by Kevin Currie-Knight
The following piece is a reflection I wrote mainly in response to undergraduate questions about philosophy’s purpose and value. I teach philosophy-of-education themed (and other) classes in a College of Education, so most of my students are neither philosophy majors nor in any way fluent with philosophy coming into my course. Additionally, they often are not taking my course out of any anticipated interest in the material, but because it is a requirement for their teaching-focused degree program. So, virtually every semester, I’m in the position of having to “sell” the value of philosophy and its capacity to offer my students a valuable way to approach the world of K-12 education. I’m still not sure I do a great job of it, but this is a written version of my attempt.
Philosophy is a tough subject for non-philosophers to understand. What does it do? What’s the point of it? Is it even a subject at all, and if not, what is it? A method? A way of thinking? Can it arrive at answers, or is the best it can do is ask questions?
The best understanding of philosophy that I’ve read came from Mary Midgley.  When discussing what the use of philosophy is, she wrote that we should see philosophy as a sort of “conceptual plumbing.”
Imagine a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and bathtub. Underneath it all – both underneath the pipes and maybe the floor and walls – there is a hidden system of plumbing that makes it all work. When it it doesn’t, one has to start thinking about that previously hidden from view system of plumbing. Is a pipe clogged? Has something come unhinged? Has a pipe that was previously serviceable gone bad and stopped working? Does something need to be replaced or can we just tune something up?
Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs for those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole.
When we talk about issues, we often bring implicit understandings – a worldview, a way of seeing – with us that we don’t articulate but are doing important conceptual work. When I say, “That isn’t fair and this is a better way to do it!” I haven’t explained what I mean by ‘fair.’ And when you disagree and tell me that the way things are really is fair after all, we might argue and argue without doing what philosophers might do: start exploring our competing ideas about what fairness demands and seeing if we can articulate arguments for and against each of them.
Another example: Imagine that you are confident that you know x is true. I am confident that I know x isn’t true. What I say is true is your fake news and vice versa. We argue and argue, but both of us seem to have reasons for thinking that our version is The Truth. Here are some questions – conceptual plumbing – a philosopher might ask: What type of evidence is sufficient to say that something is true? Is it always the case that there is a single truth to each matter? What type of further inquiry could one do to settle the matter? Is it possible that sources each of you trusts are wrong, and how would you find out? Why do you trust the sources you do?
These aren’t just idle questions either. Midgley is right that these are issues of conceptual plumbing: trying to get at the conceptual stuff that each of us presupposes when we talk but that we rarely ever articulate. When our toilets clog and our sinks don’t work, we guarantee that we will not solve the problem if we ignore the plumbing. Addressing the plumbing – though not on every occasion – fixes the issue. Argument is like that. When we all agree on what is fair or what the truth is, we don’t need to think about the conceptual issues underlying things. But when we disagree, it is often helpful to think about them. Are we operating with different notions of what fairness means? Or how to get at the truth? Can we articulate arguments for and against each to see which holds up the best? It doesn’t guarantee that the problem gets solved, but it might, and at the very least, it helps us to clarify what might be at issue and not talk past each other.
To drive home the point, here is philosopher Isaiah Berlin with a similar take on what philosophy does:
The task of philosophy, often a difficult and painful one, is to extricate and bring to light the hidden categories and models in terms of which human beings think…, to reveal what is obscure or contradictory in them, to discern the conflicts between them that prevent the construction of more adequate ways of organising and describing and explaining experience.
Many philosophers would say that they “extricate and bring to light the hidden categories and models” because doing so helps them get to truths – about what the correct notion of fairness is; the right way to determine what the truth is; etc. Others – and I will confess that I lie closer to this side – believe that philosophy might not be able to get to truths about these things, either because it all really does come down to differing opinion or because if there is a truth about what fairness or truth is, we humans are fated never to know whether we are correct about them.
Even in that (worst) case, there are still ways in which philosophy can be useful. First, doing it helps you appreciate the things you are philosophizing about more. Justice seems like an easy issue that we can stop paying attention to … until someone comes along and attacks your idea of justice or advocates some other unattractive idea of it. Then, it’s time to start thinking about the importance of getting justice right! Second, thinking through these issues helps you clarify what you really think. You might find that you support an idea of justice that it is hard to produce good arguments for, in which case you might rethink or clarify your position. Lastly, even if philosophy can’t offer ultimate answers to problems, it can help you think in different ways about the issues at play in those problems. If you are thinking through whether to tell a lie to your friend that you think could ultimately save that friend from pain, philosophy might not give you a frictionless answer, but it might help you articulate that the friction comes from the competing demands you feel between working for your friend’s happiness and being transparent with them (and what each really means).
Maybe, there is another analogy that we can use for philosophy besides plumbing. Perhaps philosophers are more like therapists, people who can help you get at the roots of conceptual problems you have. You might go to a therapist if you are sad or anxious and not sure why, and while the therapist can’t likely give you “the answer” for making everything right, she probably can help you dig into your psyche to pinpoint potential sources of the problem and ways to move forward. That is a good way to think of what philosophy can do when we think about what the meaning of life is or through thorny ethical dilemmas.
