Sunday, January 29, 2012

Should Philosophy Be Required?

The government of Brazil, I was surprised to learn, has mandated that high school students take a course of philosophy. Carlos Fraenkel of McGill University analyzes the results so far in the Boston Review.

Based on what I know of the idea, my own reaction is generally positive, as long as the courses are intelligently taught and lead to greater critical thinking skills among the Brazilians. There might be an increase in logical discourse--imagine how that would impact politics in this country!--or, as is probably intended, to do what the church once did but now cannot because of a lack of personnel: teach ethics.

How could anyone object to the study of Plato, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living? Well, if the courses become exercises in abstraction, with no practical impact on the society, resulting in confusion. Even then, I would hope that any serious look at basic Western philosophical principles would help these students examine their assumptions and be more careful in defining the general terms they use.

So the experiment is worth following. I can't help but think of such a mandate here in the U.S. would be beneficial, if the huge political obstacles could ever be overcome.

Consider, for example, an examination of greed, which seems to have replaced pride as the chief of the seven deadly sins. (These are not really sins but vices or dispositions, the character flaws that Aristotle talks about and that Dante dramatizes in his Divine Comedy. In the Purgatorio, souls are being purged of these flaws.)

I would hope that an American philosophy course would examine the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, and see what is at stake: reckless indifference to the common good because of a corporate culture that rewards conspicuous self-interest in the form of extravagant rewards for the one percent.

Or the way greed, another manifestation of selfishness, has been ruining the environment and threatening the planet. Or the way power becomes self-serving and greedy. Raising questions about such issues, without presenting an official position, would stimulate thinking, if the students are mature enough to handle such big ideas.

It seems to me that the very raising of Big Questions is what educators must do; it's what great literature does. It does not require the instructor to provide final answers. Yet open-ended moral discourse can be disturbing, even at the university level.

In a recent review of Cullen Murphy's new book on the Inquisition and its modern counterparts, God's Jury, Adam Gopnik makes this important observation: "The values of tolerance are one of the most difficult lessons to impart, not because people are naturally cruel but because power is naturally fearful."

Whether the power is exercised by church or state, it can have catastrophic results, and its roots in fear need to be examined. The values of tolerance are hard to impart on any level, yet the effort must be made somewhere.

Yet I suspect any philosophy taught in high school would have to steer clear of such discussions. And those on the religious right would object to the teaching of morality in public schools, making any discussion of selfishness, greed, virtue, evil, even tolerance questionable. And so the course would be, like so many well-intentioned courses in the social sciences, vague, general, and useless.

What a shame. Let's hope Brazil's experiment has something to teach educators elsewhere. The world desperately needs people who can think.

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