Saturday 4 February 2012

Philosophy in High School

There's an interesting and provocative piece from the Boston Review, entitled Citizen Philosophers, Teaching Justice in Brazil, by Carlos Fraenkel. The article begins with a discussion with Almira Ribeiro, who teaches philosophy "in a high school in ItapuĆ£, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met," writes Fraenkel.

In 2008 a law was passed making the study of philosophy mandatory. As a result, about 9 million students take philosophy for 3 hours a week. The students learn something about engagement. 

“There are also other ways of political participation,” Ribeiro tells her students. She gives them the town hall’s phone number for complaints about infrastructure and asks them to find something in their street they want repaired. When one student calls, nothing happens. But when fifteen call, the city reacts. “You see that pothole?” she asks me. “It’s been closed. And that street lantern? It’s been fixed. Thanks to our philosophy class. . . . Politicians can’t afford disgruntled citizens who will vote them out of office.” 

You can read the whole piece at

I definitely agree with the requirement to learn philosophy as a mandatory course in public schools. As it happened for me, I was somewhat ahead of the curve, but only because it wasn't taught, and so I had to seek it out and read. I began with Will and Ariel Durant's "The Story of Philosophy" when I was about 12. I was captivated by Diogenes, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and later, by Hume, and much later, by Russell and Whitehead, and then Einstein and Heisenberg and Dyson. Whitehead had maybe the biggest impact upon me; "Process and Reality" most of all, but "Science and the Modern World" was pretty good, too.

I also took a couple of course in "Religious Studies" and learned a smattering about Buddhism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism. the I Ching and various other ancient beliefs and books. Lately I have been reading about Sikhism, and even visiting the local temple occasionally, not as a believer but as a disinterested investigator  Consequently, if I have any argument against this piece, it's the EuroCentrism.

Philosophy neither begins nor ends with the Western (nee Greek) tradition. Not to say that this is a dead-end. Truly exciting things are happening in the philosophy of science, cosmology, astrophysics and a few other sub-disciplines.

All that said, this remains a provocative piece.



  1. The closest thing to philosophy I was ever exposed to in high school was reading Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, leading me to a passive-aggresive stance in favour of her objectivism (I admit this with some embarrassment) and if curiosity or chance - randomly picking intro to philo as a "bird coure" - hadn't further influenced me I may have remained an ignorant proponent of a truly awful idiology, which gave me a personal experience of the necessity of being tought philosophy, logic, and reasoning.

  2. Welcome, Dyami, and thanks for your comment. You aren't the first person ever to have been led astray by Ms. Rand, but I know a few people who still profess objectivism, despite their age.

    That in itself is not remarkable. I still know people who think B.F. Skinner's Behaviorism is on the mark, despite the total demolition of that primitive ideology posing as science by Noam Chomsky, not to mention the wealth of evidence.

    I think that you got the principal benefit of an Intro to Philosophy course -- a punch in the Assumptions.