• Jonathan

Pattern Recognition - 3

If people were purely rational animals that made decisions based on maximizing economic utility, the first and third of the three problems I linked at the start of this series (lack of career opportunities for people trained in philosophy, and the need for more people to enter the teaching profession) could be solved through laws of supply and demand.

A few things might be needed to reduce “friction” in trying to get more philosophers to become K-12 teachers, such as graduate schools of education actively recruiting undergraduate philosophy majors and unemployed or underemployed graduates and PhDs. Such steps would create awareness of this career option, but the ultimate driver would be alleged “iron laws” that claim voids in the economy will get filled through Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

As even Adam Smith noted, however, humans are not simply rational actors out to maximize economic utility. Deciding to go into teaching, for example, means entering a profession with high demands and relatively low pay compared to other professions (especially for those with advanced degrees).

Having recently worked at a new graduate school of education focusing on STEM educators, all of the students we recruited had completed majors in a math or science subject and could have easily gotten a job that would pay more than an entry level teacher, or gone onto graduate school where their career prospects and earning potential would be even greater.

But at some point during their college career, they decided that they would rather teach math or science, rather than continue to study it or work in a STEM field. This tended to be driven by two emotional factors:

1. A passion for teaching kids (frequently discovered during adolescence working in summer camps or in college through tutoring or other educational outreach programs)

2. A love of the subject matter they were studying coupled with a desire to share it with others, rather than simply add to the pile of new knowledge through research

Getting back to the problems we are trying to solve, given that a subset of people studying science and math (or literature or history), have a passion for working with young learners that translates into a desire to go into teaching, it is safe to assume that a subset of those studying philosophy also have this passion. This is not an empirical claim, since I’ve not done any research on the topic, but it is a reasonable inference that philosophers – despite stereotypes – are unlikely to be significantly more misanthropic than those studying other challenging academic subjects.

A problem arises with factor #2 above, however, since philosophically trained students are unlikely to have the opportunity to teach a philosophy course in a typical K-12 setting. At most, they might get the chance to teach a philosophy elective to older students once in a while, but the bulk of their time will be spent in their core subject area, likely in English, math, science or social studies.

The void between loving one subject (philosophy) but teaching another could be filled by upping the number of opportunities to teach philosophy electives or providing incoming teachers who have studied philosophy the opportunity and resources needed to create and grow philosophy clubs or participate in activities like Ethics Bowls or debate. But this might not be enough to satisfy those interested in bringing the philosophical tradition to all students, not just a curious or elite subset.

This is where the second problem I’ve been discussing, the need to increase instruction in critical thinking across the curriculum, can play a role. For research has shown that the best way to teach students how to think critically is to include explicit instruction in critical-thinking skills and techniques (such as logic and argumentation) inside other subjects like English, math and science.

This would mean the geometry teacher who had just introduced students to geometric proofs would stop to point out that they had just been introduced to deductive reasoning, explain the concept, contrast it with other forms of reasoning (such as inductive) and then show how these ways of thinking can be applied outside of math. Similarly, the science teacher should pause after introducing the scientific method to explain its philosophical underpinnings and show how hypothesis formation and testing can be applied to all subjects, and all aspects of life, to help people get closer to truth.

For those trained in philosophy, these approaches to knowledge are second nature. So in order to bring such people into the teaching fold, keep them there and get the most out of them, we do not need to abandon the current curriculum, but we need to revise it so that explicit instruction in critical thinking is woven into every field and taught at every appropriate opportunity.

If men and women who have studied philosophy are given the chance to not just do this themselves, but to train other teachers to do the same, that could provide them with something every teacher (and every human) ultimately wants: to making a difference in the world.