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Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy? (bbc.co.uk)
133 points by drucken on June 3, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 138 comments

"To complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think."

Yes. Perfect. This is important, they're doing it right. I would venture to say that the specialization of the US education system, and the increased specialization especially in Engineering and Computer Sciences and in the sciences in general, is one of the largest problems in higher education today.

It's so important to learn how to think, to learn how to learn, to learn how fields are connected and interrelated even in indirect ways, and simply to learn that knowledge you cannot directly use still has value in its ability to train your mind to think about problems and make connections in new ways.

I am supremely thankful for my Bachelor of Arts in Comp Sci, for it gave me the freedom to take classes outside Engineering, in the arts. This liberal (aka comprehensive, varied, generous) arts education makes my computer science education flourish, and I believe has made me into the well-balanced person I am today.

What we need today are not people who can think intensely about one subject—we need people who can think about how to think, and apply that to anything. Well, we need both, surely, but we need some more generalists, or perhaps specialists who aren't myopic. We're getting overspecialized in the US, I think.

En d'autres termes, bonne travail France!

This is totally anecdotal, but isn't the US (especially at the college level) more focused on a "broader" education? My cousin got a BA in international relations in the US and then went and attended school in Spain. Something like only 1/4 of his credits counted towards his degree there even though nearly all of them transferred. His explanation was that they expect less of a broad education and more specialization.

Recalling my own experience I got a BA in political science and I spent something like 30 hours in my major, and 90+ in general education.

It seems as though many people on HN (and in general) talk about how we need more STEM majors, but then complain that a degree that's very highly technical isn't broad enough. If you want people to graduate in a reasonable amount of time than it almost has to be one or another.

US education seems to be stuck between traditional university and job training.

Traditionally, University exposed you to many things, various schools of thought and diverse subjects. The idea was to create an intelligent, rounded individual that could go out and become useful in a great many things. This worked when it was expected that the specifics of any job would be learned on the job.

Employers now however, don't want to do any training at all. They expect everyone, including new grads, to come in knowing everything they'll need to know. This is turning higher education into simple job training. They drop anything not directly related to whatever monkey position the school has decided to target you for.

A major difference is tiering in secondary education in Europe. There's not just a single "high school" degree, but there are vocational degrees (which you usually finish after 9th or 10th grade, after which you continue at vocational schools) and academic degrees (which you usually finish after 12th or 13th grade).

The academic degrees, since they only have to target a subset of students, can then be considerably more demanding than a more generally accessible high school degree (e.g., Calculus being a mandatory subject in some countries rather than the equivalent of an AP course) and you will cover a lot in school what in the US you'd do in the first and second year of college. For the same reason, Bachelor degrees in Europe are typically three year rather than four year affairs.

However, that is only part of the story, and a full undergraduate degree in the US (at a good university) will offer you a broader education than what you get out of most undergraduate degrees in Europe; if you want a broader education than what European universities offer, many European countries will point you to affordable continuing education. For example, if you want to learn another language in Germany, many Volkshochschulen offer courses for 2-3 Euro per hour of instruction (more if you need it to be credentialed).

Or, more simply put, while you can learn the same things in either the US or Europe, the educational content is packaged in somewhat different structures. And it isn't that one is better or worse than the other; the differences exist more as a result of historical accident or because of how education interacts with the rests of society's institutions and structures.

It depends on the school, and even further the major and sub-department.

For example, at Berkeley the L&S (Letters and Sciences) department was in charge of Computer Science (hence the BA) while the Engineering department was in charge of EECS (the more technical CS/EE major).

The Engineering department is one-track technical with very few outside electives, almost pure specialization. The L&S department was extremely broad and had great depth as well. I greatly enjoyed the latter, but both had great reputations.

I think diversity is important—some individuals will want to specialize, and the best you can do is offer them opportunities to branch out. Some people will naturally generalize. Encouraging a good variety of education is important and I think extremely valuable, but it isn't the best path for everyone. However 18 year olds aren't always the best ones to make decisions about their education and/or future ;)

After studying in both Spain and US, I can only say that this is correct (even though I did undergrad in Spain and grad studies in the US I think I have a pretty good idea of how the undergraduate studies work in the US).

Spain has a (more) specialized system in the undergraduate studies, even though it has been shifted lately (with the much hated Bologna process) to a brad system. Prior to the instauration of the Bologna process, an undergraduate student in Spain had two options:

- 1st cycle: 3 years of undergrad. I would say that it was pretty much equivalent to the undergrad in the US, but focusing only in courses relevant to the major. - 2nd cycle: 5 years of undergrad. This is (at least in STEM, the area I know) similar to a undergrad+master in the US (Even though in the US are only considered as a normal undergrad).

It depends on the university; some have a small number of credits that you can/should spend on things separated from your major (even in some cases sports), other have nothing similar to that and 100% of the credits are relevant.

Currently the educational system in Spain is slightly different after trying to merge it with the rest of the educational systems in Europe. In most cases the change has been seen as a shift into an educational system where students are less prepared and have to pay a more expensive Master (after the undergrad) to receive the same education they received with an undergrad years ago.

My experience with public research universities would say that yes, in general you are required to take quite a few courses in many fields that may be outside the realm of your major.

I'm an Information Systems major (BS) and I took two philosophy and two psychology courses, plus archaeology and a bunch of other things in other subjects.

I agree with you: that's about the best you can do if you want to graduate in 4 years.

At least at the universities I know of, majors being too specialized isn't really considered an issue.

My Informatics degree (also BS) required 1 philosophy and 1 psychology. The philosophy course was focused on ethics, and the psychology course on business relations, though they were both professor-dependent (the topic changed with different professors). They were part of the "human-centric" track of the curriculum.

