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An Iron Range Educator's View: Elementary, high school students simply aren’t ready for philosophy

At the present time there are several organizations which provide resources that encourage elementary and secondary schools to offer philosophy classes to their students.

The Philosophy for Children organization states philosophy classes will teach children how to “question assumptions, develop opinions with supporting reasons, analyze significant concepts, and apply their best reasoning and judgment.” The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children and the Center for Philosophy for Children also encourage schools to offer philosophy courses.

I believe it is right to teach children grade-level math, reading, spelling and science. It is right to teach them to be on time for class and to have their homework done. But elementary school-aged children and many high school students are not ready to learn higher-order reasoning skills.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Young Adult Development Project, “The human brain does not reach full maturity until at least the mid-20s.” Thus, in most cases, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is not capable of dealing with the “calibration of risk and reward, problem-solving, thinking ahead, self-evaluation, long-term planning, and (the) regulation of emotion.” And the brain’s immature frontal lobe cannot deal with “predicting consequences, choosing between good and bad actions, and suppressing socially unacceptable responses.”    

According to Deborah

Yurgelun-Todd and colleagues at the McLean Hospital Brain Imaging Center in Boston, “While adults can use rational decision-making processes when facing emotional decisions, adolescents are simply not yet equipped to think through things in the same way.”

Dr. Yurgelun-Todd further told U.S. News and World Report, “Good judgment is learned, but you can’t learn it if you don’t have the necessary hardware.” The necessary hardware is a mature prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe.

To find out how these three organizations plan to overcome students’ immature prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe so they can learn philosophy, on Nov. 13, I sent each of them an email. Not one of the organizations was dedicated enough or professional enough to answer. And it is my opinion they didn’t answer because they can’t answer. They can’t deny the fact that they are trying to make students learn what they are not ready to learn.

I have noticed that some adolescents aged 16 through 18 are capable of abstract reasoning. They can and do question assumptions. They can develop opinions with supporting reasons.

So, in spite of their seemingly mature prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, why do they engage in so much senseless, risky behavior? In the book, “Essentials of Educational Psychology,” I discovered some reasons.

First, an adolescent wants to be accepted. If one of his drunken friends offers a ride home from the party, he knows he shouldn’t take that offer. Yet other people are looking on. So the unspoken emotion of wanting to be accepted creeps into his consciousness and, against his better judgment, he gets into the car. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school teens drive after drinking about

2.4 million times a month.

Second, an adolescent wants to be admired; thus, the big, raised, loud pickup truck he drives in a risky manner and without considering that he may harm someone else. The big, powerful, seemingly invincible truck is everything the adolescent is not. So, vicariously, because of the truck, he becomes a man who is admired by his peers.

Third, an adolescent wants to be loved. Year after year, girls and boys are warned about engaging in unprotected sex. Yet, in so many cases, when the time comes, all they learned is forgotten. According to the CDC, in 2014, 249,078 babies were born to girls and women aged 15-19.

To those of us who have a mature prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, it sounds as if it is a good idea to teach young people how to think by introducing philosophy classes into our schools. But it is not a good idea. It is a waste of time. And, worst of all, it is asking many students to understand concepts they can’t possibly understand — which already has happened too many times in our state.

Joseph Legueri of Gilbert is a writer, lifelong Iron Range resident, regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, and retired educator who taught English and college writing to grades 7-12 for 35 years at Biwabik and Mesabi East schools.