I’ve been teaching philosophy, an honors elective taken mainly by seniors, for the past twenty-six years at a suburban high school outside Chicago. The class is organized topically around a set of perennial questions in ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind. I encourage conversation and debate in my classroom, but I also ask students to work out their ideas independently in writing assignments. The kinds of writing I assign reflect my own thinking about what it means to do philosophy. Followed by each dimension of philosophy, I sketch strategies for teacher assessment and student exploration through writing. I hope this blog sparks a conversation about how we feature writing in philosophy instruction.

Philosophy is a reflective activity that invites students to make explicit their fundamental assumptions and beliefs. Self-reflection should take the further backward step of inspecting these assumptions and beliefs for internal coherence and consistency. Students also should discern implications of their beliefs, including any “bullets” they need to bite for the sake of consistency. And they should investigate sources of inconsistency and possibilities for revising their beliefs.

Questionnaires or surveys can be effective in helping students clarify their basic beliefs and inspect them for internal coherence and consistency. For example, “Battleground God,” a questionnaire on the TPM Online’s website, enables students to examine their beliefs on the rationality of religious belief. Journal entries create opportunities for students to explore a question in writing before being introduced to formal arguments in assigned readings or class discussion. For example, before discussing the merit of ethical relativism, students might be asked to respond in their journal to the question whether disagreement about right and wrong is comparable to disagreement about the shape of the earth. They also might revisit the same question at the end of a unit to reflect upon changes in their thinking.

Philosophy is at least partly a matter of thinking about thinking, or more specifically, thinking about arguments. Before students are in a position to appraise an argument, they must understand and master it. What is the structure of the argument? What are its background assumptions? What are its implications for the philosophical question(s) under consideration? I ask students to annotate an assigned reading and to identify the central argument in preparation for class. I then divide the class into groups and ask each group to reach consensus and write their version of the central argument on the board. The argument must be concise and represented as a set of propositions that includes premises and conclusion. The class then discusses which arguments on the board approximate the author’s intended argument in the reading. Examples include Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat” as an argument against identity theory, Descartes’ dream and conceivability arguments in the Meditations, and Mackie on the paradox of omnipotence.

Early in each unit, I hand out a set of study questions on the readings. We often refer to the questions in class. I then select some of the study questions for an in-class essay exam. For example, I might divide an exam on free will into three sections, each one representing a major position on the question (e.g., hard determinism, compatiblism, libertarianism). Students select one question from each set. Here are two sample questions: (1) Explain van Inwagen’s Principle and its appeal to “untouchable facts.” How does the Principle justify hard determinism and challenge classical compatiblism? (2) How is the personal predicament of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man attributable to the philosophical problem of free will and determinism? Why does he care deeply about whether he has free will? So, study questions guide reading, discussion, and review; and students’ mastery of the questions is assessed on the in-class essays.

Philosophy also engages arguments by evaluating them. Once students have demonstrated a firm grasp of an argument, we expect them to analyze and appraise it. What objections might be raised? How would the argument handle counter-examples? Where does the argument suffer from a lack of clarity, consistency, or plausibility? How might the argument answer objections? How might it be revised or strengthened to meet objections? Does an alternative argument better defend the same position? For example, in the ethics unit I introduce plausibility, consistency, justification, and usefulness as criteria. After giving them a model by applying the criteria to Mill’s utilitarianism, I ask them to write an essay in which they apply the criteria to another ethical theory (e.g., Kant’s deontological ethics, Aristotle’s teleological ethics; Wilson and Pinker’s sociobiology).

As an alternative to a thesis-based question, I ask students to write a dialogue representing major positions on an issue (e.g., memory, body, soul as candidates for personal identity). The dialogue invites students to probe and challenge competing arguments from their respective points of view. I also assign essay questions that ask students to compare two philosophers who represent opposing points of view and to show why one philosopher’s position is more defensible than the other (e.g., Hick and Mackie on the problem of evil, Rawls and Nozick on distributive justice).

