Is the following in your near future? You have been assigned to teach Philosophy at your high school (maybe you are teaching IB Philosophy as one of the six subjects at an International Baccalaureate school), and you are at somewhat of a loss as to where to begin.
For many of us, especially in the United States, Philosophy is a bit of an obscure discipline. Maybe we had an introductory course during our undergraduate years and remember something about Ethics or Plato, but that is likely where it ends. Even most educated adults can be hard-pressed to just give a basic description of the discipline. (When I had to turn in receipts for my high school Philosophy Club to our bookkeeper, Psychology and Philosophy had no discernable difference in her mind.) Sadly, the arcane and pretentious reputation that philosophy has is a well-deserved one – just crack open to any random page of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit – but, it most certainly doesn’t have to be this way.
Philosophy is a Rewarding Course to Teach
If you find yourself in this situation and are less than enthusiastic, I hope to convince you that Philosophy is quite possibly the most fun and rewarding high school course you could ever hope to teach! And if you are feeling intimidated, I want to assure you that as a teacher you already have all the skills you will need to be a wonderful philosophy teacher.
So, What is Philosophy?
Let’s start with the best way to explain philosophy. It is the subject that asks the biggest questions of life: Is there a God? What gives life meaning? How do I be a good person? etc. However, when I want to give a definition of philosophy to someone, I briefly mention the main branches of philosophy, and it seems that almost intuitively people understand they have known what philosophy is all along. There are a couple of ways to divide the branches of philosophy, but if you understand the major ones, it makes little difference. (If you are teaching IB Philosophy, these are the “Optional Themes,” and they are a little more broadly defined than a college professor might classify them.) Aesthetics look at questions of beauty and art. It’s not so much the history of art but instead asks questions as to why we find things appealing to us and it questions where art’s meaning comes from. Political Philosophy asks the fundamental questions of power and the government. How does a government justify its authority to rule over others? Metaphysics can seem tricky, but you just have to break the word down into its literal meaning. Meta means beyond, so metaphysics is the study of what exists beyond this physical world. This means that Metaphysics covers questions of God, but it also explores ideas of free will and consciousness. After all, you can’t put your consciousness into a bucket, can you? Ethics is the study of right and wrong – what it means to be a good person. Finally, Epistemology is the study of knowledge. How can we be certain what we know is true? To what degree should we trust our senses and perceptions? (I’ll come back to Epistemology in a little bit.)
Why Should You Be Excited About Teaching Philosophy in High School?
I taught IB Philosophy at a high school for four years and what I quickly understood was how eager my students were to talk about these big questions of life. While my undergraduate degree was in philosophy and I understood the power of exploring deep topics, I did not realize just how perfect philosophy is for teenagers. Questions about identity, relationships, morals, and the nature of reality and existence are exactly the kind of topics that high school students love to discuss. And the skeptical ones who enter class thinking that philosophy only asks questions and provides no real answers are quickly converted once they come across a philosopher that really speaks to them (and I have yet to have a student who could not find a philosopher that did!)
Your First Philosophy Lesson
What’s the best way to start? I’ll offer my favorite way to begin; it comes by way of a thought experiment with which you may already have some familiarity. Imagine there is a mad scientist living on a distant planet. On this planet, this mad scientist has your brain in a vat of liquid, and connected to your brain is a machine. With this machine, the mad scientist can simulate any experience – including the experience you are having right now. The experience of you sitting in your chair, reading these words of on your screen, the feeling of breathing in and out, your memories of what you ate for dinner last night, your inner monologue, your biggest fear – all of these are actually a simulation of this machine. The only sense in which you “exist” is by way of a computer simulation. You are simply a brain in a vat. Is there any way that we could prove that this was not actually the case? Is there any way to prove that we can trust that our experiences are authentic? Furthermore, would this bother you if this was actually true? Would you be disturbed that your experiences were manufactured, or would you throw up your hands and shrug to something you couldn’t change anyway?
This idea (altered slightly) was the product of 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, and it has never failed to spark a spirited, profound, and often hilarious discussion with students. It is meant to illustrate a fundamental problem in Epistemology. How can we trust our sensory experience? How can we really know that all of this we are experiencing right now is real?
These kinds of thought experiments are the bread and butter of all branches of philosophy and are easy to find and use for any branch you may covering in your high school philosophy course. Teaching philosophy to high school students is not about being able to regurgitate verbatim Gottfried Leibniz’s argument for the existence of God. It’s about allowing opportunities for students to engage with the kinds of questions I’ve offered here, to encourage them to think critically about ideas they may take for granted, and to show them the ways in which others have wrestled with these same questions.
Want Help with Your High School Philosophy Course?
If you’d like to ask me anything philosophy related or about how to structure your class, what to cover, free resources available to enhance your lesson plans, etc. just drop a comment below. I am always happy to help fellow high school philosophy teachers!
One resource that is great at introducing various topics and ideas is the Philosophy Crash Course series on YouTube. There are 46 episodes in total and you can use these with your students and to help get yourself up to speed on some of the big ideas of the discipline. You can find a free set of questions for the first episode here.
Interested in my philosophy units and lessons? You can find them here or click the image below to take a closer look.