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Following our recent focus on education, Kristina Pelletier asks why there is no place for philosophy in American public schools.

Philosophy doesn’t exist in most US public schools, and who cares? Like a long-lost shoe, what is there to talk about? Most don ’t notice or care about its absence. After all, how can a person miss something that has never been part of their experience? America decided to keep philosophy out of public schools long ago, following an 1893 report from the Committee of Ten. Literarily, ten men decided what subjects would be taught in schools. Philosophy was left out.

Motivated by an unshakable belief that philosophy matters in education, I have tried to find ways to introduce philosophy into secondary schools. Through extensive research and various experiences, I have identified numerous obstacles that effec tively keep philosophy out of schools. My purposes for writing this article are to: (1) suggest why philosophy in public schools matters; (2) describe ten obstacles that keep it out of schools; and (3) offer possible ways to overcome these obstacles.

Why Philosophy in Public Schools Matters

For better or worse, school administrators and teachers bring their own educational experiences into schools and classrooms. For most, philosophy had little to do with their education, so why should it matter? Simply put, it would mean a better education for young people, and ultimately a better society for everyone. However, the question needs more unpacking, so let ’s consider three questions: (1) How does public education affect individuals and society? (2) What are the primary means and ends of public education? and finally, (3) What is philosophy?

How does public education affect individuals and society? John Dewey said society largely determines its future by how it educates young people. Few would disagree with his claim; even the ancient Athenians and Spartans understood this. Although they took vastly different approaches, both used education to socialize young citizens into the cultural status quo. Sparta used it to produce soldiers and to maintain an authoritarian-militaristic social order. Athens used education to teach the arts and prepare its pupils for citizenship, peace, and war.

How strong is socialization in education? Around 400 BC a funny-looking man named Socrates irritated Athenian society by challenging its approaches to education. He prodded the sensibilities, knowledge, beliefs and values of citizens and young people. Socrates beseeched them to question and reflect upon their fossilized knowledge, prejudices, religious assumptions and social illusions. Standing in the public square, he beckoned them to break the chains of blind allegiance to unquestioned dogma.

Socrates’ approach to ‘public education’ was unappreciated, to say the least. Many saw him as a threat to the interests of the city, and he became a marked scapegoat for the turbulent times. Socrates had faith that if individuals learned to think for themselves they would naturally seek the highest good for themselves, others and society. Unfortunately, Athens had little faith in his ways and sentenced him to death for ‘corrupting the youth’ –essentially for teaching the young how to philosophize.

Over 2,400 years later, the relationship between education and philosophy is not much better. Societies still use education to socialize young people while resisting philosophy. In schools, young citizens learn socially-accepted ways of knowing, thinking, acting and relating. These lessons are transferred, often uncritically, through the formal, hidden and null curricula in schools.

The formal curriculum is the blueprint. It explicitly states what students are to learn, and sometimes how they are to learn it. The hidden curriculum includes everything in education outside the formal curriculum. For example, ‘hidden lessons’ are given to students through school rules, grading polices, teacher attitudes, class sizes and instructional practices. It also includes the lessons from the unintentional positive and negative learning outcomes when students are taught the formal curriculum. The null curriculum is what is not taught, addressed, or even mentioned in education. This is where philosophy usually falls. What gets ignored in schools – like what is taught – ultimately affects how the students live their lives.

Let me offer an example to illustrate the relationship between the formal, hidden and null curricula. A second grade teacher is required by her school district to teach about America’s Founding Fathers. The formal curriculum includes lesson plans to teach children about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The lessons portray the character of each ‘Founding Father’ in rosy hues, verging on divine attributes. However, the teacher is unaware of the hidden curriculum for a young African-American girl in her class. The girl is learning something additional. For her, it suggests at an impressionable young age that America was founded by and for people vastly different from herself – in particular, white men. Moreover, the teacher is unwittingly also fostering a null curriculum by leaving out the role of women, minorities and slaves in the founding of America.

The purpose of my example is to suggest the intricate interplay between learners and the formal, hidden and null curricula. This dance contributes greatly to the socialization of young people, unquestionably impressing upon them socially-accepted ways of knowing, thinking, acting and relating. Students receive millions of lessons from twelve years of formal, hidden, and null curricula. But by examining the current means and ends of public education we can consider what kind of future we may be creating for ourselves and others. We can then ask ourselves if we are on a good path, or if we can do better.

Many believe the primary goal of schools and colleges is to prepare people for work. This conventional belief renders education nothing more than an extremely long and expensive job training program. This goal is achieved by ensuring students learn specific knowledge through systematic transference. In seeking high levels of transference, where teachers give students knowledge, schools depend greatly on games of carrots and sticks. A complex system of standards, assessment and accountability has now become the foundation of education in most schools. The goal is to ensure that all students meet all the standards by meeting assessment requirements. These ends are to be achieved by 1) codifying and defining all learning standards that all students are to meet, 2) focusing primarily on technical reading, mathematics and science, which are conducive to objective knowledge and assessments, 3) establishing assessments to measure if students have met the learning standards, and 4) enforcing accountability through a system of rewards and punishments for students, teachers, districts, and states, based on aggregated and disaggregated assessment scores.

