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The Real Question Is, ‘Why Not Pre-College Philosophy?’

by Michael D. Burroughs

Over the past decade I’ve attended and/or presented at many conferences, both academic and professional, on issues in pre-college philosophy, or, broadly, theories supporting and/or approaches to practicing philosophy with children and adolescents in community and pre-k through 12 settings. Indeed, the increasing number of these conferences and related opportunities—including the biennial Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization Conference—is just one sign, among many, of the growth of pre-college philosophy in our country. And there are many more signs of the growth of and attention to pre-college philosophy; these include the proliferation of publication opportunities in this area of philosophy (e.g., Journal of Philosophy in Schools, Childhood and Philosophy, and Questions: Philosophy for Young People, not to mention the many education journals that welcome articles on pre-college philosophy) and popular articles on the value of and need for philosophy in schools (See examples: here, here, and here. In addition, we need no longer exclusively rely on anecdotal evidence from practitioners to understand the value and benefits of pre-college philosophy for children. As valuable as this first-hand testimony has been (and continues to be), it is also now supported by numerous book-length works on pre-college philosophy and years of empirical research demonstrating the positive impacts of pre-college philosophy across numerous dimensions of education, including cognitive and social-emotional development.

In considering this growth and increasing interest in pre-college philosophy I, and several colleagues from the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), developed a White Paper entitled, “Why Philosophy? Why Now?”. This paper is intended for anyone interested in understanding the benefits of pre-college philosophy and features numerous arguments for supporting this practice in schools. It also points to the glaring absence of philosophy in most American pre-k through 12 institutions, juxtaposed with increasing evidence that philosophy has much to offer our children, teachers, schools, and communities. Fortunately, there are many dedicated philosophers, both within and beyond PLATO, and practitioners (teachers, administrators, parents, graduate and undergraduate students) who continue to volunteer their time to support the growth of pre-college philosophy. I am contacted on a nearly weekly basis by individuals from across the country who report on their work and, often, inquire about avenues and resources for developing pre-college philosophy initiatives and programs. Part of PLATO’s mission has been to provide useful channels and areas of support for these individuals and programs (e.g. through our conferences, teacher workshops, online resources, and program funding).

But as I reflect on this work now, and the efforts of PLATO and many others, I begin to think that the real question we should be asking (ourselves and others in our discipline, schools, and community) at this point is not “Why philosophy? Why now?” but rather “Why not philosophy?” and “If not now, when?” With a plethora of empirical research demonstrating the educational benefits of pre-college philosophy programming now in place, with faculty members and students based in philosophy departments and administrators and teachers across our country committed to implementing philosophy in schools, with potential long term benefits for our discipline at stake, and with an interest in providing thoughtful and critical education for our children, now, more than ever, is the time for us to increase our efforts to support this work.

So, I ask again, “Why not philosophy?” We have many reasons to advance pre-college philosophy and there are many ways to contribute. PLATO is committed to advancing this work, along with many collaborators. Please consider joining us.

 Michael D. Burroughs is associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute and senior lecturer of philosophy at Penn State University. Michael is also vice president of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization, a national non-profit organization that supports philosophical education opportunities in pre-k – 12 schools.

This post appears as part of our partnership with PLATO.