My experience is that the US system is very much focused on a broader education- when I was at university in the UK I did not have the opportunity to take classes in different disciplines then choose my major. I applied to study International Relations, and I studied International Relations, and came out with a degree in International Relations.

I completely disagree. If anything we are under-specialized. We are pumping out liberal arts grads who have no skills that can pay back their loans. We have created a culture of middle managers without people to manage.

"We are pumping out liberal arts grads "

You mean humanities graduates. The Liberal Arts is not about making better managers, that's what an MBA is for, the liberal arts is about exposing students to a wider variety of fields. We have way too many people majoring in fields like history or literature, without corresponding educations in math and science for them to be truly "liberally educated."

The point of education is only partly to prepare individuals for a specific career. (Technically, that's not even education, but rather "career training.") The other part is to give them the intellectual tools they need to be parts of society, not just as good worker drones, but as citizens and fully formed individuals. This is something the liberal arts does attempt to address, while specialized training does not. Having a strong knowledge of history really helps when it comes to voting, for example.

Even from a career preparation standpoint, however, there is a point to liberal, or at least multidisciplinary, education. That is having an understanding of multiple fields makes it much simpler for one to understand how one field affects another. Just about anyone with a CS degree can write software to a spec but someone with knowledge about both CS and accounting might actually understand the spec when it comes to accounting software and anticipate the needs of clients.

All that said, one really needs to differentiate between the liberal arts and the humanities. The humanities are set of disciplines such as history, philosophy, art, etc. which alone, have limited practical use but have a long tradition of being studied in western society. The liberal arts is an approach to education that seeks broad exposure, including the humanities but also including disciplines such as math and science. This term dates back to the reign of Charlemagne, FWIW.

I used to believe this under-specialisation was a good thing. That a more general college education was better. But as I see it now, a liberal education has mostly just given us liberally educated people, but not liberal learners. I'd say, if you think yourself intellectually motivated, eager to learn things outside your field already, then paradoxically you should specialise, for this innate drive to learn will not perish after uni, and IMO unlikely to be affected in any way by a liberal arts environment. Rather, go to someplace more focused, and if you are not American, perhaps consider other great schools in places that are not the USA.

Big money, big technology may be in the USA, but your average undergrad really doesn't need too much of that.

(Of course, America has the best schools. If you're going to attend one of those, by all means, and work hard!)

"a liberal education has mostly just given us liberally educated people, but not liberal learners."

I would argue this is a specific problem, and not the intention or desired result of a Liberal Arts education. The intention is as this article states: to learn how to think correctly across boundaries of fields and within them. To solve problems better, not just be more general.

Of course this is sort of a No True Scotsman, but arguably any kind of education isn't working if it's not creating a positive impact on the value and ability of the person being educated.

These are two different problems. I believe your complaint is people are under-specialized in useful skills. For example, if someone was highly-specialized in middle eastern poetry during a small 30 year period, they would likely still not be able to pay back loans.

In the sciences, people are over-specialized. I run into scientists frequently who are quite smart, but lack understanding of statistics, math, causality, and philosophy of science. This might have been acceptable back in days before large data sets, but now the way we do science has changed considerably, and scientists are largely unaware of the philosophical implications of this.

We are pumping out liberal arts grads only in the sense of people having degrees. Most of them are not nearly so rigorously grounded as the kids taking the baccalaureate.

Is that a problem with the idea of liberal arts in particular, or a problem with higher education in general that happens to manifest itself most obviously in liberal arts graduates? In other words, is liberal arts a hopeless idea in the first place, or is it simply the way that American colleges teach it that is problematic?

There are plenty of colleges that offer a B.S. in computer science, for example, whose graduates can't pass the fizzbuzz test. Meanwhile, hundreds of art history majors go on to have productive careers. Specialization is orthogonal to competence.

>Specialization is orthogonal to competence.

Doesn't follow from

>There are plenty of colleges that offer a B.S. in computer science, for example, whose graduates can't pass the fizzbuzz test. Meanwhile, hundreds of art history majors go on to have productive careers.

Look at employment rates for Art History Majors vs. CS majors.

Look at job opportunities for the two. Popularity of field is in no way linked to competence of indivduals practising in said field.

Remember we're talking about high school (age 17-18), college is a different matter (and very few people study philosophy in college/universities in France).

I have a philosophy degree (BA and MA). I work as a software developer. Not to brag, but I could wipe out my student loan debt in three months of gross earnings.

Of course, running in parallel to doing my degree, I spent an enormous amount of time coding, going to tech/geek events, reading documentation and so on.

I value my formal education. It's taught me to think widely about a wide range of things including the nature of language, the basis for politics and the state, religion and the good life. (Plus, a thorough knowledge of Kierkegaard is kind of sexy to the sort of person I'd want as a boyfriend.)

Wouldn't that be the same as saying that liberal art grads are too specialized in liberal arts?

Well, for those of us who are specialized, perhaps something like philosophy would be a valuable addition? A combination of very high-level and very low-level skills can compliment each other well.

Yeah. Where, oh where, have all the slaves gone? Why, back in the day, you could get yourself a whip and some shackles and you'd be set for life. Now these goddamn lowlifes have choices and the law agrees with them. Why, they can walk off a job for mistreatment and still be paid for it! WELFARE. Big, crowding, intrusive government getting all up in my business.

I don't pay you trash to think. I pay you to work at scale!

As someone who has observed European education from afar, my impression is that the Bac (more like a high school diploma in the US) is broad, but their college is very specialized. This is true in both the UK (from the source of the admiring article) and France.

