Philosophy in public education (with a bit of background about the blog)

As most of you might have noticed, I like philosophy. I also happen to hate philosophy classes in school.

I feel like it makes absolutely no sense to pretend to teach critical thinking in an environment where we have to learn and memorize dozens of points of view in order to be able to give an answer “as if” a particular philosopher was answering. We are pretty much being taught to that the only right answer to “What do you expect to learn from this course” is “Critical thinking”.

Basically, you end up having to fake agreement with the professor you end up with in order to get a good grade, or you will probably fail. I guess some professors are better than that, and actually welcome disagreement in “opinion” essays, but I haven’t met one like that personally.

Before going to College, I was looking forward to philosophy classes. I have always been interested in hypothical questions about morals and stuff like that. Then, when I finally got there, I was in for a rude awakening. I noticed a pretty obvious correlation between my grades and the level of agreement (aka lies) there was in my answers, even though I should logically be able to argue at least as well for a position that I actually have as opposed to an idea that I disagree with. I was told several times that it was a coincidence and that I would probably get better grades on average by writing what I truly think, and lying will only get me so far. I still ended up lying my way to good grades and it worked prefectly fine. I have confidence that I personally disagreed with at least 80% of everything I wrote as if it was the absolute truth back then, and it might not have been the best strategy, but it still ended up being a huge success.

After College, I still had that interest in philosophical discussions, but pretty much only had them with a couple people close to me who could accept the idea of someone disagreeing with them, so it really was a small part of my everyday life.

Wait But Why‘s Dinner Table section and Hypothica have re-awakened that interest inside of me. Those two were pretty much exactly the kind of community and topics I had always hoped for. I still feel bad about not commenting more on them, especially hypothica who seemingly died and might have survived a little bit longer with one more commenter. I usually lurked around both, but I am fairly certain that I have read every single post on both of them, and probably around 95% of the comments. You could probably say that those two blogs created Ready, Set, Think! by being exactly the stuff that I think is interesting. This blog’s philosophy “If you agree, that’s nice, but if you disagree, that’s interesting” is definitely too long to ever become a catchphrase that people would repeat in casual conversations, but it really is a good representations of my ideals at the time I created this blog, which is to promote discussion and make sure this never becomes the uncomfortable echo chambers that I hated so much in College.

This is why, when I hear someone criticizing the lack of critical thinking of other people, and then that person goes on to mention that we should have philosophy classes way earlier in our public education system, I think it’s completely stupid. To be honest, I have no idea how to fix philosophy classes in our system. It is also obviously still possible that I’m just a weirdo who happens to be great at arguing ideas he hates and bad at arguing ideas he loves, and this specific condition made me believe that lying improved my grades because the professors were bad instead of because I’m weird. But if I am right, then we have to fix the current philosophy classes’ methods before adding more of them. As of now, I think they damage critical thinking and are part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.

What are your experiences with college philosophy classes? Am I a weirdo, or just unlucky, or am I right? Feel free to disagree 😉

  • The only formal philosophy class I ever took was a specialist one – Philosophy of Science – and that was fascinating, and the lecturer took the time and effort to outline the views of each of the rather smaller number of philosophers of science (Popper and Lakatos are the two names that spring to mind, but there were another couple at least), and how those views differed – and how none of them “covered the whole area”. So we were encouraged to think about it ourselves, and think about how scientists actually work and think, as opposed to the “third person linear narrative form” that scientific papers require. I found it really interesting, and quite eye opening, and Popper’s “falsification” idea, while not the whole picture, is essential to distinguishing science from pseudo-science.

    But I don’t really know how more general philosophy classes are covered. Since College, I have read a few philosophy books, and got mildly irritated by the tendency of some Germanic philosphers to define their own terminology and not write clear simple sentences explaining what they meant – in fact it seemed to me that they were deliberately obfuscated their ideas to make themselves seem more profound. I’ve also got into the History of Science, which gives another way to investigate how scientists have worked over time.

    To end on a book recommendation: Martin J.S. Rudwick has written several very thoughtful books about specific episodes in the history of science, his best one (for me) is “The Great Devonian Controversy” covering a little known problem from the early history of Geology. There, a controversy arose, rival interpretations were produced, half a dozen main characters feuded and argued with each other, and over the course of a couple of decades, a consensus view eventually emerged, partially – but not completely – driven by new evidence, the final view actually merging elements of both original positions and including radical new ideas from neither. Despite this, the popular view at the time was that one side “won” and the other “lost”. He’s able to go into amazing levels of detailed analysis, because the main characters wrote letters regularly to each other, sometimes making a new point and receiving the reply within the same day, and most of those letters have been preserved. Rudwick is therefore able to really get in the heads of the protagonists and chart the development of their thinking over time. Great book!