Why Schools Should Teach The History of Philosophy

Do you remember learning about the history of philosophy in high school? If you’re like most people, the answer is a flat “no”. You may have been exposed in a few of the big names briefly in a history class, but it’s unlikely that there was any thorough teaching of why philosophy is important, let alone why the history of philosophy is important.

Without knowledge of the history of philosophy, students will miss out on seeing where different philosophers went right or wrong in their thinking. By missing out on these pieces of knowledge, they’re more likely subconciously integrate some of the bad philosophical ideas into their philosophy. If we were taught about hedonism and questioned hedonism, there might be less people who partake in the hedonisitc partying that goes on in college. Not all partying is hedonistic, but much of it is- and learning about hedonism would help students reflect on how much of their energy is spent on seeking short-term pleasure.

If students were taught about each thinker down the timeline of human history and critically examined each major philosopher for about a week in the classroom, they would be much better at seeing holes in people’s arguments and at spotting faulty thinking in general. Not only would studying hedonism help students understand about the right and wrong ways to view pleasure, but studying stoicism would help them understand the need for a thick skin in life, and studying Aristotle’s ethics would help them create a balanced character: not too cowardice nor too courageous.

My idea for solving this problem would be to have at least a one semester course in high school devoted to teaching the branches of philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the applications of philosophy. Students could engross themselves in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World: A Novel About The History of Philosophy. This novel tells an entertaining story about a 14 year old girl, Sophie, who begins to take an unconventional philosophy course outside of school, taught by a man named Alberto. I won’t include spoilers, but Alberto teaches Sophie (and in doing so the reader) about the history of philosophy in simple, laymen’s terms. Not only does this book act as a reference for the history of philosophy, but also tells an entertaining coming of age story. It is perfect for high schoolers since they can relate to the main character and feel an imaginative connection to the history of philosophy that they otherwise might get bored studying.

On top of reading Sophie’s World there would need to be instruction, and this instruction would come from teachers versed in either history or philosophy. We already teach about many important philosophers in history class, but teaching about the history of philosophy as an end in itself is crucial in graduating critical thinkers. The instruction would also cover all of the fundamental branches of philosophy- from metaphysics to aesthetics. It would also teach the basic laws of logic and reasoning, as well as how to avoid commiting logical fallicies. There could also be a project where each student presents an in-depth analysis of a philosopher of their choice, and is free to criticize or compliment that philosopher’s ideas with their own piece of mind. This project would help students develop their rhetorical skills in a philosophical context.

In my view, it is imperative that we implement a philosphy course teaching the history of thought into schools if we want schools to create critical thinkers. As Goethe said, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” In an era with accelerating technology (3D printing, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence) we cannot continue to live from hand to mouth. We must equip our minds with a history of how renowned thinkers have equipped theirs to build a good future for humanity.

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