This isn't to say better or worse - it's just a tradeoff.

Today I believe we stand on the edge of a new age of synthesis. In all intellectual fields, from the hard sciences to sociology, psychology, and economics—especially economics—we are likely to see a return to large-scale thinking, to general theory, to the putting of the pieces back together again. For it is beginning to dawn on us that our obsessive emphasis on quantified detail without context, on progressively finer and finer measurement of smaller and smaller problems, leaves us knowing more and more about less and less. - Alvin Toffler

Reminds me of my university (Stellenbosch University). Also had an odd combination.

Started studying a Bachelor of Commerce in Computer Science (lots of maths, financial stats, etc). Then I switched to a Bachelor of Commerce in Socio-Informatics and Marketing (less technical programming, more applied work). However, socio-informatics is actually an Arts degree (it includes courses such as management theory and systems design).

So during my time at university I did science (maths, computer science, stats, programming), finance/business (accounting, financial planning, marketing, entrepreneurship) and arts (philosophy of systems, sensemaking, organization theory).

Loved it!

While I have no issue with this in younger students, forcing some folks to continue to study subjects in which they have no interest, would simply have driven us round the bend and made us lose interest in education entirely.

I specialised to mathematical and scientific subjects exclusively at the age of 15, and would have it no other way. Cultural learning I can pick up informally as and when I want to.

Yes, this is certainly the route some people will follow, and we need you to! People studying specific subjects at great depth is still entirely necessary. I just think it's ultra-common and over-encouraged these days, so we should tip the balance in the other direction. Or at least provide the opportunity and encouragement to those for whom generalist knowledge is an appealing route.

We have the specialists. We need the generalists to make sense of them.

I always find that "learning how to think" idea as an elusive concept. It is being a skepticist? An ultrarascionalist agent? A relativist?

In general it is a paradox, because educational systems would try to teach you how to think and at the end you realize that there was a hidden agenda that makes you think and combat them. While others combat you too.

You're looking at the "learning how to think" problem from a specialized viewpoint, trying to define it and pin it down. I don't think it works that way. It's hard to define, but it's more about understanding how to learn and how to be productive with your brain. However you do that is fine by me, as long as you're using your brain to its full capacity and creating value from it.

I recognize greater value in people who focus on a field and have a diverse and broad knowledge background than in those who are specialists alone. Surely the depth of the specialists is required, but the adjunct skills of the generalist turn out to be more important for knowledge work such as software and business, and important in unmeasurable and undefinable ways. They are all around more productive people, better problem-solvers, better learners, more collaborative, more well-rounded, and many more buzzwords which actually turn out to have true meaning in this case.

*"bon travail" :)

Ahhh desolée! Vous avez trouvé le française d'un Américain. :)

Le Francais (je n'ai pas de cedille sur ce clavier)

le français (though in English it's always upper-case, in French it's only when talking about the people)

Ce jeune Français parle français.

Err... I am French, but haven't written in my mother tongue for sooo long... The GP wrote "le francaise d'un Americain", and that's what I wanted to correct.

Ah yes I confused genders yet again. Embarrassing. I'll just stop now.

I would hardly call sitting down and writing a 4 hour test "doing it right" when it comes to philosophy. In my opinion, philosophy is a mandatory subject but it should be focused on debate, not essay-writing.

Perhaps the French educational system teaches pupils how to write, something that seems to be missing from the US curriculum.

The US curriculum attempts to teach students how to write, they just don't do a particularly good job at it most of the time. Also, it's very frequent that highschool teachers will still give decent grades to poorly written essays and papers, which may give many students a false impression that they're decent at writing when they really aren't.

(Usually this illusion is shattered once/if they attend university, thankfully.)

Are you kidding? The US system is completely devoted to writing. All my English classes were centered around writing essays (usually about the books we read).

In fact, I'd argue the opposite. The French system places a big emphasis on learning grammar, conjugations, spelling and things like that - which frankly is a waste of time. I don't think I ever took a grammar course in the US. I couldn't tell you what a prepositional phrase is, but I can write a good essay.

I can write a good essay, too, but I don't really attribute that to my schooling. Learning to write a good essay has one essential ingredient: you have to care about what you're trying to express. If you're just writing to the specification, you won't improve at anything except creating filler content.

I learned how to write a good essay because I thought I had something to say and I wanted people to hear it and understand it. Same with other facets of communication, like public speaking.

My personal experience hasn't been the same. I used to be really bad at writing, but through the school system forcing me to write I got significantly better. I think I'm pretty good now-a-days, though I'm a bit rusty.

Sure you get better at things you actually enjoy doing, but sometimes you need to force yourself or - in the case of children - be forced to do something over and over to learn. I think teachers try to make writing more interesting, but it can be a pretty hard thing to do. Most kids will hate it no matter what they write.

> The US system is completely devoted to writing.

Writing, perhaps, but not good writing. Most of good writing is the ability to synthesize ideas and construct prose people want to read.

Nobody wants to read your average student's five paragraph essay. On the other hand, I spent a large part of the weekend bingeing on Michael O. Church's blog, because the dude can write.

It definitely focuses on writing a lot. The other thing to take into account though is that nearly every test in the Baccalaureat lasts 3 hours or more, including the science ones (4 hours for Maths and Physics, and 3 1/2 hours for Biology/Geology).

Not to mention the infamous dictée. See for example:


The article is from 1987 though, don't know if you noticed that ;)

The dictée is not as prevalent today as it was 20 years ago, and I don't think I have done one after the age of 11.

I am from Germany, and philosophy was pretty much the main topic of the ethics class for the two last grades when I was at high school. We had debates of all sorts as part of the curriculum, but we had also learned how to collect and present our arguments in the written form. So I think writing an essay for 4 hours may very well be suitable for a philosophy exam.

