuss the notion of beauty in art, we must confront Hegel’s “Lectures on Fine Art”; and when we puzzle about faith and morals, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche offer us a foundation for the conversation.
Thus, the point of reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is to learn the modality of argumentation, the importance of the dialogue across time, the value of understanding different points of views – and finally to instill a sense of humility in a young mind and help that mind realize that his/her point of view must engage and challenge what others have written and said about the topic at hand.
And so, it is not difficult to imagine that our young students are willing to sign a petition against free speech because they never read John Stuart Mill or Voltaire, and are not familiar with the transformative power of the Enlightenment. Their political decision is taken in an intellectual vacuum.
If we really want educated citizens, we need to rethink fundamentally what our kids will study in middle and high school. We need to pay attention to the huge repository of knowledge, ideas and critical thinking that the study of philosophy offers to young, eager minds. Until that happens, the universities will be left with the hard task to remediate rather than to build.