Each summer, I host a one-week Summer Philosophy Institute for local high school students. It is a type of “philosophy camp” where students are introduced to the discipline and process of thinking philosophically. We spend the week engaging in philosophical discussions about topics on a particular theme.
While the students are introduced to the field of philosophy, they are also pushed to further develop their critical thinking and communication skills. I have done this for the last three years because I think it is important to introduce children to it before college.
Most people do not get the opportunity to ever take a philosophy class in college, let alone before college. The result is that most people are left with a vague understanding of the discipline. Ancient Greek men with long white beards and togas sitting around talking and arguing about abstract ideas comes to mind for many. While this might be a somewhat realistic caricature of how some philosophy was done in Ancient Greece, it fails to capture the full extent of what philosophy is and who does it today.
“Philosophy” means “love of wisdom” and is an investigation into the most fundamental questions we have as humans. I usually tell people that it is a way of thinking about and investigating the universe. This process, or way of investigating things, ranges from questions about what exists and what things are composed of (metaphysics), to what we can know and how we can know it (epistemology), to value and how we ought to live (ethics).
Just like the scientific method, the philosophical method is an ongoing process of asking questions, positing hypotheses, testing and critically evaluating those hypotheses, and continually refining one’s theories based on new evidence and ideas. In fact, the sciences and the scientific method actually developed out of a division of philosophy called “natural philosophy.”
This process of asking abstract questions and critically constructing and evaluating theories that attempt to answer those questions is valuable because it lies at the heart of all intellectual activity. We all already think philosophically when we think clearly and weigh evidence for and against ideas.
This does not mean that we are all professional philosophers or that we have perfected the process or that all of our ideas are correct. It simply means that we already value philosophy implicitly and if we all understood the process and discipline more fully we would also explicitly recognize its value.
This explicit recognition would in turn do much to make us even better and clearer thinkers. At its best, the process of doing philosophy encourages one to be curious and approach the world with a sense of wonder. It also encourages humility and patience as one recognizes the enormous complexity in these fundamental questions.
The practical consequences of this are enormous — if we as a society were to more explicitly embrace the practice of philosophy and seek to develop the virtues that come along with thinking clearly and critically then the practice could help us become better listeners and navigate difficult dialogues. In our politically polarized society, this is something that is desperately needed and something that clear, critical thinking and corresponding communication and dialogue can help remedy. This would be a long and difficult process, but philosophy has been around for a long time and is up for the task.
If philosophical thinking is at the heart of all intellectual activity then we should be promoting and practicing it from as early an age as possible. Children, adolescents and teens can absolutely think philosophically — maybe not with as much precision as a college student or as someone with years of professional and work experience, but they can definitely understand how to ask, “Why?” and can weigh competing explanations and evidence. This should be explicitly taught alongside the other disciplines in elementary, middle and high school.
There is much that people can do to help facilitate this. If you are a parent, check out the variety of excellent books on “philosophy for children” and the podcast “Hi-Phi Nation” (https://hiphination.org/). Parents and teens can start philosophy clubs (www.plato-philosophy.org/Philosophy-club.pdf) or High School Ethics Bowl teams (https://nhseb.unc.edu/). I encourage teachers to check out the resources available from PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization — https://www.plato-philosophy.org/). Lastly, I encourage everyone to check out the offerings from the SoCal Philosophy Academy (www.callutheran.edu/philosophy-academy/). In addition to the annual Summer Institute for high schoolers, we offer public talks and are always looking for additional ways to connect with the community and school districts.
The only way for our public and private discourse to improve is for U.S. to make it better — so stay curious and keeping thinking and discussing!
Brian J. Collins is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Founder and Director of the SoCal Philosophy Academy at California Lutheran University.