The 4 hour test is usually a 4 hour essay , where you're expected to write around a 6 page dissertation on the subject. At least when I took it , there was also the option to read a text and do an analysis on that.

The problem with oral debate is that its too easy to fall into the "persuade" aspect instead of "convince". And the last thing we need is pupils yelling at each other all the time. By forcing the argumentation in a written form, you make it a lot harder to write fallacious reasoning without being called on it.

Also, it should be remembered that is a country-wide exam with a 2 or 3 months deadline for the marks (with of course, not enough teachers to do such a huge job), and the students are supposed to be evaluated equally.

That said, the typical dissertation includes a synthetic part where the ideas of the previous parts, which expose one thesis and its opposite. So there is a form of debate there, but again what is judged is the consistency rather than the opinions supported by the student (at least that's how it was when I took it, in the scientific-oriented version of the "Bac").

The material is one thing, testing on it is another... a 4 hour test sounds bad, but one would think that if they're teaching philosophy in the first place, then they sort of know what they're doing.

there's nothing wrong with a 4 or even a 6 hours test for a subject such as philosophy! there's no point in adding time pressure to a philosophy test - the point is not to think efficiently (it's not math or science!), but to think deep, think wide/laterally and to be creative in confined area of thought and to express your thought in a finished and refined form. If you add time pressure, they will just memorize the "correct interpretations" for the test, the "correct way to talk/write about topic x" and so on, just to be able to do things in time (and those who don't memorize ...or cheat, will get worse test scores, so there will be no incentive do things the right way) nulling the whole point of it!

...otoh, having a "philosophy test" in school kind of kills all the use or fun of the subject, but if you do it, at least try to get something out of it by not adding unnecessary constraints!

> the point is not to think efficiently (it's not math or science!),

That's not the difference between philosophy and math. The difference is one of effectivity, not efficiency. Science adds real-world relevance, but substracts rigour.

You're talking about rhetoric, not philosophy.

(BA Philosophy here) The biggest problem is that philosophy courses, all too often, are actually "History of Philosophy" courses. Regurgitating Plato or Descartes becomes the objective, rather than applying logic and philosophical methods to modern problems.

Everyone really should take class in Symbolic Logic.

I'm currently taking the History of Philosophy podcast [1] and my major takeaway is this: even a cursory understanding of the history of philosophy deepens your understanding of Western thought as everything from art and literature to religion and politics has its roots in philosophy. Not that I would have anything against people learning symbolic logic, of course.

[1] www.historyofphilosophy.net/

Oh no, I agree, knowing the history of philosophy is critical. But general education classes tend to focus too much on it, probably because it's easier for a TA/teacher without philosophy background to recite Plato than to engage in philosophy.

Doesn't the teaching of just about any subject at the beginning and even intermediate level really resemble teaching the history of that subject? Physics and mathematics teaching could be described that way: only very advanced students tackle current problems (at which point they are hardly students any longer).

It's not about teaching the history of a subject; it's about teaching from the questions the subject attempts to answer. In physics, it might be as simple as, "What is the concept of reversibility?" Or in mathematics, "How can you compute the area of any triangle?"

In philosophy, the questions being asked don't have an absolute answer. Something as vague as "Who am I?" is difficult, just as something as specific as, "What is property?" is quite challenging. This makes it all the more important to discuss the method of answering because it's really the most concrete thing you can take away from a class: exploring a particular thinker's ideas can result in your agreement or disagreement (or better yet, a tangential exploration of your own) and they're all valid consequences.

In Physics, you typically do practice problems as you're learning (non-current) concepts. Philosophy usually isn't the same. You learn what Descartes thought about the mind, but you never really learn the logical methods he used to get there, nor do you learn what anyone else thinks about the topic (philosophy of mind and dualism, in Descartes' case)

The philosophy 101 course I took actually did go into great detail regarding arguments various philosophers have made (and counter-arguments that other philosophers have given), including Hume, Descartes, Socrates, and a few others. Only the very beginning was spent on the history of the topics, and of the people. I definitely came out of the class with a better grasp on philosophy and argument construction than I did before it.

So, your experience may have just been limited to your university or area.

Oh, I think I see your point. It has to do, perhaps, with teaching the logic of discovery along with the particular ideas as they developed historically. And in physics, for example, it is really impossible to internalize the ideas without doing problems, which steeps you in the logic of discovery, or at least some of its methods (it doesn't really teach you how to discover new knowledge, but there may be no way to teach that).

Sort of yes. But the dead ends are usually (almost) ignored. Also, what you study is the modern refinement of things people came up with long ago. People don't usually read what Gauss wrote; instead they read a modern text-book.

Excellent points. In physics we don't trudge through the details of phlogiston theory or Aristotelian mechanics because those are really dead ends. Only specialists in the history of science bother with the real details of those things. But in philosophy it seems that students spend huge amounts of time on anything that ever gained traction. This leads some physicists (maybe Feynman) to conclude that philosophy has no criteria to separate valuable developments from useless stuff; since there are no real standards, they can't distinguish the essential content of their subject matter from its tortuous history.

(MA Philosophy here) You're right that most philosophy that's taught to people not majoring in it is really more about literature and culture than it is about philosophy proper. I also agree that it might make sense to focus more on logic and philosophical methods, or on philosophical problems and how different philosophers approach them.

But do you really believe that mastering e.g. basic predicate logic is going to make anyone smarter? The same argument is often made for mathematics but invariably without proof.

