Teenagers: Made to Think!


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Recently, my teenage son and I were talking about a discussion he and his peers had about feminism and what constitutes being a feminist. It was a lively dialogue between father and son and we talked about different schools of feminism and why feminism is important. My points were benign: It’s good to think about issues like feminism and it’s important to think about them carefully, because you need to have a critical opinion you formed yourself rather than aping someone else’s point of view. A couple of the points that his group of peers raised seemed suspect, too, aimed strictly at marginalising radical feminism or at being extremely reductive of feminism overall. I said as much, trying to explain why you need to understand the bigger picture of how schools of thought relate and what they mean, rather than pigeonholing the world and calling it a day. 

Partway through this father and son discussion, it occurred to me that our dialogue played into a series of semi-lucid thoughts that I had been having about the value of critical thinking and teaching some basic philosophical skills to our next generation. We live in a time when many things are under attack, whether it’s the attack on science by the religious right, attacks on privacy by our own governments, attacks on women’s rights (or attacks on women themselves), attacks on the value of a liberal arts education or even attacks on philosophy itself from smart, influential people who are kicking the shins of the very discipline without which their own would not exist. In those semi-lucid thoughts, the world has forgotten about the value of raising critical, independent thinkers.

And then my thoughts became more radical and I remembered what Bertrand Russell said about education:

Our system of education turns young people out of the schools able to read, but for the most part unable to weigh evidence or to form an independent opinion. They are then assailed, throughout the rest of their lives, by statements designed to make them believe all sorts of absurd propositions

–Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda (1922)

To Russell, the status quo of the education system is driven by a perceived need for control: “it is not desired that ordinary people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative difficulties.” (Note “ordinary people”; if you have a first class ticket on the train, this statement does not apply.) As a result, we teach the basic skills required for our society to function, but to the exclusion of “those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgements for themselves.”

Enough quotes from Bertrand Russell. Take from this that, almost a hundred years ago, an important thinker thought we kept many of our young away from the kinds of critical skills learned by education that might lift them onto the level of independent thinkers.

Whether or not you believe this claim today likely depends on where you live and how you were brought up. If you read an article in a popular magazine like this on the right wing fear of education in the United States, you might just recognize some of the sentiments. Words such as “job training” in lieu of an education, and hints at a general distaste of free thinking bordering on some undefined, fearful sense of paranoia do not make a good case for dismissing Russell. At its extreme, if you will allow the leap, the sentiment against education embraces the retort of Pace’s horn-blowing English gentleman who proclaims “I’d rather that my son should hang than study letters” (F. J. Furnivall, Education in early England, xiii). Education under this view is simply not something that is considered good or trustworthy in itself. 

In Canada and then in British Columbia in particular, there currently is no formal requirement in the public high school syllabus that requires students to learn how to think critically, say, by studying applied reasoning and learning to debunk an invalid argument. Similarly, we don’t require our students to disentangle some of the basic ethical issues that might affect them throughout their lives as citizens. This is not to say that students won’t learn some of these skill through other aspects of their studies–they certainly do–but it is not required. Students who graduate are more likely to know how to analyze a great poem than they are able to debunk an invalid formal argument or an important ethical issue.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of topics that require a clear, rational head. Take the current hot button issue of government surveillance, for example. As revealed by whistle blowers, governments are actively trying to curb terrorism by exploiting surveillance at the cost of any reasonable expectation of privacy. Surveillance at this scale–potentially of all your online or cell phone activity and of any file you upload into the cloud–relies on a paradigm for data analysis that is known as big data. For better or for worse, big data has the potential to leave no stone of your life unturned, and the speed at which these stones are being turned over is staggering. The ethical implications of big data are equally staggering, and not just in terms of government surveillance. Companies routinely use systems designed to detect that what you are doing is out of the ordinary before you even finish doing it, as is the case in real-time credit card fraud detection. These companies know your habits and behavioural patterns better than even your close family might. Big data almost trivially entails the habitual surveillance of everything, and proposed legislation such as Bill C-51 in Canada intends to take this surveillance to its logical conclusion. What skills do you think would be required by a teenager if she were asked to debunk the habitual surveillance of her life against any perceived benefit for national security in a sufficiently meaningful way? Only a fierce Orwellian will suggest that we keep these skills from our young.

