Should homeschooled kids study philosophy and, more specifically, should homeschooled kids of grade-school age study philosophy?
The answer to both questions is “Yes, but…”
Educated people know something about the history of philosophy, just as they know something about the history of literature, music, architecture, etc. Ideas created or elaborated by philosophers hundreds of years ago are still floating around today, and kids need to learn about those ideas because they affect us all today. Kids need especially to learn about those ideas that happen to be utter nonsense, so that they are not sucked into believing in the nonsense themselves.
Furthermore, philosophy is, in fact, less complicated than most people imagine, and even grade-school kids can seriously learn some things about the history of philosophy.
When my kids were in third-grade, we read together, out loud, Jeremy Weate’s A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy: like all DK books, it is engaging and nicely illustrated. It is of course necessarily superficial, but it does give kids a thumbnail sketch of some of the major figures in the history of philosophy, and it offers a good basis for further discussion.
When our kids were fourth-graders we read together Lloyd Spencer’s Introducing the Enlightenment, which, in the format of a graphic novel, does a nice job of introducing the leading characters and ideas of the Enlightenment. I found especially interesting his emphasis on the importance of Locke as a key figure behind the Enlightenment, and also his contrasting of Rousseau vs. Voltaire.
So, yes, even grade-school kids should learn something about the history of philosophy, if nothing else to be immunized against philosophical nonsense.
But… many introductory books on philosophy take the tack that “philosophy is not so much a set of answers as a way of asking questions: the important thing about philosophy is not specific answers, but rather the philosophical way of thinking”
Yeah – that is because the answers that philosophers have come up with over the centuries have been almost uniformly bad!
I have in mind, for example, Kant’s claim that the structure of the human mind forces us to think in terms of Euclidean geometry, just a few years before non-Euclidean geometry was discovered, or Comte’s “positivistic” claim that we would never know the composition of the stars, just a few years before scientists discovered how to analyze stellar composition using spectral lines.
The problem is not simply that these guys goofed up. The problem is that, for centuries, philosophers have supposed that they could gain insight into the inner nature of reality by thinking about how we use words, by studying carefully how we think about the world, and by utilizing the basic common-sense knowledge that we all already possess – without doing complex experiments, without learning advanced math, without making painfully detailed observations of nature, etc.
The “method” of philosophy, in short, is that of a literate, articulate gentleman, someone who is very skilled at using words but who does not want to soil his hands with actually doing detailed observations or experiments, or bother his mind with doing high-level math or learning about the detailed observations and experiments carried out by others.
(A few philosophers today are actually going to the trouble to learn real, advanced math, science, etc., but they are very few in number. People who can really handle tough math and science, naturally, tend to become mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc., rather than philosophers.)
This philosophical method is the exact opposite of the scientific method: science has progressed by assuming that nature hides its secrets in the hard, difficult to come by, details.
Kepler discovered that planets move in ellipses by trying to understand why Tycho Brahe’s actual observations differed in tiny details from what any existing model predicted. Darwin proved the fact of natural selection through his bizarre obsession with Galapagos finches, and many other varieties of animals. The second law of thermodynamics was developed by thinking in great detail about how heat engines worked, and trying to figure out what the performance of the most ideal possible heat engine would be.
Science is the result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder directed to making unnaturally detailed observations of nature in the paranoid belief that nature is hiding deep secrets in those absurd, tiny little details.
And it has worked.
The method of philosophy has been to assume that the inner nature of reality is inherently accessible and transparent and can be understood by thinking calmly and carefully in the comfort of one's armchair, as if reality were simply another well-spoken gentleman who can be understood if one courteously and attentively listens to his words.
That has failed.
So, while kids should learn about the history of philosophy, they most emphatically should not be encouraged to think “philosophically,” i.e., in the way that professional philosophers have thought for the last couple centuries. That method of thinking is a proven loser.
Of course, some areas that are usually considered part of “philosophy” are subjects that humans simply must deal with. The obvious example is ethics: you do have ethical views, whether you admit it or not, and it would be best if you consciously investigated and understood those views.
But… the fact that “ethics” is classified by libraries and by universities under the subject of philosophy should not compel us to think that professional “philosophers” are actually experts on ethics or that the “philosophical way of thinking” is necessarily the right way to think about ethics.
Ethics is too important to be left to the philosophers.
Ethics has to do with the practical issue of how we should live our daily lives: on the face of it, numerous different subjects have something interesting to say about that question – history, anthropology, economics, biology, religion, etc.
And, surely, the accumulated common-sense wisdom of human beings through the generations has some relevance, too.
Yes, kids certainly need to learn about the difference between right and wrong, and from a very early age. But it is an error simply to assume that philosophers are better able to think about ethics in a careful, systematic way than experts in other intellectual disciplines.
In thinking about ethics, the quality of someone’s thoughts must be judged on its own merits, not by whether or not he is officially a “philosopher.” And, based on the failures of philosophy in so many other areas, one should not be optimistic about philosophers’ contributions to thinking about morality, either.
So, yes, homeschooled kids should be taught about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, about Locke, Hume, Kant, and Hegel – indeed, they need to be intellectually immunized against Kant and Hegel.
But children should also be taught not to think “philosophically,” in the manner of current and recent academic and professional philosophers. On the contrary, they should be explicitly told that, for at least the last two centuries, the philosophical enterprise as carried out by professional philosophers has been an obvious failure and that the vast increase in our knowledge of reality during the last several centuries has been due not to philosophy but to natural science.