Philosophical Inquiry in Education
Philosophy has been highly important throughout the history of Western education. It was clearly present during the period of Classical Greece, led by the sophists, but also by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It regained its importance throughout the Middle Ages, most especially with the rise of the European renaissance – starting around 1000 A.D. – in schools and universities. Philosophy continued and was maintained, at least in some countries, with the implementation of obligatory formal education.
Over recent decades, we have found ourselves in an apparently contradictory situation. On the one hand, there is a notable awareness of the decreasing importance of the humanities, among which many people (mistakenly, in my opinion) include philosophy. The damage done to education by this abandonment of the humanities in general – and philosophy in particular – has often been decried (Nussbaum 2010).
On the other hand, we have witnessed a notable increase in the presence of philosophy in formal education. One concrete example is the growth of philosophical practice at the primary school level within the general framework of philosophy for children or with children. Similarly, interest in civic or social values education, which is often linked to philosophical learning, has been on the rise. We should also highlight UNESCO’s commitment to the presence of philosophy in formal as well as informal education. In short, there is plenty of evidence available to shine a positive light on the situation, backed up by a number of UNESCO reports.
There is, in other words, a notable effort to extend the presence of philosophy at the primary school level and to consolidate or initiate – depending on the country – its presence in secondary schools. The dominant trend is to present philosophy as a specific activity, akin to a process of inquiry that is regarded as essential in the education of children and young adults. That is why this article is entitled “Philosophical Inquiry in Education.” What follows seeks to clarify the concept of philosophical inquiry, justify the importance of that activity in education, and finally to take a look at those environments where it should be present.
Clarifying the Concept
One feature of philosophy is that those who practice it do not often agree on exactly how to define it, although there tends to be mutual understanding and at least a partial agreement as to what they are doing. When we move on to talking about its presence in education, we encounter another problem apart from the definition itself. There is still a debate between those who, following Kant, emphasize the importance of teaching students to philosophize, and those, more akin to Hegel, who place importance on teaching philosophy – i.e., teaching certain content and knowledge pertaining to philosophy.
While this article focuses here on philosophical inquiry, which puts the emphasis on philosophy as an activity, it is also necessary to make clear from the start that one cannot engage in philosophical inquiry without addressing certain subjects and concepts belonging specifically to the philosophical discipline. These are the themes that often appear in introductory manuals to philosophy or in higher level philosophical encyclopedias that can be consulted on the internet. These manuals and encyclopedias include, among others, the basic issues of metaphysics, such as unity, reality, truth, the good, beauty, etc., or those related to Kant’s four questions concerning what we can know, what we should do, what may we hope for, and what it means to be human. This does not rule out, of course, that any subject or issue from human experience can and should be addressed from a philosophical perspective.
Focusing on those aspects that characterize philosophical inquiry, especially on what philosophers normally do, three features stand out. Firstly, it is the kind of thought that shows a clear capacity to analyze and reason. Secondly, it shows a special preference for discussions about concepts and subjects that are ambiguous, vague, uncertain, borderline, etc. Finally, philosophers create and work with wide-ranging frames of reference, what we could also call global concepts, making connections between theory and practice, or between abstract thought and real-life experiences (Rondhuis 2005). It is possible to add another feature as a corollary, following from those described above: a “philosophical inquiry” aims at seeking out the problems with what we accept as “given,” while working to clarify and bring closer to more generally acceptable “resting points in inquiry” those issues that seem vague and purely subjective. This allows to talk about progress: people are getting better at philosophically addressing and discussing issues and also at differentiating between good and poor reasons and asking always for stronger and better-founded justifications of ideas (Golding 2013).
Those features of philosophical inquiry are found in the ideas of Lipman and many other authors working in the area of philosophy with children and for children, who have contributed important ideas and practices concerning the presence of philosophical inquiry in the classroom. Lipman stresses the importance of fostering higher-level or multidimensional thinking, a kind of critical, creative, and careful thinking, with all the cognitive and affective dimensions that this implies. This is the sort of thinking that help human beings to advance in the difficult path toward the truth. Or, following the work of Michel Tozzi (1994), it is also possible to summarize the basic features of philosophical inquiry into three general points. In such inquiry, people first problematize, that is, call into question what they normally accept as certain and well known. Then, they conceptualize, which means being rigorous and precise in the use of concepts. And finally, they present their points of view, avoiding the use of fallacies and invalid arguments.