But evidence suggests public schools are not working well for most students or teachers in America. Nearly a third of all new teachers leave the classroom within three years, and nearly fifty percent within five. (See National Commission on Teaching and America ’s Future No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children, 2003.) Approximately one in three students who enter 9th grade do not graduate from high school. (United States Department of Education, ‘Prepared Remarks for Secretary Spellings at the National Governors Association’s National Education Summit on High Schools’, February 27, 2005.) Studies suggest teachers and students tend to leave for similar reasons: poor relationships, work overload, numbing boredom, meaningless experience, trivial activities and dreadful routine. (See Margaret Diane LeCompte and Anthony Dworkin, Giving Up on School: Student Dropouts and Teacher Burnouts, 1991.)

What is Philosophy?

The word ‘philosophy’ can be traced back to the Greek ‘Φιλοσοφία’ (‘philosophia’), which means ‘the love of wisdom’. Early philosophers pursued wisdom through wondering, questioning, discussing and reflecting upon themselves, others, society, nature, ideas and everything else. However, somewhere along the way, this simple and open notion of philosophy changed into something rather complicated and narrow.

Philosophy is now difficult to define, but various people have tried. For example, in An Introduction to Philosophy (p.69) Canadian philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote, “Philosophy is the science by which the natural light of reason studies the first causes or highest principles of all things – is, in other words, the science of things in their first causes, insofar as these belong to the natural order. ” With definitions like this no wonder people avoid it.

I subscribe instead to philosophy’s original meaning, the love of wisdom, which invites open and free inquiry for the purpose of striving for the highest good for individuals, society and humanity. The value of philosophy lies within the striving towards these elusive ends. This striving provides opportunities for ethical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth. Philosophy changes our patterns of thinking, and for better or worse this can alter the whole tapestry of our experi ences, memories, values, language, beliefs, reasoning, desires and perspectives, in turn influencing our lives, others and society. Philosophy gives people the freedom to challenge the ways of thinking and knowing embedded in the current means and ends of schooling.

A serious problem in education today is that there is little or no striving. Instead students are told everything they are to know and do by teachers and text books. What they sorely need are more opportunities to philosophize about their world, to struggle towards wisdom without being suffocated by millions of facts.

Doing philosophy requires both a touchstone and philosophizing. The touchstone may come from its long academic tradition, or from anything else under the sun, including facts learned in schools. However, philosophical touchstones can ’t provide philosophical insights without philosophizing. As it was for Socrates, philosophizing involves wondering, questioning, discussing and reflecting. In this way it offers authentic approaches to education by supporting the freedom of inquiry, while simultaneously developing multiple aspects of a person ’s inner life, which is itself an authentic end of education.

One of the easiest and most rewarding ways to transform the potentially deadening routine of school is to encourage teachers and students to philosophize. This claim is supported by my experience with a cohort of teachers in Maine. In the summer of 2005 a group of forty educators began a three-year teacher leadership program. In the first course, they spent ample time philosophizing about the meaning of education, what the ‘good life’ is, and about professional teaching. They read John Dewey, Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers, meeting in small groups to critically examine and discuss the texts in relation to their own experiences. Many said that the course had led to personal and professional transformation, while expanding their sense of possibilities. Many seasoned teachers said that for the first time they were encouraged to wonder, question, discuss and reflect upon their inner lives in relationship to teaching. Some carried their experiences with philosophy back to their classrooms, and expressed amazement by the energetic and enthusiastic response of students when they were also given an opportunity to philosophize. They experienced the genuine means and ends of education, albeit briefly.

Unfortunately, after the summer class the program returned to traditional methods, not involving philosophy o r philosophizing. It didn’t take long for stress, boredom and meaninglessness to kick back in. Based on my research and interviews, numerous teachers said they missed the summer class, and sincerely hoped the program would return to its initial ways. It seems many experienced philosophy for the first time in their life, at least in a formal setting, and when it was absent, it was missed. There is hope yet.

What are some of the Obstacles and Challenges?

Despite all the good philosophy can do for students, teachers, schools, and communities, it continues to be kept out of schools. The reasons are intricately tied together, constituting what I call a barricade. I have created a list of ten obstacles, in no particular order of importance.

1. Philosophy isn’t a traditional part of education in the US

If the adults didn’t get it, neither will the kids. As I’ve said, school administrators and teachers bring their own school experience into schools and classrooms. This is also true for parents and other citizens that contribute to public education. For most, philosophy had little or nothing to do with their education, so why should they think it matters?

2. Philosophy seems tethered to elitist realms

Philosophy courses are more likely appear in wealthy communities and private schools than in poor school districts and public schools. When these courses are offered, they tend to be reserved for honor students, the best and brightest, the gifted and talented. We should ask why this is so often the case.