It genuinely might. Some very basic notions of various logics (e.g., the difference between sufficiency and necessity, a careful analysis of conditionals, validity versus soundness) are absolutely worthwhile subjects of sustained formal study; knowing about them makes you a better thinker in many disciplines and careers.

Well, exactly. It genuinely might, or it genuinely might not. We don't know.

Yeah, perhaps a straight logic course isn't the answer. The solution might be a new type of course; something that explains a philosophical problem, shows how philosophers have approached the problem, and then show students how to use logic and argumentation to approach the problem in a modern context.

Or, just forget the ancients and talk about every day issues, eg abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, etc. etc. I just lament the fact that most students get a negative impression of the field from their required "History of Ancient Philosophy" course, which usually focuses on Plato's metaphysics, completely independent of context. Most students think, "This guy is completely insane and this has no relation to my life whatsoever, time to tune out."

It's hard to talk about philosophy. I liked my philosophy classes in college (one overview, mostly with a Hume/Kant/Wittgenstein/modern analytic bent, and a philosophy of quantum mechanics class), and I like reading Peter Singer, but the older stuff just gets very woolly-headed seeming. It feels like they always try to hide some equivocation under fancy text, starting with "we define X as Y", then jumping through a natural-language use of X to get Z, then assert "Z is Y".

For example, I may just be a heathen, but Nietzsche's whole style seemed to be boldly asserting things, making fun of anyone who thinks otherwise, yet rarely bothering to make an actual argument.

I like the idea that everyone should take a semester's worth philosophy course somewhere along the way, but I don't know if it would do most people any good. An actual rhetoric course, with a focus on logical argument, may do better.

"It feels like they always try to hide some equivocation under fancy text, starting with "we define X as Y", then jumping through a natural-language use of X to get Z, then assert "Z is Y"."

This is precisely what I often found irritating. One of my friends once asked me, "You seem to like philosophy -- why don't you do any?" My response was essentially that certain parts of philosophy are simply TOO HARD for me in the sense that it is often all to easy lose objectivity, logically reason about ethics, etc.

"I'll just stick to math, thanks, where I at least know how to systematically approach and think about problems under the framework of accepted mathematical logic."

The thing about Nietzsche is, he thought himself less a logician and more an artist. In other words, read him like literature and not like argumentation. He's trying to inspire people, not build foolproof arguments.

This is probably also why Nietzsche is (at least to me) infinitely easier to read than most philosophers.

I'm a part-time student in the Philosophy and Mathematics program at the university where I work, and the level 1 philosophy courses I've taken have had a significant number of 20th and 21st century selections in the course readers. We've read some Rawls, Dworkin, Singer, Sartre, Camus, a debate between Andrew Sullivan and William Bennett on gay marriage, a debate on hate speech on university campuses (can't remember the authors), etc, but also some Kant, Descartes, Plato, Hume, Mill...it's been a good mix IMHO.

I'm actually taking Intro to Logic in the second term of summer classes and looking forward to it!

> But do you really believe that mastering e.g. basic predicate logic is going to make anyone smarter?

Well, I think understanding the difference between things which are empirically true and logically true is valuable - experiment versus symbol manipulation.

Apart from logic or math, I'm not sure where else you could really learn the distinction.

Of-course a website full of programmers would recommend Symbolic Logic. I've never ever found it useful.

On the other hand classes on ethics (which illustrate how not black and white the world is) and social philosophy (which present ethical models on which to base our society) both have been invaluable.

Courses in symbolic logic (usually titled "Logic I & II" - propositional logic and predicate logic ) are good for mathematical thinking. But usually the instructor will also take time to go through the common fallacies of argumentation [Edit: See "fallacies" in Google]. Often this is the only explicit exposure to coherent argumentation that a student gets in his college career.

Had I to do it over again I would have started by studying rhetoric (the art of persuasion), a larger field of study that seems (to me) more relevant.

Not sure if you were trying to be snarky with the lmgtfy but that didn't actually bring anything up.

Look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

I quickly looked through them and didn't find anything directly relating to symbolic logic. Most of symbolic logic was trying to understand what was at first pretty confusing notation and then trying to figure out how to represent things like sets without using Venn Diagrams.

At the end of the day I don't think you start to understand any larger truths about logic. Knowing how to write out De Morgan's law with symbols is frankly kinda useless.

Maybe it helps with mathematical thinking, but that's not relevant to most people.

I didn't mean to imply that the fallacies have anything in particular to contribute to symbolic logic. It's just that, when one takes a logic course, one expects to leave the class with better logical skills, both formal and informal. Gracefully, most logic teachers and books take the time to briefly cover some additional topics such as the fallacies.

This is an excellent introductory book to argumentation: http://www.amazon.com/Thank-You-Arguing-Aristotle-Persuasion...

I'd be interested to hear where you did your BA. In my experience in the UK and US, the focus is much more on using philosophical arguments than regurgitating them (sometimes even to the exclusion of understanding the context, which makes Plato and Descartes just seem like they are making terrible arguments). I've heard that in France the focus is much more historical, though.

University of Pittsburgh, USA. It's a top-5 program internationally, so I take it to be quite good.

I'd say that the program on a whole doesn't focus too much on historical philosophy, although it can, if you want. The problem is that the majority of the intro classes are historical. Philosophy is a gen ed requirement there (similar to France's secondary school system), so the average non-philosophy student's exposure to philosophy is obscure Aristotelian metaphysics.

> It's a top-5 program internationally, so I take it to be quite good.

Most of the international rankings are heavily biased in favour of English speaking countries and particularly the USA (especially ARWU). It's mostly fine in sciences where all the important publications are in English. It's clearly dubious in the humanities. Beware this kind of claim.