Take another example, this one an ethics workhorse with a recent legal twist: If you are going to spend the last stretch of your life suffering in palliative care, should we permit active euthanasia–doctor-assisted suicide–for consenting adults? Legal support for active euthanasia already exists in several countries and appears to be coming into law in Canada in the not too distant future. As adults, we might well need to support a parent who is in palliative care. If my parent suffered visibly, had the option to ease his own suffering, and asked me what to do: what would I advise? It would be oddly pragmatic to think that the ethical implications of euthanasia are resolved, just because doctor-assisted suicide is about to become law. If anything, the need to understand the ethical implications becomes more urgent: Before legal support for active euthanasia, the choice was largely hypothetical; now, it is about to become very, very real.

Issues, arguments, and propaganda need debunking beyond their legality. There is a therapeutic benefit to breaking down and digesting difficult and often uncomfortable topics before we are ever faced with them in real life. A parent on life support is poor context for learning about issues surrounding euthanasia. Urgent, yes; an opportunity to make up your own mind without pressure, no. A teenager with no reasonable expectation of privacy in a surveillance state? We have only just begun the requisite dialogue about whether or not we want our children to live out their lives in a state that resembles a modern-day panopticon, a dialogue that is not dictated by the passage of any one set of laws.

The child psychologist Jerome Bruner highlights the importance of play for children and calls play “the culture of childhood” (Bruner, Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language, 121). Game playing matters, because it gives children the freedom to experiment without having to dread the consequences of their actions. Simple though it might seem, child’s play serves “as a preparation for the technical-social life that constitutes human culture” (Ibid, 45). Something very similar can be said about playing philosophical games with the issues that affect us universally as human beings. Thinking critically about issues helps you debunk spurious arguments and helps you learn about life or death matters ahead of time, when the pressure to make stressful choices is largely removed.

Back to my son. If nothing else, I want my son to be able to understand the issues that we deal with as human beings by thinking about them critically and making up his own mind. If you want to raise critical, able minds, you teach them to think, and you teach them to think by making them learn analytic skills and giving them a survey of the core issues that we face as human beings. These things are the bread and butter of philosophy.

The point is worth repeating: You cannot ever teach your children absolutely everything they might need to know. Why not give them tools and skills that are universally applicable, so that they can find their own way? There are few things more humbling than realizing that you have been wrong about a point of view all along, because you held an unsubstantiated opinion or never even considered that there might be a valid alternative to your own point of view. Not only can philosophy teach you to become a critical thinker who is familiar with some of the core issues we face as human beings, you also get to run through philosophical games with your peers at a time when there are no real consequences to your actions. In this sense, philosophy is an original gamification of learning, a foundation from which so many other human endeavours have sprung.

Why teenagers? Some suggest that you start teaching philosophy to much younger children. The philosophy for children movement started by Matthew Lipman certainly thinks so and aims to teach young children solve practical situational problems. Even so, there are limits to what children of a certain age can reasonably be exposed to. At the other end of the spectrum, young adults at universities are sequestered in academic disciplines that might not require them to come to grips with critical thinking or ethical issues other than in passing, at which point it is too late. Many philosophy departments do contribute by providing course offerings to students in other degree streams and some degree streams stipulate their own requirements. Still, some university graduates will leave higher education well-prepared with critical thinking skills, others might not. Employers, meanwhile, want employees who not only know their field but can reason and communicate clearly and find their way through their job requirements.

