Can Philosophy for Children Stop Trump?

And the winner is...

As the cold of winter seeps in, it evokes this time last year when Trump was awaiting inauguration. I leave for work in the morning whilst it is still dark and pass underneath the trees stripped of their leaves. The seasons repeat themselves and steam comes from my breath as I mouth ‘He can’t win again, can he?’ One method of preventing another Trump victory that has been touted is to teach philosophy to children. However as someone who teaches philosophy to children for a living I’m not so sure. 

How To Prevent Another Trump In The Future? Teach Kids Philosophy.”  This was the title of an article published days after Trump’s 2016 election victory by Eldar Sarajlic in the Huffington Post. Sarajlic’s argument: it wasn't those without university education that got Trump over the line. 54% of males and 45% of females who voted for Trump had college degrees. It was a lack of education in critical thinking that was the problem.

Sarajlic is a critical thinking teacher. He observes how his Trump voting students are weaker.  Students who understand what an ad hominem or straw man are, are less seduced by Trump. We should “equip the American electorate with the ability to recognize and reject potential demagogues similar to Trump in the future”. Therefore, teach philosophy to children.

Sarajlic’s ideas echo Matthew Lipman’s. the man who is often regarded as the founder of philosophy for children. Lipman also thinks that democracy needs people trained in deliberation. Otherwise tyrants can use democracy to gain power. Lipman explains how philosophy supports citizenship in his essay Education for Civic Values.

There Lipman says that a positive public life involves appreciation of the rules of the game. Rules in the game of law and the electoral process. Such rule following is analogous to the due process philosophers commit to during enquiry. Defining terms, concept development, reason giving and drawing inferences from double premises. These are just some of the rules in the philosophy game. Children reflect on their values with adherence to the laws of the philosophy game. Then they become better predisposed to rationally reflect upon suggested public policies. Thus a child trained in philosophy is more likely to become an adult appreciative of democracy.

So, Lipman thinks appreciation of logical rules can shape appreciation of democratic life. It sounds like a more egalitarian inversion of Plato’s geometry trained Philosopher Kings.  Where Plato thinks that only the more rational amongst us should vote; Lipman thinks that all of those who vote should become more rational.

I don't wish to refute Lipman’s argument, and Sarajlic’s subsequent echoing of it. Rather, I’ll query both the descriptive and normative assumptions in their positions.

On the descriptive level I will ask: does possession of a philosophical aptitude have the effect on public life that Lipman thinks it does? Is there evidence to say that scrutinising your values makes you more cooperative in the game of democratic citizenship? I will argue (1) empirical insights from moral psychology could mean no.

On the normative level I will ask: should the goal of philosophy be the nurturing of civic responsibility? Is something lost from the practice of philosophy if it's supposed to have a democratic teleology? I will propose (2) Lipman’s vision might come at too great a burden for philosophy. Instead we need a more promethean understanding of enquiry.

1. Descriptive Problem: Moral Psychology

The more rational people get the better moral/political agents they become. This is implicit in Lipman’s argument. Is this true? A Kantian might say yes, rationality and goodness are one. But what if you were like Hume and thought that reason was a slave to the passions? What if, like Nietzsche, you were suspicious of philosophers as “astute defenders… of their prejudices, which they dub truths.” He thought the veneer of disinterested analysis is often subterfuge for the “heart's desire abstracted and refined [and then] defended by… arguments sought out after the event.”

Nietzsche had the chutzpah to dismiss most of the project of western philosophy as post hoc rationalisation. I do not. But recently there has been some empirical research into the ethical behaviour of ethics professors. It might suggest that Nietzsche’s suspicions weren't far off.

Schwitzgebel and Rust gave questionnaires to ethics professors and non-philosophy professors. They asked if they thought it was wrong to eat the meat of a mammal. 60% of ethics professors said it was compared to 19% of non-ethics professors. Then they asked them if they had eaten the meat of a mammal in the last week. Around half of the 19% of non-philosophy professors said they had.  Significantly, it was also around half of the 60% of ethics professors also that said they had too. So, whether someone was an ethics professor or not had no bearing on whether they practiced the values they expressed. The chances in both cases was half. Similar results also held for voting, giving blood, responding to student emails, calling their mothers, cleaning up after themselves at a conference and charity giving. In most cases the non-philosophers actually reported their actions matched with their expressed values slightly more than the ethics professors.

