The value of philosophy in education


July 22, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Every now and then I feel a certain anti-intellectualism going on in the teaching profession. Although I have seen, increasingly, teachers looking for a modest amount of theory to back their practice, I still think there’s this mistaken conception that theory and practice are dichotomous.

  • There is a theory for every practice – maybe we don’t know what it is, it might not be clear, explicit; but there is one. Dig deeper and it’s there.
  • There isn’t any theory which has been generated without any practice. In the end, though I’m not fully confident to claim this, what we do stems from thoughts created with experience and observation: is there anything more practical than that?
  • Even the most quantitative, positivistic, laboratorial piece of finding has been observed by someone. Someone, no matter how objective, is still one, meaning, with subjectivity as an inherent attribute, an inherent force.

With the huge amount of information we have at our disposal today, more than ever, we need a developed sense of criticism, among other thing not to be easily boxed in dichotomies.

An awful lot is being discussed on how to make our students more critical persons. Look at the growing number of the term Critical thinking in learning materials and conference items, what a buzzword! — how many fascinating questions and discussion it has given rise to!

Now, I would like to take some steps back, maybe a century back; and with me bring something I feel we have lost along the way:


A hundred years ago, the great analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell published The Problems of Philosophy. Russell dissects thoughts of his time like no-one; with impeccable reasoning, balance, and fluency, he is able not only to expose some givens and their possible flaws, but mainly to give us a masterclass on critical thinking. More than learning about philosophy, as a subject, with Russell I’ve been learning how to think, how to see, how to philosophize – and it’s been great!

Not the kind of critical thinking that challenges products (e.g. a TV commercial), but one which challenges processes, i.e. the way we think. Critical thinking about thinking. Too meta? Perhaps it is, but valuable all the same.

So, maybe, one of my answers to encouraging critical thinking would be philosophy (philosophizing). The how’s of it are not so clearly laid out, not so hard to find though. But perhaps the first step is not to know the how, but to understand the importance of the why.

To answer that, I’ll leave you with the master:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find (…) that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. (Russell, B., 1912, p. 91)


6 thoughts on “The value of philosophy in education

  1. Hi Willy,

    I couldn’t agree more. I hate being told, before giving a workshop or a training session, that what the participants want is lots of practical activities that can be used in class. I find myself having to sneak some theory or critical thinking in the back door. (2 ways I have found of doing this are to get particiants to grade the activities out of 10 and say why they gave this grade, and at the end asking people which of the activities were crap.)

    It was slightly reassuring, though, to see how many sessions there were at BRAZ TESOL on the subject of critical thinking in teacher development. My fear, though, is that it becomes another buzz word that peole pay lip service to without actually doing anything about it.

  2. […] The value of philosophy in education ( […]

  3. Hey Stephen
    It was nice meeting you at BrazTesol!

    I liked your idea, asking participants to grade stuff we present, I’ll do that!

    There’s a lot on critical thinking these days, I agree, and like everything else lots of ‘lip-servicers’, I wonder how much of that (actually applying critical thinking) pays off anyway. I wrote what I reckon would be a critical view on critical thinking over here:

  4. Hello Mr. Cardoso,

    I’ve nominated you for the “One Lovely Blog” award. You can check out the rules here should you wish to participate:

    Your recent WP Follower, Denise

  5. Torn Halves says:

    Great to see someone arguing for the relevance of philosophy, and encouraging teachers to pick up one or two of the big philosophical texts.

    I guess the guy who began the modern phase in critical thinking was Descartes, and I am always staggered that a curriculum will insist that all children must understand quadratic equations, while being happy to let them graduate without having read anything about the Catesian cogito.

    About Russell: What he describes is a task performed now by science. People grow up thinking the sun rises. Science tells them it doesn’t rise. They grow up thinking there is a bearded male figure somewhere beyond the clouds. Science tells them beyond the clouds is the black vastness of space.

    Interesting philosophy now is the philosophy that questions the assumption that science has a monopoly on the truth. That is the “tyranny of custom” that now needs to be shaken.

  6. patrycja says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    Especially, I like when you wrote “more than ever, we need a developed sense of criticism, among other thing not to be easily boxed in dichotomies.”

    The trouble is: do we allow our students to have courageous conversations?
    Or, are we training them to think as we do?

    I think about this a lot.

    In schools, we almost have an ideological agenda to fulfill– we want to students to end up thinking this way about that….

    Are we teaching students what to think? Or are we teaching them to think?

    One very intelligent high school student told me once….”Miss…I get that we are having these talks for a reason,..but you know, we can’t really say what we think….”

    Are we ready to allow our students to think aloud?

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