Philosophical reasoning also calls for the creative application of philosophical concepts and theories to contemporary issues, to works of art, to problems and puzzles. I ask students to analyze a film for its philosophical themes or as a thought experiment that tests philosophical arguments they have studied. Here are a few examples: How does the popular film “Groundhog Day” dramatize Aristotle’s views on virtuous character and friendship? How does “Crimes and Misdemeanors” dramatize Plato’s ring of Gyges? Does the thought experiment of Leondard’s condition in “Memento” reinforce the views of Parfit, Locke, or Hume on personal identity?

I also ask students to apply competing views on distributive justice to the issue of affirmative action and Aristotle’s theory of human flourishing to the ethics of genetic enhancement. Students apply competing views on free will to the case of someone who committed brutal crimes as an adult and suffered terrible abuse as a child. They also apply act utilitarian, rule utilitarian, and Kantian procedures to cases in cases in bioethics.

I do think the above strategy can constrain students who are more eager to investigate a question on their own than to demonstrate that they can deftly use the tools of others. That’s why the best questions are often open-ended and invite students’ independent thinking. At the same time, such questions needs to be framed carefully and should encourage students to draw judiciously from the arguments and readings they have encountered in the unit. Here is a good example drawn from a student essay competition on the Hi Phi website at University of Virginia:

“Think about all the physical and psychological changes a person goes through from birth to adulthood. It is not too much of a stretch to say that everything important about you—how you look, how you act, what kinds of things you like, how you spend your time, and so on—changes throughout your life. What, then, makes someone who is, say, age 17, the same person as at, say, age 3? Is it the continuity of memories, the same, the same brain, the judgment of friends or elders, the continuity of desires? Each of these answers has a potential serious problem—or problems—associated with it. Your task is to consider carefully the question, what makes a person the same person at different stages of their life?”

I look forward to learning about how writing is inscribed in the teaching of pre-college philosophy in your classroom. And I’m eager to read both supportive and critical responses to how it is featured in mine.


248516_10150611057935247_1299950_nWhen I’m not teaching high school history and philosophy, I like to tinker in my garage. Merging my interests in philosophy and craftsmanship, I have built happiness boxes, teletransporters, trolley cars, and Chinese rooms. (I’ve also tortured some of my students in the morning but not before swapping their memories with Lady Gaga’s.) After putting away my tools, I enjoy taking Kulu on long walks. “Kulu” is patois for moonshine and Kulu is an Arubian Cunucu, a faux breed that descends from Portuguese hounds brought to the Caribbean islands on 16th century slave ships. Or so I’ve read on the official Arubian Cunucu website. I should add that I am a willing addict who has a second order desire to watch Breaking Bad. I satisfy the urge each summer with the help of Netflix. And with the help of Roberta Israeloff, I have generated an impossibly long list of great fiction that mocks both my ambition and debt to amazon.com. I have two adult daughters who nod in disbelief at their father. Their mother looks on approvingly, a glass of wine in hand.

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Michelle Sowey

Thank you for this inspiring post, Steve. I would have really loved to take your class when I was in high school. Although I was lucky enough to attend a well-regarded school, in general my educational experiences weren’t nearly as relevant, compelling, provocative or exciting as those you’ve described.

As a practitioner of philosophy with children, I aspire to offer activities as rich and challenging as those you’ve written about. And while I work with much younger children who are a lot less philosophically sophisticated, I do explore similar themes and ask the same reflective, evaluative and metacognitive questions that you mention.

I see how the individual writing tasks you assign can help to achieve a delicate balance between collaborative and independent thinking processes – a balance that tends to be strongly weighted towards collaboration in the dialogue-driven enquiries that I facilitate. I have the impression that many children find writing onerous. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had success in incorporating a significant element of independent writing into their philosophy programs for primary school children.

[…] my earlier post, I mentioned assigning a dialogue as an alternative to a formal essay. Here is an example of each […]

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