Teaching High School Philosophy
Currently, the United States does not require philosophy as a required subject for high school students. But we want to see that change! In recent years, a growing number of high schools, public as well as private, have developed highly successful philosophy electives, as well as philosophy clubs and ethics bowl teams.
Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth and Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development have philosophy classes for high school students!
Philosophy can and should be taught in high school because this is the ideal time for students to engage its questions, arguments, and rigorous methods of thinking. High school students have not yet fully formed their habits of mind. They remain open, inquisitive, and intellectually playful.
For most adolescents, the perennial questions posed by philosophy have urgency and personal significance.
Why should philosophy be taught to high school students?
High school students have developed the skills that enable them to begin serious work in reading philosophical texts, identifying and evaluating arguments, and constructing arguments of their own. From a school-wide perspective, philosophy can be invaluable because the skills it imparts are transferable to every part of the curriculum that emphasizes clear thinking, reading, and writing.
One obstacle to introducing a high school philosophy class or program is the perception that it is either frivolous or better suited to college. Teachers should be prepared to defend the importance and rigor of the course as well as its appropriateness for high school (see our article on “Why Philosophy? Why Now?” for further justification.)
Philosophy connects to all the other subjects: its fundamental questions apply to all disciplines and address the full range of human experience.
For example, questions about ethics and free will deepen students’ appreciation for great literature, and analysis of the mind-body problem and free will afford students a critical perspective when they study the brain in psychology. Additionally, the consideration of power and authority can inform how students think about topics within history.
In keeping with this description of philosophy as an activity rather than a subject matter, high school philosophy classes should encourage all of the skills highlighted in the graphic above to be developed!
View our step-by-step guide on how to create a pre-college philosophy program or download the printable PDF!
What does a high school philosophy class look like?
- Political Philosophy
- Free Will & Determinism
- Philosophy of Mind
- Philosophy of Religion
The chief objective of a high philosophy course should be to engage students in the activity of doing philosophy.
Although philosophy can be taught as an historical survey or structured around a set of texts, these approaches are less appropriate or effective for high school students than a topical course organized around a set of key questions that invite conversation, analysis, and discussion.
A carefully chosen thought experiment, case, story, or film clip can work effectively and excite students’ philosophical interest.
Some teachers also assign journal entries that enable students to explore philosophical questions independently before or after a class discussion.
What texts are appropriate for a high school philosophy program?
Teachers new to teaching a philosophy course are fortunate in that they can draw from a wide range of philosophy texts and readers.
Primary Source Readers
- Louis Pojman, Philosophy: The Quest for Truth (Oxford, 2008).
- G Lee Bowie et al, Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Thomson 2004).
Annotated Primary Source Readers
- Laurence Bonjour and Ann Baker, Philosophical Problems: An Annotated Anthology (Pearson Longman 2007).
Two-Volume Reader of Primary and Secondary Sources
- Nils Ch. Rauhut, Ultimate Questions: Thinking about Philosophy (Penguin, 2004).
- Nils Ch. Rauhut, Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2007).
Secondary Sources with Short Primary Source Readings
- William Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach (McGraw Hill, 2006). (Note: includes excellent questionnaires on philosophical questions.)
- Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments, third edition (McGraw Hill, 2006).
- Adam Morton, Philosophy in Practice: An Introduction to the Main Questions, 2nd edition (Blackwell 2004).
Collections of Thought Experiments
- Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (Headline, 2004).
- Peg Tittle, What If…Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (Pearson Longman, 2005).
- Julian Baggini, The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten: One Hundred Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (Plume, 2006).
Texts for Philosophical Methods and Argument Structure
- Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
- Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners (Prentice Hall, 1996).
- Elliott Sober, Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings (Prentice Hall, 2005).