This gets us to the issue of philosophy of education specifically, and why it can be a productive exercise. Staying with Midgley’s analogy, schools are big places, and school districts are even larger! Imagine the vast and tangled conceptual plumbing underneath! For one thing, schools are tied to societies, cultures, nations, citizenship, etc., so however we think those things should be arranged will in some way impact what we think schools should do. School also opens up tricky moral issues about what we can and can’t compel from our youngest members of society, the proper relationship between families, the government, and the larger society, how much uniformity of knowledge and behavior we have a right to expect from citizens prepared by the school. And these are just some of the conceptual issue schooling invites us to think philosophically about.
But just like with our regular plumbing, we seldom talk about this conceptual plumbing. Colleges of education teach teachers how to write lesson plans but rarely ask them to reflect on how much of a lesson should be planned. We teach about “classroom management,” but don’t give a lot of space to talk about the conceptual issues beneath the idea, like what the proper moral dynamic is between teacher and student, what the purpose of punishing students is (establishment of order? rehabilitation?), or even the ethics of thinking about classroom kids as needing to be managed.
Here is an example of the difference between how a philosopher and a non-philosopher might approach a current issue in education. There has been a lot of talk recently about how or whether to teach about race, sex, and gender in schools. Questions arise: how much emphasis do we put on America’s gnarly relationship to race? Teach this race-centric and seemingly pessimistic curriculum, or this other curriculum that focuses mostly on the positive work America has done to become racially inclusive?
As a philosopher, one thing that bugs me about how these current debates go is that we rarely get to the conceptual issues that might be necessary to help us debate more productively. For instance, each side says they and not the other side “just want to teach the facts.” As a philosopher, I want to suggest that this invites us to think about how we know what the historical facts are. Especially in areas where each side can cite seemingly credible facts and sources, how can we determine what the facts are? Is there an objective way to do it or can different parties hold to different accounts of the facts? I would ask these questions not to annoy people or drown us all in questions, but so that we can move the discussion to those potentially more productive issues, where each side offers its arguments in hopes of persuading the other.
As a philosopher, I’d also love folks in these debates to talk about what they think the purpose of teaching about history is to begin with. Is it, as conservatives are more likely to say, to create a nation of people who love their country for the perceived good it has done, despite its acknowledged flaws? Or is it, as liberals and progressives are more likely to say, to inspire people to work for social change above and beyond what their country has done in the past?
A third conceptual dimension of the question above involves who has the right to decide these matters. If enough parents decide that their children will be made uncomfortable by a certain view of history (or anything else), does that give them a right to demand its removal, even if the experts in the relevant field disagree? Is it moral for students – who generally are required to be in school and have very little choice of what they learn – to be forced to learn what does not interest them or might make them uncomfortable if it is “for their own good”? If yes, how do we determine what is good for students, especially if the good we are entertaining is an imagined future good? In cases where parents and the school system – or the kid – disagree on what the kid’s own good is, who gets to decide in any given case?
These are all questions of conceptual plumbing, the type of questions we often do not think consciously about but probably still have (perhaps unarticulated) intuitions on. Philosophy brings those intuitions out into the open for all to see, so that we and whoever we might be talking to can examine them, better articulate them, and better see how compelling they are. Maybe philosophy can help us answer the questions we approach philosophically, but even if it can’t, it is still arguably a worthwhile exercise for the reasons I laid out above.
What can all of this philosophical thinking do for teachers? It can make you more thoughtful about your craft and the conceptual elements in it. It can also better allow you to formulate and argue positions in order to convince others, or conversely, find holes in arguments used by others on you.
Here’s an example where I wish I’d have had experience with philosophy when I was a high school teacher. One day, a student of mine, annoyed that I told him to focus on his work, bolted from his seat, cursed at me, and stormed out of the room. My attendance policy states that if a student leaves the classroom without permission, they will be marked absent, so that’s what I did. (A philosopher would have a field day interrogating that policy!) Fifteen minutes later, he showed up at the door with the school social worker who pleaded for me to let the student back into class, after telling me the burdens he was under at home. I had a choice: let him back in at the expense of enforcing my policy, or hold to my policy and risk turning a blind eye to his situation.
At the time, I did not think of this in philosophical terms, but it might have helped if I had. On one hand, I could have adhered to a rule-based ethical code, one that aspires to be neutral by holding everyone to the same set of rules. On the other, I could have followed a more situational ethics, where there is less importance on adherence to rules and more on attuning your treatment of others to the needs of the people involved. There are pros and cons to each approach that I won’t get into. But thinking philosophically about the issue might have helped me make a more considered decision (even in advance of the situation, when thinking about what sort of ethic to use in my classroom). It also might have helped me articulate my rationale to anyone – maybe a parent or supervisor – who disagreed or questioned my judgment. It could also help me defend my position against objection.
Most areas of learning involve taking things you know little about and learning more about them. I like to say that philosophy is the reverse: philosophy deals with things we feel like we know quite well – institutions like schools that we take for granted, ideas like morality that we relegate to “common sense” – and makes them less familiar by poking them with questions and asking whether there are good arguments for various positions about them. It might seem jarring, like the point is to talk us all out of our convictions. Really, the point is to talk us all into rigorously reflecting on things we normally wouldn’t.