Philosophy: a subject for all ages

In the world of higher education, no subject is on the receiving end of jokes more so than philosophy.

What was once a proud subject that helped shaped the modern world, today philosophy is usually equated with pretentious liberal college students who wear fedoras all the time.

We’ve all heard people use philosophy as the prime example of a “useless” degree and often smirk at the notion of graduates in philosophy applying for jobs.

Despite this negative perception of the philosophy degree, there is definitely a value in studying philosophy.

From a practical standpoint, philosophy majors go on to dominate both the LSAT and the GRE following graduation. In 2011–12 philosophy majors scored the highest in both the verbal and analytical writing portion of the GRE, and were topped by only physics, economics, computer science and chemistry majors in the quantitative section.

Along with that, some studies have suggested that philosophy majors tend to have a higher earning potential than other majors.

With all that aside, the true benefits of studying philosophy are the effect it has on your ability to reason, and think logically and critically when approaching complex subjects and ideas.

Philosophy is a field which prods someone out of their usual way of thinking and requires them to go deeper into a subject than they otherwise might have.

It compels one to ask why things are; it asks a student to withdraw from the miasma of accepted thought and step out of their natural utilitarian way of thinking.

To philosophize is to wonder, to marvel at the world and the apparent mundane motions of day-to-day life.

In this way the philosopher is similar to the poet, and while we see an innate value in forcing kids to read Keats and Byron, we’ve outright neglected philosophy.

While I do not hesitate to say that it would be in the best interest of college students to take at least some philosophy during their undergraduate career, I am willing to take it a step farther and say that philosophy is something which should be taught as early as high school.

In an ever-crumbling education system, philosophy may be something that could add validity to a person’s education beyond the senseless cramming of facts which must be regurgitated onto a Scantron sheet or a standardized test.

I was lucky enough to have an Advanced Placement European History teacher in high school that spent some time talking about Descartes, Kant and Rousseau during our unit on the Enlightenment. Besides this we had little to no exposure to philosophy, but plenty of poetry and Shakespeare.

While schools are not looking to hire 11th-grade philosophy teachers as of yet, there have been efforts to give high school students the opportunity to explore philosophy outside the classroom.

One such example is the Oregon High School Ethics Bowl, which will take place for the first time here at Portland State between Jan. 30th and 31st.

Directed by PSU’s own Professor Alexander Sager, the Oregon High School Ethics Bowl is giving high school students the opportunity to think critically about important topics, ranging from international policy to ethical questions of lying and stealing.

Student volunteers from the PSU philosophy department are working with high school teachers to participate in the event and offer workshops to prepare students to be successful in the competition.

The event itself is similar to high school speech and debate competitions, but is focused primarily on the analysis of ethical case studies, rather than defeating the opposing team. Examples of the topics discussed this year include deaf parents using reproductive technology to select for deaf children; computers, smartphones and other devices from developed countries being disposed of in China, India and western Africa; and the proposal to “ban the box” requiring people to divulge a criminal history on job applications.

Teams are evaluated on their knowledge of ethics, their civility and their ability to engage with opposing arguments and questions.

In short, the competition “is for the preparation and creation of a community where people are encouraged to discuss things that matter and to understand alternative views.”

In a country where the ability to discuss issues with civility seems like a modern feat and people are forgetting how to think critically, opportunities like this should definitely be encouraged.

Philosophy, more so than other liberal arts, complements one’s field of study more than any other, whether it be biology, history, business, engineering or, in my case, foreign language.

With that said, if we can accept philosophy’s value when it comes to the moral reasoning of students and their perception of life, it is only natural to assume we’d want to extend that to younger students who may or may not pursue a college degree.

For that reason I laud attempts by professors like Sager to try and make philosophy more accessible to younger students.

We would fare well to have a king who was a philosopher, but all the more so if today’s youth learned how to critically think and were encouraged to wonder about what is around them.