3. Philosophy is difficult to read

Most teachers do not have any background in philosophy, and few have the time or interest to study it. Many would likely struggle to read texts from the Western canon of philosophy, finding a day at the dentist more pleasing than trudging through the difficult language and complex arguments. If teachers don ’t enjoy it, they’re not going to voluntarily teach it: how can a teacher begin to grapple with philosophy texts with high school students who may be struggling to read at a fourth grade level?

4. The field of philosophy is academic

Unfortunately, academic philosophy continues to perpetuate the belief that the ‘legitimate’ study of philosophy must be based on the established canon of philosophical works. This prejudice continues to keep philosophy petrified, an artifact of the past. If philosophy is to become part of public schools and everyday life, it must be break out of its esoteric, academic cocoon. Philosophy needs to open itself up and find ways to touch the lives of citizens, educators and students. It needs to remember that it is more then an academic subject: it is a way of thinking possible for all, even those who cannot read or write.

5. A lack of professional autonomy

Even if an educator wants to teach philosophy, they face numerous obstacles. Under the cloak of seeking public accountability for schools, educational laws and policies have strangled the professional autonomy of many teachers. Many school districts in the United States tell teachers what they must teach and assess. Some even give teachers scripts, telling them exactly what to teach –literally telling them what to do and say.

6. Teacher training and professional development programs

How can educators appreciate philosophy when it is seldom offered in teacher training or professional development programs? Inexplicably, many training programs do not even include the philosophy of education. Consequently, many never experience the benefits of philosophizing. Unfortunately, this is not likely to change anytime soon. Federal and state governments allocate funds for ‘professional development’, and in most cases they are explicitly to be used to implement government educational policies. Not surprisingly, universities and other groups that benefit from educational dollars eagerly align themselves with the government ’s agenda. Since this agenda doesn’t include philosophy, teachers have little or no access to resources to support their development in this area.

7. Schools don’t have the money, time or incentive to change

Public schools have no financial or organizational reason to include philosophy in their curricula. Most districts are already financially stretched. Most teachers are already overworked due to numerous obligations and responsibilities. There is no public pressure on lawmakers, educational leaders or teachers to offer philosophy to students. Schools are more likely to be pressurized to purchase new football uniforms.

8. Fear

Since most educators, parents and citizens were not exposed to it in their education, philosophy seems rather foreign, strange and frightful. It is easier to dismiss the validity and value of philosophy than discuss or address this fear of the unknown. Also, some may be afraid of what might happen if students philosophized. Often philosophizing leads a person to spiritual or ethical matters. It can be difficult to facilitate these heavy conversations. Moreover, some teachers may fear the reprisal of colleagues or parents, who are more comfortable with unquestioning students who never challenge their knowledge or authority.

9. Supply and demand

There is now a nice equilibrium. There is no demand for philosophy, and no supply of resources. Since there is no demand for it, organizations do not have any financial incentives to supply services and resources. Conversely, since people or organizations do not supply services and resources, public schools do not perceive any demand.

10. Standards-based education

Standards-based education is the greatest force keeping philosophy out of school. The complex system of standards, assessment and accountability has become the foundation of education in most American public schools. This system is antithetical to philosophy and philosophizing, which requires an open horizon for free thought.

Surmounting the Obstacles

Is it possible to surmount these obstacles and break down the multilayered barrier that keeps philosophy out of the reach of young people? I believe it is possible, but it would require concerted efforts on multiple fronts:

Organization – Create an organization to promote philosophy in public education.

Funding – Find money from people with deep pockets.

National Network – Create a national network of supporters and grassroots activists.

Reconceptualize Philosophy – Open up philosophy to be accessible to everyone.

Seminars – Develop and deliver seminars for volunteers.

Grassroots Campaigning – Lobby legislatures, school boards, PTAs and other groups.

Research – Conduct research studies to assess the short and long-term outcomes of philosophy or no philosophy.

PR Campaigns – Market philosophy to the public.

Professional Development – Provide teachers with opportunities to study philosophy.

Curriculum Plans – Develop programs to help guide novice philosophy educators.

Grants – Fostering relationships between Education and Philosophy Departments.

Study Circles – Promote philosophy groups among students, parents, and teachers.


I am left with a nagging question: Who will take up this challenge to break down the barrier between philosophy and public education? It seems that it will be a futile venture if it is thrown only into either the field of philosophy or the field of education. What is needed, first and foremost, is a gathering place for philosophers who care about high school education, and teachers who care about philosophy. From within this community can grow the seeds of a new vision for education, with new possibilities and opportunities. Considering how the current system of education is draining the life out of many teachers and students, this seems a worthwhile pursuit.

© Kristina Pelletier 2008

Kristina Pelletier holds a undergraduate degree in philosophy and a Masters of Science in Education. She may be contacted at kristina.pelletier@maine.edu.

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