Why we should teach philosophy in secondary school

Philosophy encourages people to challenge received wisdom

In a programme on RTÉ One television being shown tonight, Trinity College philosopher Dr Robert Grant makes the case for teaching philosophy in schools.

The programme claims that Ireland is going down a path where economic productivity has become the main vision for our society, and that this is undermining our values, our education system and our humanity.

He says: “If we want to treat students like human beings and not just capital, capable of questioning the kind of world we live in, then a radically new vision for education is needed.”

Similarly, President Michael D Higgins, who appears in the programme, warns that “Ireland had paid a high price for certainties that were not questioned in the past.”


The President recently spoke to pupils at the Young Irish Philosopher Awards, telling them they shouldn’t assume that they exist just to be made useful.

As a teacher who has been doing philosophy with secondary school students for many years, I have seen first hand the benefits that philosophy can bring.

It is no exaggeration to say that we are bombarding our young people with huge volumes of information, to an extent that past generations never had to process.

From climate change to terrorism to Brexit, students are dealing with a relentless news cycle that features threats to their very existence. Almost all of this takes place in a brutal and polarising online world, cluttered with fast opinions and quick fixes.

In the era of soundbites and memes there’s little space for deep thought or bigger questions.

Existential threats

The students I meet are concerned and confused about the state of our planet, but also full of compassion. The words I hear in the classroom include “existential threat”, “panic”, and “crisis”.

Who is responsible for the welfare of future generations? Does everyone have a right to housing? What is education for?

Yet, while they have big questions, the students often feel that there is very little space to express and explore them in a meaningful way. They feel the issues that really matter are being trampled on by a selfish system that prioritises rote learning and individual exam success.

They know they need to do their exams and get a job some day, but they feel like the house is burning down around them while they sit still and study for exams.

There is a temptation to dismiss this as “teenage angst”, but it is precisely in these years that we need to focus on big thinking. As young people become better at thinking abstractly, their anxieties about the world can increase, especially if they have nowhere to express these thoughts.

Philosophy is a discipline that encourages you to question the standard messages you receive. It is not so much a body of knowledge as building tools for thinking. It is not about using rhetoric to persuade, or slinging ad-hominem insults at each other to win a Twitter debate.

It requires openness to changing your mind, learning that disagreement can be negotiated and that your first thoughts are not always your best thoughts.

Young people are not seeing good discussion models online or in the media and philosophy could offer a forum to enhance the development of these skills in schools.

The philosophy class starts with the questions generated by the students. Why should we care about the survival of humanity? Who is responsible for the welfare of future generations? Does everyone have a right to housing? What is education for? Why do good people suffer?

We are assured that practising these skills helps students become better future voters, consumers and leaders

What happens to the unattended questions of a 12-year-old about freedom, love, violence, death and politics by the age of 15?

Unless we take time to address difficult questions about the world in our curriculum, the message we send is that these questions don’t matter enough to give time to.

We hear lots of talk about the value of critical thinking these days. One of the National Council for Curriculum's key learning skills is critical thinking. We are assured that practising these skills helps students become better future voters, consumers and leaders.

But critical thinking on its own is not enough; it does not address the rising moral and value-based concerns young people have about global issues and the future of society.

In considering the most important questions, you are using critical thinking, but the issues themselves are philosophical. And in my experience, teenagers are as troubled by these questions as the great philosophers were, and just as capable of dealing with them.

Susan Andrews teaches philosophy in Temple Carrig secondary school in Greystones, Co Wicklow