I also vote for ethics and civics. Extra credit for "personal" economics (what is money, compound interest, budgeting, buy/lease/rent, etc).

I actually firmly believe that we have a pisspoor civics education in the US. Here's the main suggestion I have to correct this:

- Give student senates power. That means (1) a significant amount of money and (2) the permission to spend it. There are some definite limits on what they can do, though I'm not sure where to put those limits, but for the most part, give them experience in actually handling the budget for a heterogenous group that exceeds their Dunbar's number. That experience includes consequences. I'd absolutely expect to see dictatorships, rebellions, and anarchies all arise without adult input, too.

Of course, this will never happen, since there isn't any such money available. I actually wonder if it'd be feasible to get someone wealthy do just donate a chunk down at some primary schools in order to try it out.

For those no longer in school, do you have a recommended book for Symbolic Logic?

Understanding Symbolic Logic by Klenk is bar none the best book I've come across. It starts at zero knowledge of logic and moves up from there. Get an older edition (it's not worth $111!)

Can you recommend any online resources for learning about Symbolic Logic?

Honestly the best source I've come across is a book, Understanding Symbolic Logic by Klenk. But here are some decent online resources:




Good article. I'm french and I did this (but in science, not literature like in the article). I've also been to US college for one semester and I had the chance to take an "Intro to Philosophy" freshman class. So I've had two formal introductory philosophy classes, in different languages, cultures and contexts, but definitely aimed at the same public (17-19 y. old). It's quite interesting to compare these two. In France the focus was definitely more on authors, philosophical theories, texts and ideas. In America the material was more on reasoning, logic and formal arguments. Never once were we presented a formal Modus Ponens layout in France. We were told never to write our own ideas in our essays --- "You'll do that if you get a master in philosophy". However the American class had too much of "learn those 10 arguments by heart" I would say. So they definitely had subtle and interesting differences.

Of course both had their share of "how the hell is this relevant to my life" reactions. But also those invaluable "ahah" moments, which make philosophy so wonderful. Hacking has this too. You walk out of the classroom with new cognitive pathways that you didn't know you had. You'll never see the world with the same eyes again.

"You walk out of the classroom with new cognitive pathways that you didn't know you had. You'll never see the world with the same eyes again."

I couldn't have put it better myself. I came into my required undergraduate philosophy course doubting that I'd get anything out of it (having mostly finish the undergrad physics+math majors)... and I was pleasantly surprised.

Bingo. It's all about learning new ways to think about anything. It's like a multiplier on all the knowledge you've ever had and will ever have in the future.

Is there empirical evidence for this?

Please, this is philosophy.

Yeah, that's the biggest misunderstanding about the teaching of philosophy in France. At the start you think "Cool, I'm going to learn to think by myself!", though what you actually do is learn what other famous thinker have been thinking, and spit it out in your personal fashion. It really has little to do with thinking by yourself, it's more about answering an open question by cleverly articulating school of thought.

Quite disappointing , but still very enlightening (even more if your teacher is cool).

I believe this is dependent on the teacher, I've had two teachers in France in my senior year. The first one was definitely of the "swallow and regurgitate what I tell you", while the second one was angry at students rereading notes before essays, because she thought we had to think by ourselves. Needless to say, I preferred the second one.

My university (in USA) has a rather large set of required "core" courses, the inner core of which are a full year of literature and a full year of western philosophy. We read and discuss, in these two years, on the order of 40 classic works (!) of philosophy and literature. I personally believe that this is an excellent experience for those who have had minimal contact with the world of humanities.

As a math+physics student with a bunch of friends in my university's engineering school, I hear all too often engineers disparaging the humanities as "useless", "bullshit", etc. and it's really quite disappointing and close-minded. They simply miss out on an incredibly important and fundamental part of the human experience. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance (historical or otherwise) of philosophy and literature, to the point where I would expect anyone who considers himself an "intellectual" to have had at least brief experiences with the humanities (or at least thought about difficult philosophical questions or whatnot on his own time).

For better or worse, a great deal of humanities (especially philosophy) has been rendered defunct (i.e., it's "bullshit") due to advances in science. So before studying philosophy one should study science, so that one knows what to keep and what to discard.

There's nothing worse than listening to a young person who is an eager proponent of, say, "postmodernist philosophy" when you know that he hasn't a whit of knowledge about evolution or science in general. I usually mumble "that's interesting" and shuffle off to another conversation.

But your point is well taken: philosophy still has much to contribute - a great deal of it passes through the scientific filter unscathed. But it is important to study science first. Only then does one have a firm foundation for examining philosophy.


But keep in mind, the content is not all there is to it; the historical context and influence on society is also an integral part of the humanities. Or at least, that's what I think -- I try to take a historico-contextual approach to it, especially when I know, say, Aquinas' arguments don't hold water.

I would have thought "intellectuals" to be mostly (if not only) people focusing on the humanities (be it litterature, philosophy, history, social sciences...). For me (and every frenchman I think) at least, this word does not apply at all to people who are only proficient in hard sciences or engineering.

Yes, I see what you mean.

I guess my intellectual is anyone who has built up a strong foundation of techniques for analytical thinking, whether it be from the sciences or the arts. In some sense, I think that any such intellectual should be aware of this huge background of literature/philosophy that has come to shape Western civilization; it is important for scientists and engineers, who make a significant practical impact on the world in all sorts of ways, to understand the basic ideas and assumptions of Western civilization, especially in today's increasingly cross-cultural world.

I think you meant to say "impossible to overstate"

Oops! Thanks!

I'm french and before anyone write how wonderful this is let me explain how it goes :

We have 1 course of philosophy on our last highschool year (if you're doing a scientific baccalauréat).

(Along with math, biology, physics, french, history/geography, english, a second langage and a third option (which can be a third langage, it was chinese for me)).

No one wants to sit through a philosophy class in High School. It was the "boring class" we had to pass. It was "too soon".

Then in university we have this mandatory SHS which means human and social science course, which is basicaly philosophy for bachelors.

(This is in a math degree)

It's not more interresting, it's just that people are more mature and are more interrested in the topic. Way better than forcing it to kids in highschool who are still living at their parents imo.

You can say that about most topics. A lot of people find maths boring and don't want to sit through it, but for some it fires a spark of emotion.

Yes but I believe Math is really important to be taught at a young age.

Why? Are trapezoids really so important that all human beings need to know what they are?

Because it's the only class where you do REAL problem solving and you don't just learn things by heart or discover things.

Also because it solicits your brain a lot. Which is always good.

And finally because you use math every day. There are some things in math you are not going to use yes, but most of the program is important imo. So many people nowadays just can't do simple calculus it's worrying (especially when we need to split the bill).

> Because it's the only class where you do REAL problem solving and you don't just learn things by heart or discover things.

It's the only class that isn't below the threshold of pedagogical competence, you mean. The response isn't "well, then everyone should learn math, and memorize these multiplication tables!"; the response is fix the other subjects.

> Also because it solicits your brain a lot. Which is always good.

If a subject doesn't solicit your brain, should it be taught at all?

> And finally because you use math every day.

Really? I don't. If you're using math every day, it's almost certainly not math. It's a dessicated corpse slashed to pieces for easy consumption by children. Why? Because reasons. You've given the example of splitting the bill, for instance, but people use this example too much: stop trying to save on quantities smaller than a dollar and just tip more.

Indeed, it's an instance where it'd be useful to teach "mental math" by telling kids to memorize this Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_calculation Which is precisely the kind of memorization and thoughtless spoon-feeding you decried.

This may reflect how the subject was taught to you. Much of the time kids who find lessons boring are really finding the teacher boring.

No one wants to sit through a philosophy class in High School. It was the "boring class" we had to pass. It was "too soon"

Except, presumably, those kids who choose to do the philosophy bac?

We had philosophy for the Baccaulauréat as well in Scientific section.

The article is about the Litterature section and of course I believe Philosophy is an important topic if you chose to study litterature. I was more talking about other majors (but I still think philosophy is important later on when you're already opened your mind a little bit by leaving highschool and entering university).

Generally speaking, I think today's philosophy courses should focus on the big historical picture with emphasis on modern philosophers, as opposed to studying tomes like The Republic in painful detail. While it's easy to get lost in a sea of infinitely regressing metaphysics, I think there's value in applied philosophy (I don't think philosophy is useful in isolation).

1. The scientific method. Starting from the logical positivist school of thought, philosophers are converging at falsifiability as the primary criterion (cf. Popper, Wittgenstein).

2. Justice. Starting with rather crude notions of utilitarianism, it is possible to construct a transcendental notion of justice that is based on fairness (cf. Rawls, Sen). It is also possible to approach it from a theory on transcendental morality (cf. Kant).

3. Consciousness. This is a rather tricky topic that can be tackled by an analytical philosopher who has studied some neuroscience (cf. Metzinger).

4. Tackling the free will problem. When tackled in isolation, there is a dichotomy between compatibilism and incompatibilism (cf. Schopenhauer). However, attempts have been made to derive it from quantum decoherence and MWI (cf. Yudkowsky on LessWrong [1]).

5. Foundations of mathematics. While there are prominent platonists (cf. Gödel), there are several alternative approaches to the problem (cf. Spinoza, Hilbert).

To conclude, I'd say that some training in philosophical thought is essential to enabling the student in thinking about various questions that pop up during her lifetime. The goal is not to get definitive answers, but to have a good consistent framework to think in.

[1]: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Free_will_(solution)

If students are free to express their thought, and graded on how coherent an argument they put forward, then this is great.

If it's about mucking up and memorizing someone else's thoughts (that you probably don't even agree with), then it's terrible.

I don't know which of above it is; but I will say, the examples in that article are splendid ("Is truth preferable to peace?", "Does power exist without violence?", etc.) These are things students should really think about; and I think it's great that it's mandatory for everyone (if it's being done right).

I have passed the scientific variant of the baccalaureat, which only includes 5 hours a week of Philosohpy, so I can't talk for those who are in the literary variant. However, in my experience it has been mostly about coming up with a coherent reasoning, structuring it, and conveying it propely in a 4-8 pages long written argument.

History (in general) gave us a great deal of examples, but we did not study the ancient and modern philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Nietzshe, Schopenhauer) just for the sake of knowing them.

I think it's great to do that in high school ; however a lot of students found it extremely hard and struggled to find value in it. (But then again, they struggled to find value in anything we did)

> includes 5 hours a week of Philosohpy

Which is more than twice the hours a Belgian student is exposed weekly to the topic whatever her cursus is.

Students are perfectly free to express their thoughts. I was when I took the Baccalauréat in 2000, and I did fairly well (though it was the scientific Baccalauréat, where expectations in philosophy are not very high to begin with).

That said it doesn't mean that you shouldn't memorize anything at all, otherwise you are soon going to run short on ideas. Think about it as building software on top of existing libraries rather than rewriting all from scratch.

Take "Is truth preferable to peace?" for instance. Maybe it could bring you into a utilitarianism vs consequentialism debate (that's where I would go anyway, but I guess there are other interesting approaches). But if you've never studied these, well, good luck reinventing the wheel...

in theory it's a great idea but in practice it isn't. for example those question aren't meant for you think about when they give these kind of question they are expecting a specific kind of things to find in your writing which have nothing to do with your opinion,answer by a yes or no and give them your arguments ,you'll get a big zero faster than the speed of light.

