I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)
It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right.
I went to a WASPy private high school with an old and venerable past. One of the school’s legendary teachers was a gentleman whom I’d never met named Herbert F. Hahn, who’d written a self-published book, The Great Philosophers: Men of Ideas (1977)–a clear, cogent summary of the history of “Western” philosophy from Plato to Sartre. I was surprised to discover that despite its obscurity, the book is currently available on Amazon, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I mean, if I can buy moist cat food through Amazon, why not an obscure self-published philosophy book?
Like all philosophical (“philosophical”) teenagers, I was for awhile an existentialist, and also (for a week) a Buddhist. I read some Sartre and Camus, but my real love was Hermann Hesse–this despite never having smoked a single joint in my life. (Trying to be candid here, but not sure which of these confessions is worse than the other.) I seem to remember that my favorite Hesse novel was Narcissus and Goldmund, but despite having re-read it a few years ago, I don’t remember a single thing about it; honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking either time. I also managed during this existentialist phase to work my way through William Barrett’s Irrational Man, whose chapter on Sartre (freedom-as-negation) still strikes me as profound, consoling, and as offering useful guidance for a police interrogation.
The point of the APA/PLATO survey is to create a database on early introductions to philosophy in the hopes of developing programs that introduce K-12 students to philosophy. Philosophy for Children is now a thing, and particularly so in New Jersey, as the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), “the world’s oldest organization devoted to young people’s philosophical practice,” happens to be housed on the campus of the Garden State’s own Montclair State University. I have friends and colleagues who work at IAPC, and respect what they do, but have to confess to being of two minds on the idea of introducing kids to philosophy, because–wait for it–I kinda think they’re too young for it. Granted, this avowal comes from a guy who also thinks that six-year-olds should be disabused of their belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But hey, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so give it a rest.
“Too young”? Cringeworthy, I know. It’s the kind of phrase you use when you’ve gotten old and crotchety, own property, have a mortgage to pay, and have basically given up on life, but I guess my view is that philosophy is a second-order subject that presupposes a fair bit of first-order knowledge that K-12 students don’t have. So maybe it makes more sense to teach them some first-order stuff before they do philosophy? My own preference is that K-12 students get a firm grounding in natural science, statistics, history, economics, and law (not just mush-milk “civics,” but real law, i.e., criminal procedure) before they get started on philosophy. I’m also inclined to think, a la Nicomachean Ethics I.3, that K-12 students lack the practical experience of the world that philosophy (or at least practical philosophy) demands. “Let no one ignorant of the mortgage application process enter here.”
On the other hand, I’m not sure I would ever have read Emerson or Thoreau had I not first read them and fallen in love with them in high school. That’s a pleasure I wouldn’t want to deprive someone of (or as a high school teacher might put it, a pleasure of which I wouldn’t want to deprive someone). And the whole point of existentialism is not to need any experience of anything beyond your freewheeling self: you have radical freedom, if you have it at all, whether you have a 30-year home mortgage and 401(k) or not. So maybe a K-12 dose of philosophy, at least through literature, isn’t such a bad idea. Going out on a limb here, but maybe every teenager should read “Self-Reliance,” The Stranger, and/or Steppenwolf. (?)
That said, I also think that K-12 students should be reading the Bible and Qur’an, not merely as “literature,” but as the religious texts they are. I’ve actually been saying that to deaf ears for almost thirty years, but try to get the idea past the average career-obsessed helicopter parent, ideologically charged PTA/Board of Ed, or myopic school superintendent. “Religion belongs at home,” comes the holier-than-thou response–a claim made by no religion ever. But give the kids one little whiff of holy war, martyrdom, or jihad, and there goes your fucking job, so I don’t see high school teachers teaching these wonderful texts any time soon. I raise the point (in case you were wondering) because religion is an excellent gateway drug to philosophy, so you’d think there might be takers on that score. But I doubt there are.
Well, I’m done. Since we’re talking philosophy here, it’s entirely fair of me to leave you with an inconclusive antinomy or trilemma or whatever it is I’ve just left you in.
I’m curious how PoT readers first got introduced to philosophy. Feel free to share. Come on, it’s not self-indulgent if everybody does it. And after all, as Emerson puts it in “The American Scholar”: “The actions and events of our childhood and youth are now matters of calmest observation. They lie like fair pictures in the air.” Right? What could go wrong?
*Actually, there’s a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on American Transcendentalism and on Emerson, but I’m not sure whether that really contradicts what I say in the post. I mean, SEP’s got an entry on Ayn Rand, so we’re not exactly dealing with a reliable source here.
**As I wrote that, this study happened to pop into my inbox. Again, not really sure it contradicts what I’m saying, but could hardly pass up an opportunity to cite the most recent issue of Analytic Teaching and Philosophy Praxis.