Think carefully about philosophy in schools

I would like to add a cautionary note to Mr Teo Xiang Zheng's letter in support of teaching philosophy in schools (Philosophy focus can come in handy; April 2).

He argues that philosophy can help foster problem-solving skills, creativity and critical thinking.

But schools have been imparting such skills for hundreds of years without teaching philosophy. Much hinges on what is meant by "philosophy".

Academic philosophy is largely discursive, in the sense that it does not involve extensive empirical investigation.

Real-world problem-solving relies heavily on empirical analysis, and not just "armchair" reasoning.

Many philosophical questions have no immediate practical application.

For example, questions commonly discussed in academic philosophy include: "How do you know you are not dreaming now?" and "Can a robot feel pain?"

Is the discussion of such abstract questions a good use of school time?

Philosophy also asks questions of profound importance to many people, for example, on the nature of reality, the existence of God, and the difference between right and wrong.

These are not merely academic questions to most of us. They are issues that we each grapple with in our own lived experience.

However, should schools be allowed to even broach such questions to impressionable young children?

Should such matters be left to individuals to reflect on in their personal time?

How are teachers supposed to avoid inadvertently steering discussions to favour their own views on these questions? How are they to respond to parents who accuse them of doing so?

There is merit to open-ended discussion in schools, but the topics need to be carefully chosen.

They do not have to come exclusively from academic philosophy, and the inquiry can involve empirical investigation to foster a wide range of skills.

Ben Gibran

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Think carefully about philosophy in schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe