When I was very young, I had a lot of questions. I remember questioning my mother every day on our walks back from school: Why do trees exist? How does a credit card work? Are there aliens out there? Ironically, I was an alien in this world. And, like aliens who have just arrived, I wanted to know about the origins of everything, I wanted to know how everything functions, and, most of all, I wanted to know why. Why are we here? Why do these words mean these things? Why can’t we live forever? I was a philosopher. I just didn’t know it yet.
As I got older, however, I was told what questions were important to ask. By that, I mean that I started going to school. At its core, the educational system in this country indoctrinates more than it enlightens. Students memorize facts, chronology, and processes only to regurgitate them for tests. Critical thinking skills are, at best, a sidebar from this rigid trajectory. The students follow and the results are as follows – obeying the rules, believing what is taught is true, and completing tasks on time enables students to become a cohort of obedient, unquestioning automatons ready for the modern-day workforce.
As I moved through the system, I grew disenchanted with the process. The single-file march forward had turned the majesty of every subject into a mundane set of equations or facts I needed to memorize for the sole purpose of receiving high marks on tests. As a result, my untaught curiosity was dying on the vine. Not to say that I was a lost cause, but I was a little lost. By pure luck, I gravitated toward the subject of philosophy, where I rekindled my former inquisitiveness. In doing so, I observed thinking in action, ways of formulating arguments and picking them apart. I discovered a mental muscle that flexes reason and rationality the more I read.
Because of this journey, I believe our educational system would create a more compassionate, prudent, and informed citizenry if it embraced the discipline of philosophy as a part of that curated sequence. Philosophy is centered around discovering the truth. The subject asks its practitioners to question the validity of everything – from what one is told to the social structure one is living in. In no way am I suggesting that students should study philosophy to ignite revolutions and eradicate the entire education system; instead, I am advocating for a middle ground between the essential subjects and the critical reasoning skills through philosophy being taught to students.
Today, more than ever, critical thinking skills have become critical. In an era of hyper-social networking and data distribution, misinformation and fake news have become commonplace. Chiefly, social media – with its lax regulations for factual content – has become an exhibition of fake news. What’s more, it has taken over the lives of teenagers today. Students today are ill-equipped with skills like critical thinking and reasoning to recognize false information. According to a 2015 study done by Stanford University, a group of high school students failed to distinguish a legitimate news source from a fake one. Shown two posts on Facebook announcing Donald Trump’s candidacy for President, one from the verified Fox News account (with its blue checkmark indicating the account’s legitimacy) and the other from a fake Fox News account, only a quarter of the students recognized the blue checkmark and identified it as legitimate. Even worse, over thirty percent of the surveyed students claimed the fake account was more trustworthy because of some key graphic elements it included. This demonstrates that, despite having been raised with technology, teenagers still lack basic awareness for verified digital information. Pew Research Center report indicates that six-in-ten adults in America obtain their news from social media sites, and 51 percent of them had not only encountered fake news but also shared them with other people. It is evident from this report, the general public has not been educated to discern what they consume for the most basic ingredient – truth.
A nation is most at risk when its people are easily swayed by malicious forces intending to create tension and conflict. People, organizations, and governments – both domestic and foreign – have used fake news to their advantage to intensify social conflict, undermining any efforts by the people to compromise. The most virulent use to date, though, is as a conspiracy-theory factory. A web of seemingly disparate articles suddenly can make the most outlandish ideas appear real to the untrained eye.
An infamous example of this is the 2016 incident dubbed “Pizzagate.” In a bizarre story, Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two, had learned from the Info-Wars host Alex Jones that Hillary Clinton – the presidential candidate and former First Lady – was sexually abusing children in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong. You can make this stuff up. In fact, you can only make this stuff up. Yet, Welch and his friends reacted to such an absurd story by grabbing an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .38 handgun, and a folding knife and traveling to the store to investigate. Strolling into the kitchen, he fired shots to intimidate the “pedophiles” operating in the basement, only to find that there was no basement in the restaurant and no captive children. Instead, he discovered cooking supplies and pizza dough.
There is a media ecosystem that manufactures an alternative reality. The “news” Welch had heard originated from a Facebook post, which was then spread to Twitter and gained viral attention with the aid of far-right platforms like Breitbart and Info-Wars reporting it. An investigation launched afterward revealed ordinary people, online activists, bots, foreign agents, and domestic political operatives working together for political purposes. Lacking critical thinking skills, which reflexively seek ethos and logos, people are doomed to the creative whims of online manipulation. Luckily, nobody was hurt during this instance. But, imagine what kind of future threats fake news could generate? Could innocent civilians be killed in a baseless conflict? Could malicious politicians or leaders start a war solely based on lies and falsehoods? Could entire populations be manipulated by the government through fake media? The possibilities are horrifying.
So, what can teaching philosophy to children at schools achieve? Well, it is certainly not a cure for the world’s current or future woes, nor is it the ultimate stimulant for employment or economic growth. But one thing is clear: philosophy in our classrooms would better equip us with the thinking and reasoning skills required to perceive the conventional wisdom of our age, to protect us from today’s technologically advanced manipulations. Some educators have already made moves in bringing philosophy to schools. Jane Mohr Lone, the founder of the University of Washington Center of Philosophy for Children and the president of PLATO, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing philosophy to schools, can attest to the benefits of teaching the subject at educational institutions. In her 2012 book, “The Philosophical Child,” Lone recalls witnessing an extraordinary moment of a ten-year-old girl answering the question about whether we are real or a virtual simulation. “Okay,” the girl said, “Maybe I can’t know that I am not just the mind of a computer or living in a cave and seeing only shadows. But what I can know is that if I’m thinking about what I can know, I can be sure that at least there is me thinking, even that’s all I can know about myself or anything else.” Lone recorded in her book, “I told her that the philosopher René Descartes had come to a similar conclusion almost four hundred years ago.”
The brilliance of philosophy is that it teaches students to comprehend better, see the world differently, and clearly articulate their opinions. “It gives them all the skills we want them to learn,” Lone says. Although larger studies must be done to clearly outline the benefits of teaching philosophy at schools, educators’ experiences such as Lone’s already have delivered positive metrics. With each day, technology advances in ways beyond what we could have imagined. Instead of trying to keep up with the technology, is it not more beneficial to develop a defense mechanism for it? To learn philosophy and protect ourselves from biases, lies, and manipulations? Let’s be shepherds, not sheep. And the sooner we implement philosophy into the curriculum, the sooner we can free ourselves from the enemies of democracy: propaganda and conspiracy theories.
Colin Yuan is a junior at Harvard Westlake High School in Los Angeles. He is a writer and award winning photographer.