To Teach Students to Learn, Teach Philosophy

In Jordan, my home country, a lively debate has been taking place in recent months about the teaching of philosophy in the kingdom’s schools and universities. The debate has been simmering for some time but was revived about a year ago, when the University of Jordan introduced a compulsory course for all undergraduates called Introduction to Philosophy and Critical Thinking.

In August, members of the faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Jordan published a joint statement calling for the reintroduction of the teaching of philosophy in Jordanian schools as well as universities, “in order to promote critical thought and creativity and to counter extremist ideas.” Their campaign was supported by a number of intellectuals such as the prominent writer Zulaikha Abu Risha. Philosophy had been taught in Jordanian schools until 1976, when it was abolished after pressure from religious leaders in the ministry of education.

This renewed interest in philosophy is certainly a good thing, but it is important that we understand why teaching professionals in the Arab region should want to bring philosophy to students.

It is also important that we know how we teach it—without burdening students with yet another obligatory subject that is taught solely through memorization.

Why We Should Teach Philosophy

There is evidence that students’ confidence is improved when their reasoning abilities are strong. They can see contradictions in human actions and challenge purely dogmatic moral principles. Critical thinking can help students engage with the adverse social conditions that the region struggles with. Teaching philosophy in classrooms where students are struggling with issues like inequality and poverty may sound frivolous, but we can make it clear that it is not.

There is little research to prove that the absence of philosophy courses in schools or universities in the Arab region causes extremist ideas, closed-mindedness and prejudice. But research on philosophy teaching carried out in some classrooms in the United Kingdom showed that philosophy helped the social and cognitive capacities of children and increased their ability to relate and adapt at home and in other social settings.

Some scholars have argued that philosophy leads to significant improvement in mathematical and reading ability. And others have talked favorably about the moral benefits of philosophy, arguing that integrating philosophy into the curriculum directly influences the moral development and awareness of students and their independent learning and thinking.

But which school of philosophy should we teach: Western philosophy, Islamic or non-Western philosophy, or something universal, combining all philosophical traditions?

Ways of Teaching Philosophy

We want to encourage students’ innate ability to identify truth and to discriminate between good and bad. How can we do that?

I think of the teenage Yemeni girl I was coaching for a school examination here in New York City, where I live. I was helping her prepare for an exam in world history, as part of her admission into the local educational system. In a conversation about history, she gave me a clearly defined and articulate theory of how history works, and it was completely the result of her own independent thought. There is good and bad in people, she said, and good and bad will always exist. But sometimes individuals like Nelson Mandela will arise who inspire the goodness in people to prevail over the bad. This Yemeni girl, like many young people, was a natural philosopher. The example shows how philosophical thinking can help in the study of a specific subject.

There are other questions we must ask. When we teach philosophy, are we thinking about the social effects of education? Are those who advocate the teaching of philosophy thinking of the ideas of John Dewey, who saw philosophy and a democratic egalitarian society as mutually supporting each other?

In the Arab region, we have received plenty of advice from outside in recent years about how to reform our educational systems, especially as part of the American government’s “war on terror.” Much of this advice focuses on the need to teach critical thinking.

Projects like the Education Reform for Knowledge Economy in Jordan, funded by the World Bank from 2003 to 2010, aimed to modernize and develop students’ technical skills and creativity through critical thinking and problem solving.

In his speech at the conference on Islam and the Muslim World Today, held in Jordan in 2006 under the patronage of King Abdullah II, Tony Blair—then prime minister of the United Kingdom—specifically called for the abandonment of teaching methods depending on rote memorization and rigid religious orthodoxy.

In parallel with this, in 2014 Unesco published a pedagogical guide to philosophy titled Philosophy Manual: A South-South Perspective. Funded by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Program for a Culture of Peace and Dialogue, the manual offers a comprehensive account of philosophy from the perspective of the peoples of the global South, continent by continent. The aim of this work is to encourage students’ growth through a combination of philosophical reflection with intercultural dialogue.

Elsewhere in the region, there have been independent initiatives to promote nontraditional education, rooted in science and logic. Notable among these have been Asfar, a nongovernmental organization focused on conflict resolution, and Tahrir Academy, an online learning platform that had a promising start (but ran into financial difficulties.)

In essence, philosophy education aims to prevent ideological indoctrination, to encourage inquiry and the pursuit of truth and the rejection of political despotism, hate and misconceptions about the unfamiliar. These aims are worthwhile. Achieving them would not be impossible if educators and education policy makers were to commit themselves to it.

Afaf Al-Khoshman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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