The gist of all this: Introduce philosophy to teenagers. There is a philosophical curiosity of the teenage mind that provides a relatively short window of just a few years, an opportunity between when our children are able to come to grips with certain complex issues and before they disappear into much more focused early adult career aspirations, to the exclusion of other things. It is the same philosophical curiosity that has a group of teenagers spontaneously arguing over what a feminist is. Teens are made to think at this age and they play with philosophical issues naturally. Let’s help them and make them think in a more structured format: Make teens take philosophy and watch them engage.

The complaints from teens are not long to follow, of course. The fact that there are complaints is a good thing in this case, because it means that someone is studying philosophy in high school, with an apology to those who would rather not. (You will have to take it on good faith that having thought about philosophy at least once is good for you.) There are a number of places in the world where philosophy is taught in high schools, and I found an interesting UNESCO report that provides a survey of the state of philosophy in education around the globe. If you think that I short-changed philosophy for children, take a look at the report, it has an interesting section on just that topic.

I want to cover on one curriculum and one set of schools in particular, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme which takes up the final two years before university and which is taught at the United World Colleges (UWC) and other IB schools. Interestingly, the IB is not covered by the UNESCO report, perhaps because it is not restricted to any one country.

Logo of the United World Colleges, used with permission.

Around the world, the United World Colleges take a deliberately diverse approach to education, putting into practice the concept of raising world citizens–promoting unity and international understanding–by bringing together 16 to 19 year old students from all around the world to live and learn together. Their motto: “UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”

These schools find their 20th century origin in the experiences of the educator Kurt Hahn at the NATO Defence College after the Second World War, where Hahn witnessed adults from previously hostile nations working and studying together for peace. The idea of raising world citizens who overcome divisiveness and prejudice is much older, however, and likely traces its recorded origin to Diogenes of Sinope some 2300 years ago. Asked where he was from, Diogenes replied that he was “cosmopolitan,” that is, a citizen of the world rather than a citizen of any particular city state in ancient Greece. At a time when your state was likely the size of a city that you could survey end to end from a single vantage point, world citizenship was a radical idea.

_DSC5710 - EditedThe idea of world citizenship has come to mean different things, but at the United World Colleges, education does not replace your national identity. Rather, education operates on the idea that, for all our differences, we share in a common human interest, which allows us to come together in peace. As a result, you can witness the transformational education of radically diverse young minds from around the world into critical, thinking and independent human beings for a greater shared good, without discounting their varied backgrounds and loyalties. These schools are a worthwhile non-profit cause, if the idea resonates with you that we should do rather than just say: They encourage our curious teenagers to experience in real life what it is like to be tolerant and to learn to understand each other. When teenagers of sometimes hostile nations sit down together on a lawn somewhere in rural India to laugh and talk because they have become close friends, these schools have made a difference.

It is perhaps not surprising that you must study some philosophy in order to graduate from a United World College and the same is true for any other IB school. Every student takes Theory of Knowledge (TOK), a requirement that is a central tenet of the IB diploma programme. You study areas of applied philosophy somewhat slanted towards a contemporary interpretation of the epistemology from which TOK derives its name, but in practice TOK touches on many areas of human knowledge, including logic, religion, philosophy of science, ethics and several others. This part of the curriculum is not critical thinking to make you drift off in class; this is education meant to make you question yourself and the very subjects you take. TOK intends to engage you with questions that have a practical application in your life, whether it is how we know things and what connects all the different subjects you study, what makes a good scientific theory, what distinguishes, say, science from religion, plus any number of other topics that have a habit of dividing the world. You argue with your peers who often hold radically different ideas, you pick ideas apart, you question why you hold certain ideals to be true, and you eventually figure out that you knew a little less than you thought you did. In the end, everyone gives a presentation, submits a philosophy essay, and collectively feels a sense of relief that they have made it through TOK. For the intellectually hardy, students at some IB schools can also study philosophy as one of their main academic IB subjects, at a level that is comparable to university courses and for which university credits are often offered.