In its efforts to support the presence of philosophy, UNESCO “interprets philosophy in a broad sense as dealing with universal problems of human life and existence and instilling independent thinking for individuals. Philosophy is at the heart of human knowledge, and its scope is as wide as UNESCO’s own fields of competence.” (UNESCO 2005). This perspective on philosophical inquiry is similar to those described above. It is viewpoint that roots itself in classical philosophers and the Socratic method, where irony (problematizing) is combined with maieutic (the thoughtful emergence of knowledge). It is also a model that was highly present in the teaching of philosophy in Medieval European schools and universities, beginning with Abelard and revived in a way by Leonard Nelson’s (1922) powerful proposal. It has spread and taken on great importance since that time.
Given these basic characteristics of philosophical inquiry, we can now choose – according to preference or subject – among a number of inquiry methods that are currently popular in the academic philosophical community. One major trend follows Husserl’s phenomenological method, which has the strong point of focusing on the things themselves, tentatively putting aside what we take for granted. The second trend is that which has come to be called analytic philosophy. This trend focuses on language itself as the central issue, placing value on the analysis of everyday language and language games for formal education. Then there is the hermeneutic approach, which seeks out intersubjective dialogue in order to reach a personal appropriation of that which is expressed in texts – whether written, visual, or of any other kind. Finally, it is possible to opt for a deconstructive philosophical inquiry, a postmodern approach highlighted by its ability to disassemble texts, identifying their genealogy along with their internal ruptures, which helps to question meanings that are derived in an unreflective manner. At the same time, this approach serves to highlight the limits of any rational project.
Justifying Philosophy’s Presence
Today philosophical inquiry can be found in all levels of education – primary, secondary, and university. UNESCO coordinated a splendid project between 2009 and 2011 which resulted in the publication of six reports on Teaching of philosophy in…: Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab region, Asia and the Pacific, English-speaking African countries, French-speaking African countries, Europe, and North America. These reports were followed by five general conferences organized to discuss these issues. The conferences were held in Tunisia, Santo Domingo, Milan, Manila, and Bamako. Generally, these reports are optimistic about the presence of philosophy, although very different situations make it difficult to generalize. Also it is DOUBTFUL that philosophy is being done in a similar way in all the places WHERE it is taught. Most likely all the experiences have a certain family resemblance, but it is less certain that philosophical inquiry is being practiced everywhere.
In any case, in these times of crisis in the humanities – when society is making far-reaching demands on educators – it is needed to provide arguments to justify why students should devote time in their schedule to philosophical inquiry, which obviously takes time away from other material and subjects. Justifying this by noting the extra-philosophical benefits from the activity does not mean negating its intrinsic value. Nor does it mean that we are surrendering in a way to a market perspective. Rather, it only means that teachers of philosophy have to give reasons for why students should learn philosophical inquiry. This is simply trying to address a basic demand in a democratic society – students in particular, but also their families and society in general, devote a huge amount of resources to education. Justification and accountability are fundamental.
The intrinsic value of practicing philosophical inquiry can be a leading argument in our justification. Doing philosophy is always a first-person activity, that is, it is something that no one can do for us. It is only oneself who can respond to two basic questions: what kind of person do I want to be and what kind of world do I want to live in. The assertion that Plato put in the mouth of Socrates is still valid: “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” As such, philosophy is essential for attaining a full human life, something that makes it intrinsically valuable. Forgoing philosophy is to avoid taking ownership over one’s own life.
A second argument, based in a sense on an extrinsic value, establishes a direct link between philosophical inquiry and the construction of democratic societies. The appearance of philosophy in classical Greece coincides with the Athenian democracy’s period of splendor. It is difficult to conceive of that particular democracy – the advocate of isonomy, isegoria, and parrhesia – without acknowledging the contribution of its philosophers, especially the sophists. More recently, we can cite the role played by the enlightened les philosophes in the eighteenth century, during the fall of the absolute monarchies and the birth of contemporary democracies. In 1916, shortly after the rise of totalitarian political regimes throughout Europe, John Dewey linked democracy with education, regarding democracy not only as a political regime but as a way of life depending on processes of deliberation based on rigorous argument. UNESCO showed the same commitment when, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it titled its book about the teaching of philosophy, Philosophy and the school of Liberty.
The link between philosophy and democracy is not, however, intrinsic or obvious. Many philosophers say that democracy needs people who are educated with the philosophical skills attained through familiarization with philosophical inquiry. With this in mind, the Spanish philosopher José Antonio Marina has called for the inclusion of philosophical competency in education, invoking the concept of competencies or skills that are guiding contemporary educational reform. It is clear, however, that such philosophical skills can be present without implying the construction of democratic societies. There are well-known examples throughout history. It is enough to remember that Popper considered Plato, Marx, and other philosophers as “enemies of liberty,” or to cite Lukacs’ evaluation of the German idealist philosophers, who advocated an assault on reason, to be reminded of the antidemocratic spirit of some good philosophers. The practice of philosophical inquiry only contributes to democracy if an explicit choice in favor of democracy precedes such inquiry (García Moriyón 2013).
