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In response: High school students are up to the challenge of philosophy

In an opinion piece Dec. 4 (“Elementary, high school students simply aren’t ready for philosophy”), retired Iron Range educator Joseph Legueri argued that, since the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the mid-20s and since this area of the brain is responsible for higher-order cognition, K-12 students are physiologically incapable of learning philosophy. He concluded that it is wrong for outside organizations to push philosophy on K-12 students whose time would be better spent on standard courses, punctuality and study skills.

Tim O’NeillLegueri sent three of these organizations emails asking how they planned to teach philosophy to such ill-equipped K-12 students. “Not one of the organizations,” he wrote, “was dedicated enough or professional enough to answer.”

Ironically, this commits the fallacy of false dichotomy (with a smidge of ad hominem). Surely, there are more than two legitimate reasons for ignoring his emails (e.g. they may have been busy teaching children to recognize and avoid common fallacies).

Legueri then cited an article about impulse control in teens to show that even adolescents of 16-18 with relatively mature prefrontal cortices — who are capable of abstract thinking and critical reasoning — nonetheless engage in senseless, risky behavior in exchange for trivial ends. The fact that teens are prone to act on impulse, against their own best interests, has no bearing on their ability to philosophize.

Heck, I’m a middle-aged man; we are famous for making bad life choices despite our well-developed brains. Just this summer, against my better judgment, I followed a couple of friends over a dangerous waterfall crossing at Tettegouche State Park. (And I’m still gunning for a sports car.) My fully developed prefrontal cortex may mitigate bad judgments, but it doesn’t immunize me against them.

More importantly, my bad choices do not make me a bad philosopher; they just make me human.

What was missing from the discussion was the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to organize and reorganize itself throughout life by forming new neural connections. We rightly worry about adolescents making bad decisions before their control centers catch up to their reward centers.

Underage drinking or drug use, for instance, can lead to long-term substance abuse. This suggests to me the need for more philosophical training in young people, not less. Developing minds can be trained to think critically, to question assumptions and to reason in abstraction. Why wait until their brains are fully developed when philosophy can guide that development?

Since my son was in preschool, I have philosophized with him. We talk about ethics, justice, morality, free will and critical reasoning. I didn’t throw Immanuel Kant at him at age 5; I met him where he was. As he grows into a young man, our philosophical discussions deepen.

I was fortunate to have had a philosophy course as a high school sophomore. In that class, Mr. Coffman exposed us to the quantity-

versus-quality debate through Bentham and Mill. We also analyzed the purpose of education through Plato and questioned authority through Nietzsche. We did not master the concepts, but philosophy opened our minds.

As an instructor at Rochester Community and Technical College in southern Minn., I regularly teach PSEO (post-secondary education option) students who, although they are still in high school, are more than up to the challenge of philosophy. In fact, many of them crave it.

Tim O’Neill is a philosophy instructor at Rochester (Minn.) Community and Technical College.