I will leave aside scrutiny of this research, as I want to see, for the sake of enquiry, what implications it has for teaching children philosophy. There are many ways you could interpret Schwitzgebel’s and Rust’s findings. One is to say that Nietzsche was on to something. Philosophers express that meat eating is criminal, but twenty minutes later they smell bacon cooking. Then their inner lawyer knows how to escape the charges. What made the philosophers different to the other professors? The philosophers were more equipped, with their training in conceptual tomfoolery, at producing post hoc justifications for their desires.

So what does this tell us about if philosophy can save us from another Trump? Sarajlic and Lipman think that philosophical children won’t be so seduced by demagogues. But if Nietzsche is right then you might argue the opposite. If a Trump voter leant how to think philosophically they might become all the more eloquent about the decision to vote for Mr Trump. Moral psychology suggests that it's at least plausible that philosophical training could enable the inner-lawyers of Trump voters to make a better defence whilst they cast their ballot. It is not so much that we need to worry about Trump seducing philosophers into his position, as philosophers seducing themselves into Trump’s position.

2. Normative Problem: The Promethean Element

The previous argument might apply in theory, but in practice no true philosopher would actually vote for trump or endorse anti-democratic views, would they? Significant philosophers have had problems with democracy. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Plato to name a few. What should confound Sarajlic’s and Lipman’s view more is the philosophers in Trump’s team. Julia Hahn is one of his senior advisors. Previously she wrote hundreds of articles for right-wing news site Breitbart. At university she majored in philosophy. Specifically, the intersection of psychoanalysis and post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry, drawing on the work of left-wing cultural theorist Leo Bersani. Furthermore, at least four philosophy professors publicly said they would vote for Trump before the election. Dan Bonevac and Rob Koons, from the University of Texas at Austin.  Scott Soames from the University of Southern California. And Daniel Robinson from Oxford University.

This contingent of pro-Trump and anti-democratic philosophers could tell us one of two things.

(i) That Bersani, Bonevac, Koons, Soames, Robinson and Hahn are only philosophers from the neck up, mere academics, and so not really philosophers in the truest sense that Lipman would have envisioned a philosophy to be, and therefore they cause no trouble to Lipman’s and Sarajlic’s argument. Likewise you could say the same for Nietzsche, Heidegger and Plato. But I think it’s unwise for P4Cers to concede the loss of such foundational figures in philosophy. If Plato wasn't truly a philosopher then who was? If we didn't think Plato was relevant to the philosophy we do in schools, then is what we do in schools really philosophy?

(ii) Koons, Hahn, Heidegger etc tell us that Lipman and Sarajlic have overstated how naturally binding the adhesive between democratic values to philosophy actually is. It is this second reading I will pursue. I argue that there is some element of philosophical enquiry makes it resistant to piggybacking political agendas. I call this the promethean element. It tells us that philosophy is to citizenship what Prometheus’s gift of fire was to the mortals of ancient Greece. Let me explain.

Like the children in classrooms, Prometheus was curious. He wanted to give fire to the mortals, just to see what they would do with it. Unlike most of the other gods, he liked the mortals, thought they had potential. He had no guarantees about the outcome but felt he had to do it anyway. 

So Prometheus took fire from Mount Olympus and handed it over. Then the mortals could cook nutritious meats and they grew stronger. Fire allowed them to shape metal, to bake the bricks that would become buildings, streets and cities. Fire was instrumental to the creation of civilisation. However, fire was also the means for mortals to torch cities to the ground, to make bombs, to destroy civilisation. Likewise, philosophical enquiry might bring students to value democracy as a way of living together. However, it may be that at the end of an authentic enquiry process the students turn out like Bonevac or Koons or Hahn or Nietzsche or Heidegger. To hand philosophy to students, as with giving fire to mortals, is to relinquish control over how students utilise it. Philosophy does not do its work on us by means of a domesticated flame. It torches our inner-most beliefs without having conducted a health and safety examination beforehand. If we want independent minds to blaze then we have to accept the heat that comes with that.

