I can remember a time in my life when the word philosophy was not only intimidating, it was pugnacious. I can remember when I had construed philosophy so narrowly that I believed, as I assume many of the listeners do, that philosophy is for a narrow segment of the population and for an even narrower segment of life. I thought philosophy was too old to be any good to us today and too lofty to be any good for us here. All that was what I thought about philosophy, until I studied it.
As a term and ancient practice, philosophy simply means the brotherly love of wisdom. In its relationship to rhetoric, philosophy means seeking after the truth and not merely persuading through flattering speech. As the fruit of our very humanity, philosophy is what each of us does each day, when we seek to understand, when we ask questions, when we consider the quality of our behavior, when we attempt to persuade another person to any idea whatsoever, however trivial it may be. Philosophy is as much a part of the common man as walking. We may even say philosophy is the metaphysical equivalent of walking. We expect a baby will grow to walk; we ought to likewise expect a baby to grow to philosophize.
Mortimer Adler, in the opening pages of his book Six Great Ideas puts it this way, “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives. Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why this is so and what philosophy’s business is. The answer, in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great ideas—the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live." Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book called Socratic Logic, states, “A baby often goes around pointing at everything he sees, asking ‘What’s that?’ The baby is a philosopher. ‘What’s that?’ is philosophy’s first question.” If Adler and Kreeft are correct, than what does it say about our schools when philosophy is so absent? What does it say about the health of our individual humanity, our society, and the world in which we live when we no long consider philosophy a necessary component of a great middle and high school education?
At its core, to be a philosopher is to ask questions, good questions, and seek the truth in answers. To ask questions is to likewise be a philosopher. We ought to see, though, that asking good questions is not a modern sign of a good education. It is, however, one of the most important signs of being an intelligent person. Peter Kreeft recounts a story worth remembering:
“There is a story that Aristotle, after one of his lectures, was disappointed that his students had no questions afterwards, so he said, ‘My lecture was about levels of intelligence in the universe, and I distinguished three such levels: gods, men, and brutes. Men are distinguished from both gods and brutes by questioning, for the gods know too much to ask questions and the brutes know too little. So if you have no questions, shall I congratulate you for having risen to the level of the gods, or insult you for having sunk to the level of the brutes?” (Kreeft, Socratic Logic, p. 34)
We ought to, therefore, change our assessment and expectations. Imagine a world where a student could not graduate high school until he could have a conversation with an adult, about an important topic, and prove that he can ask great questions. Imagine if a student’s grade was based solely on his maturity in what I call “digging.” Is he inquisitive? Is he curious? Is he paying attention about what kinds of questions would bring him down certain paths? But we have lost all this in today’s school room. There is good reason to believe certain segments of our society would not want adults who think, who reason, who interrogate, who investigate, who are discerning, who search for the truth. But we must reach for this, and we must make this central to how we determine what is a good education and what is merely tossing about in the surf of adolescence.