Other arguments serve to justify the practice of philosophical inquiry in the classroom by citing its positive effects on students’ cognitive and affective growth, as well as on their academic performance in general. In other words, it is a justification that appeals to extrinsic benefits – apart from the philosophical reflection itself, yet derived from it. The usefulness of this approach lies in that it does not resort to philosophical argument in validating the positive effect of philosophizing in the classroom. Rather, it cites educational and psychological research and provides indisputable evidence that this effect is positive and significant. It was Matthew Lipman who explicitly introduced this approach when he included the results of research by experts in educational psychology in his first book (Lipman et al. 1980). Since that time there have been many studies demonstrating these positive outcomes, including a number of meta-analyses (Trickey and Topping 2004) and longitudinal studies. We can confidently state that the benefits of philosophical inquiry for the educational process have been proven beyond any doubt.
It is true that these studies have evaluated the educational effect of philosophical inquiry when it is practiced in a certain way, i.e., when philosophy is done in classrooms that have been transformed into communities of philosophical inquiry – the distinguishing mark of the philosophy for children project and other, similar approaches. In any case, we saw above that the effect of philosophy depends on how teachers understand and practice philosophy in the classroom. Yet it is not always taught and learned in the same way, and experience shows that it is clearly positive when philosophy in the classroom is done in the form of communities of philosophical inquiry.
The Presence of Philosophical Inquiry in Education
Now that the meaning of philosophical inquiry has been clarified and we have provided a brief justification for its presence in education, it is needed to look at how it should be present. It is time to explore how to practice philosophical inquiry in formal education, leaving aside for now its presence in other educational environments – in nonformal as well as informal education. These other environments are surely important and are currently expanding, but it is better to put them aside now for reasons of space.
Recent educational guidelines stress the importance of competencies as basic elements running through all materials and subjects. This emphasis on competencies can be controversial, so to avoid confusion, we will clarify the issue by looking at thoughts on education from some years back, for example, the Delors report from 1996, La educación encierra un tesoro (Learning: the Treasure Within) and one that came out soon thereafter in 1999 by Morin, Les sept savoirs nécessaires à léducation du futur. These views serve to clarify the meaning of competencies, avoiding reductionist interpretations of same. This approach gives great weight to, among other sources, the evaluation done by Gert Biesta (2013), who warned of the risk of excessively focusing on two educational objectives – qualification (especially professional) and socialization – while ignoring subjectification. The reports point out that it is the latter which makes growth and empowerment possible for students.
Accordingly, in looking for competencies or skills related to improving the educational process of subjectification, it would seem necessary to include specific time slots in all subjects when students can reflect on the fundamentals of each discipline. This refers to the need to problematize and clarify the basic concepts of each subject area, in order to achieve full understanding of them. Similarly, the learning of subject matter must be compared and contrasted with that which is learned in other subjects, as well as related to the students’ everyday experience – in order to attain a global framework of understanding of their personal lives and of the world they want to live in. Therefore, it is essential that teachers in general include philosophical inquiry in their habitual educational practice. Only in this way, according to Biesta’s critique, will we attain integrated learning in a truly educative experience.
Such inquiry, however, requires its own space. In accordance with the solid and coherent proposal put forth by Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp, children must have some time each week devoted solely to philosophical reflection. This should occur throughout their entire formal obligatory education process, i.e., in every year of that process. Only if that time is allocated can the skills and abilities acquired through philosophical practice grow into true behavioral habits – habits that are necessary in the education of critical, creative, and caring people. Finally, a well-prepared teaching corps is needed to lead this philosophical inquiry, teachers who can transmit and exemplify philosophical content and procedures in their educational activity – with the goal of facilitating children’s learning such that the skills become behavioral habits.
It is not easy to demand specific time in the curriculum for philosophical inquiry in an era when that curriculum is already loaded. The importance of allocating that time, however, is evident. This is already partially being done, at least within the European Union, in three areas. One is civic and social values education, which has become part of the basic curriculum and is being taught, as can be expected, with a clearly philosophical imprint. Another is religious education, which in some countries such as the United Kingdom has a less faith-based and more philosophical focus. Finally, there are standard philosophy classes, which for now are only given in some countries and at the secondary level. Although they remain insufficient, these are three areas in which there is a genuine possibility of progressing in the implementation of philosophical inquiry as a cornerstone of an educational project able to meet the challenges and demands of today’s society.
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