Let’s go back to the student complaints for a minute. Whilst researching this article, I watched a series of recent videos by students at the United World Colleges and you could easily tell apart the world-weary second year students from their first-year counterparts. The older students looked tired, as the IB programme at UWC is quite challenging both mentally and physically; by the second year, students are often a little worn out. Sprinkled among the observations about student life were recurring references to outstanding academic work, which often included Theory of Knowledge (TOK) essays. Pause here: When was the last time you heard students in high school bemoan their mandatory philosophy essays? As someone who went on to study academic philosophy for over a decade after taking the IB, I feel for those students. I felt the same pangs about TOK some 25 years ago at UWC Atlantic College, but it also warms my prickly, middle-aged heart to see students still grappling with real, practical philosophical topics. You might never study philosophy again, but I am certain that it was a worthwhile exercise to play philosophical games with your peers when your mind was naturally receptive to this innately human practice. I would like to think that, having thought through these issues at least once, you will find it easier to write the story of your life.

Time to close the circle with Russell. Does our educational system control independent thought? I think it is apathy rather than control, disillusionment and a constant to and fro over the funding of public education here in Canada that keeps our children in check, my own included. Large classes make for overworked teachers, and overworked teachers are less likely to have the time to teach your children to think. Perhaps this status quo is how control is exerted, which makes curricula such as the International Baccalaureate that much more important. In a sea of apathy and strife, it is refreshing to see concerted and growing support for educators to raise free thinkers worldwide. There is a reason IB students perform well at university and can often secure advanced placement.

What does it all add up to? The philosophical problems we mentioned are very real and they to continue to evolve and change. Should we stand by uncritically whilst our governments decide that habitual surveillance is right? No generation is ever quite done thinking about the world lest we become gongoozlers in a life dictated by others. And herein lies the rub: You have to keep at it and for this to work every generation requires its own Bertrand Russell who carries the torch for freedom of thought and the education necessary so that you can form an independent, critical opinion.

Our contemporary Bertrand Russell might very well be the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. To close with her words:

It would be catastrophic to become a nation of technically competent people who have lost the ability to think critically, to examine themselves, and to respect the humanity and diversity of others. … It is therefore very urgent right now to support curricular efforts aimed at producing citizens who can take charge of their own reasoning, who can see the different and foreign not as a threat to be resisted, but as an invitation to explore and understand, expanding their own minds and their capacity for citizenship.

— Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, 301

10 thoughts on “Teenagers: Made to Think!

  1. Think about Russell’s comment:
    Our system of education turns young people out of the schools able to read, but for the most part unable to weigh evidence or to form an independent opinion. They are then assailed, throughout the rest of their lives, by statements designed to make them believe all sorts of absurd propositions. – Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda (1922)

    Has anything changed? (except for the cell phones!) Please join us for a spirited discussion.


    • Those look like great books to use! I spent a bit of time looking around to see what critical reasoning resources have become available since I learnt about and taught logic & applied reasoning, and I am somewhat dismayed that too many books abstract their examples to the point where they are borderline sanitary or boring. There are lots of examples that require critical thinking in the world all around us, and the closer to home they hit, the more interested you might be. (File under: What good is philosophy if it doesn’t have a practical application in your life?)


    • “Think harder!” might be the universal outcry of the disgruntled philosopher … but no ones owes philosophy any attention. I think the onus is on philosophers to make their points salient and interesting. 🙂


    • I don’t think “critical thinking” means ‘combative’ in this context. Being able to think critically means that you are able to judge for yourself whether an argument is valid by certain established rules, whether what I tell you has merit or whether I am full of it. It’s the antithesis of holding an unexamined opinion or worse, buying into propaganda.


      • It sounds negative much of the time!
        “You are always so critical”
        “All you ever do is argue”
        “The critical reviews resulted in the show’s closure”
        etc. . ..

        Liked by 2 people

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