Reflections On . . . Teaching Philosophy in Secondary Schools

By Susan Andrews

Updated / Thursday, 28 October 2021 14:11

Philosophy is often regarded as the archetypal ivory tower subject. Ironically, this conception of philosophy usually throws up the kinds of questions that philosophers are best placed to answer: what use is Philosophy? Or, as a student asked in the 2019 Philosophy by Postcard initiative, what hope can a Philosophy class bring? To answer these questions, we must begin by acknowledging that humans are natural storytellers. According to the Irish born novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, this innate trait helps us to make sense of our “alarmingly formless rubble of a life.” 

Storytelling plays a big part in the philosophy classes I teach at secondary level. In my experience, students’ moral questions about the world are invariably stimulated by the stories they experience in their own lives, whether it is at home, online, or in the classroom, and the stories they encounter in the news or in literature and art. To respond to this student’s question, it will be useful to look at some age-old philosophical questions and maxims in the context of child and young adult development.

What kind of person do I want to be? What type of place do I want the world to be?

These types of questions benefit students in two different but equally important ways. On the one hand, they encourage students to formulate similar questions of their own accord and to explore responses based on a version of truth without prejudice. On the other hand, these kinds of questions show young people that even in the midst of modern chaos their moral questions about relationships, gender, violence, health, climate, and education matter. The question on the postcard mentions “hope,” a word that often crops up in our class discussions whenever students wonder what the future might look like for them. But can Philosophy really help modern Irish students to steer their lives in a direction that will positively impact on this future?

“Know Thyself”

Many Early Greek and Roman philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicetus, and Seneca, have pointed out that, in order to learn anything about the world, you firstly need to know yourself. Only then, they suggest, can you create new habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that promote wellbeing. Aristotle, for instance, proposed a list of “virtues,” including courage, honesty, temperance, and friendliness, as principal keys to happiness and living well. He called this “flourishing.” How can you be a good friend, unless you examine what this means and practice it? Or how can you eat or exercise well without understanding moderation?  

This Aristotelian “flourishing,” or “eudaimonia,” can be achieved by getting to know yourself to an extent that lets you understand why and how you make decisions. In a Philosophy class, students take part in group enquiries, which gives them an opportunity to test their ideas with others, navigate conflict, and recognise the pitfalls of biased thinking. As Aristotle understood, our character traits are built up through practice and routine, until you don’t even have to think about your choices before making the right one. He encourages students to strive for self-improvement and be the kind of person that others want to be like.

“True happiness is to enjoy the present”

Seneca, a stoic philosopher, believed that our tendency toward “hope” was connected to fear. Based on this principle, he advised that we adapt more to the present, rather than projecting our thoughts too far ahead. This is also applicable to life in the modern world. When humans look for meaning in life, we look for stories. But in today’s ever-changing world, there is no one clear story to help make sense of the world. Before technology and news streams, we focused on cramming information at school. This made sense as information was scarce. But teachers do not understand the world as well as they once taught/thought! Students today are bombarded with streams of information, with no time to absorb or understand it. This can cause feelings of being overwhelmed and ultimately hopelessness.

Rather than adding to this seemingly endless barrage of information, a Philosophy class can give students the time and the critical skills needed to process some of this information. This gives students an invaluable opportunity to begin figuring out what’s important, what’s real, and what’s really important. The world might seem crazy if we try to hold on to some stable identity or story. Everything changes: the body, the brain, the mind. We can’t control that; our students can’t control that. But we can ensure that our students develop the mental flexibility and resilience to meet these changes.

For thousands of years, philosophers have urged us to “know thyself.” To meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, it seems more fitting to encourage our students to know themselves better than the algorithms that power social media. A Philosophy class can provide students with a space to attend to their unanswered questions, about themselves and the wider world. This can only help them to deal with the future and whatever hopes and fears it might bring. Like Iris Murdoch, Seneca wrote lots of letters. And as he said in one letter to a young friend: “what I advise you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes . . .”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Susan Andrews has been teaching the Junior Cycle Philosophy Short Course at Temple Carrig School, Greystones, Co. Wicklow since 2014. All schools in Ireland can avail of a number of Short Courses to broaden their students’ learning experience at Junior Cycle. In addition to Philosophy, courses are available on Coding, CSI, Digital Literacy, Chinese Language and Literature, etc. (a full list is available here). The 100-hour Short Philosophy Course aims to engage students in philosophical dialogue about life’s big questions and to develop critical, creative, collaborative, caring thinkers who can participate in informed discourse and act in the world in a more reflective manner. Additional pedagogical information and useful teacher resources are available here.

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