In his Harvard lectures, Michael Sandel goes someway to describing the promethean element:

“One way of introducing a course like this would be to promise you that by reading books like this you will become a better and more responsible citizen, you will examine the presuppositions of public policy, you will hone your political judgment, you will become a more effective participant in public affairs. But this would be a partial and misleading promise. Political philosophy, for the most part, hasn't worked that way. You have to allow of the possibility that political philosophy may make you a worse citizen…. that’s because philosophy is a distancing, even debilitating activity… philosophy distances us from conventions, from established assumptions and from settled beliefs.”  

Like Sandel, I think, philosophical enquiry is in tension with pedagogy designed to engender specific democratic principles. Sure, a philosophy class can be engineered, for the sake of pragmatism, to produce pro-democracy students. But then why not just call it Democracy for Children instead?

If you wanted to defend Sarajlic and Lipman you could say that the process of philosophical enquiry inherently reflects democratic values anyway. That it doesn't matter if in enquiry children argue against democracy. What matters is the implicit commitment to democracy that's presupposed by doing enquiries. For example, treating people equally and allowing fair participation.

However, I’d argue that the extent to which philosophical enquiry inherently reflects democratic values is very limited. You can't vote away philosophical controversies; the tyranny of the majority is no remedy for aporia.


Challenge to the promethean view of philosophy

I have argued we shouldn't try to tame the fire of philosophy, that to use philosophy to transmit democracy is to banalify it. However, what is so bad about banality? A banal life is a calm one, isn't it? And we shouldn't be blithe about fire. Fire is dangerous. Is it really wrong to want some health and safety around flame? I have wondered if the promethean view of philosophy speaks of the gentleness of the university campus. Coddled in that setting, it’s exciting to think of the philosopher as some kind of intellectual arsonist. However, since leaving university I’ve gone on to facilitate philosophical enquiry in other settings: maximum prisons; a children’s hospital; a group of adults suffering from mental illness amongst other places. I’ve had to ask myself ‘Is the promethean stuff appropriate for these already infernal places?’

Should I not tether my classes to a more moralistic agenda, the way Lipman and other good pragmatists do? When discussing ethics with dangerous prisoners should I not frame ideas in the way that are nudging towards rehabilitation? When doubting the existence of other minds with a mentally-ill student who already doubts that other people are real, should I try and emphasise an epistemology more remedying of their alienation? When discussing religion with a terminally ill child, why not emphasise the more consoling narratives about the afterlife?

It’s not that I think that prisoners shouldn't be rehabilitated, the alienated shouldn't be able to connect or that dying children don't need comfort. These are reasonable ends to desire. However, I doubt the use of philosophy as means of achieving these ends. Like Sandel says, philosophy can be debilitating. It has the potential to further alienate the mentally ill. Let's not make misleading promises; philosophy could accentuate a criminal’s antisocial sentiments. This is the promethean element at work.

The normative function of philosophy is restricted by what philosophy is. That is to say philosophy only can be something that it is; it’s reach is restricted to its anatomy. And if the anatomy is promethean in nature then it cannot be said that democracy, or any other political agenda, is at philosophy’s fulcrum. Not unless, like the pragmatists, we surgically alter the anatomy of philosophy in order to use it for political ends.

I personally don't want to see another Trump win an election or the corruption of democracy. But as a philosophy teacher I'm cautious not to overstate my influence in preventing that. 

Andy W

This article was orginally presented at the ICPIC conference 2017 in Madrid, by Andy West, a specialist philosophy teacher at The Philosophy Foundation.  He has also written articles for The Guardian, tes and Open Democracy.  You can follow Andy on twitter @AndyWPhilosophy or leave your replies to the article in the comments section below this blog.

Posted by Joe Tyler on 14th December 2017 at 12:00am