In general many commenters have a misconception that the mentioned French "baccalaureate" is related to the US/UK undergraduate bachelor's degree. As the article points out, and the corresponding wikipedia page hints at, this somewhat roughly translates to a high school diploma in the US, the British A-levels, the German Abitur, etc.

There is an interesting comment that illustrates the distinction between US/Europe education systems by observing that in Europe high schools are general followed by focused specific subject studies, whereas in the US there is a lot of focusing already happening in the high schools. Interestingly, though, there seems to be a general education requirement for an undergraduate degree; since I am from Europe this seems to have the purpose of ensuring that all admitted students get to the same level before specializing.

If you want a Master of Technology in Norway, you need to take examen philosophicum at your university. In theory it's nice. I think it's a valuable thing to learn, and interesting to see the roots of the science I'm working with. However, it has some issues. Especially that when I had it, it was more a history lesson about philosophy. They are changing the subject a bit now, to be more relevant, so I hope they also change it to include more thinking and less memorizing what he or she (mostly he, unfortunately) may have meant.

So, in theory I like it, but the execution is not the best.

I think history of philosophy is very important, though.

If you don't understand Hegel you won't understand Adorno as fully, frinstance. Whether or not understanding Adorno is important is another issue entirely.

Similarly, seeing the vibrant debate as it unfolds through time prepares you for the lack of consensus and sheer vitriol among modern philosophers.

History of philosophy is essentially the history of thought itself, and as such is invaluable.

Perhaps it should be taught under the name "history of philosophy" rather than "philosophy" though?

During my studies I've been forced to learn lots of things I don't care for. BUT that's good. If school didn't force me to learn them, I would never have. Sometimes they turn out to be interesting, but not always. The good thing is that now, I'm 100% sure those particular fields are not for me. "Know your enemy." That's why I learn windows server...

Many comments underline the fact that learning philosophical theories is not philosophy, and thinking by yourself is better, and all this stuff.

I think it is very arrogant of we contemporary people to think that 17 something kids can think by themselves and should not need to dig the past to answer such important questions.

And in a philosophy class, as I received them in France when I was young, the teacher would expose contradictory positions and let you prefer the one you want. So, yes, you'd get a low score if you wouldn't name Plato on a question about idealism, but you would get the best score if you show personal and deep understanding of the topic.

>I think it is very arrogant of we contemporary people to think that 17 something kids can think by themselves and should not need to dig the past to answer such important questions.

Surely this depends on whether you are trying to imbue them with the correct answers or a deeper understanding of the question? Both are valid objectives but I could believe emphasising one would often be at a detriment to the other.

I was startled by the word "master" in the submission title, but it's in the original article title, so it's good to have that word here. I think that MASTERING philosophy is not easy, as my late dad, a chemistry major who also did extensive study of philosophy as he considered a career in researching the philosophy of science, never stopped reading about philosophy throughout his life. He quoted to me the saying from about a century ago that all Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, and yet the footnotes keep gaining more elaboration and nuance over time. I'm not sure that anyone really masters philosophy. My oldest son had three year-long courses in philosophy as the core courses in the Stanford University Online High School,


and he is still thinking about philosophical issues as he pursues his career as a programmer in New York City's startup scene.

That said, what has this curriculum requirement done for France? Is France dealing better with assimilating immigrants, or figuring out full employment for young people, or managing sustainable energy supplies, or doing any other kind of problem-solving in the real world better than other countries? If so, what? If not, why not? Does France indeed have a systematic educational advantage from its program of school philosophy courses, or is this just one more mandatory school requirement that many students blow off?

I saw this headline and it reminded me of a talk I went to yesterday that was held at NYU as part of the World Science Festival 2013. The talk was title "Refining Einstein: New Theories of Time" and the guests were:Paul Davies, Craig Callender, Tim Maudlin, and Max Tegmark. Tim is a philosopher, while Max is a physicist and Max kept making an analogy between the "French" speaking (like him, metaphorically and referring to physics concepts) and the "German" speaking Tim. Essentially saying that the German speaking Tim (no really, just metaphorically) constraints his understanding of time to coordinate systems, while him, the French speaking Max, does not constrain himself to that. The video may be posted at http://worldsciencefestival.com/videos at a later time and you can check it out.

In any case, what I learned is the philosophy questions everything and sometimes this is good and sometimes it can be troubling because people really believe what they think they understand - this is true in any field. However, one thing that bothers me is that history shows that just as some group thinks they have it figured out, another group/person comes and changes all that (e.g. Feynman, Einstein) and then another group rises from that thinking they are right again - the cycle continues.

One last thought is about my first philosophy class, which I very much enjoyed, but the lack of happiness of my professor's face was scary and troubling. After the class, I had so many questions about who I was, my religion, the air I breath, and the things I see/feel, etc. So much questioning cannot be too healthy for the human mind, but philosophical specialization is probably what prevents insanity (I hope).

Unfortunately, they don't take economics as seriously. The combination of economics and philosophy is, in my opinion, far more empowering in terms of better decisions (both personally and politically) than any other coursework I have ever had. But at least they get the philosphy...we get fact memorization for test taking.

The title is misleading.

From a casual reading of the wikipedia article it appears that there are Baccalauréat qualifications (professional, technology) that you can obtain without a philosophy test.

So philosophy seems a requirement for the general Baccalauréat.

Here is the wikipedia link to the Baccalauréat qualification http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baccalaur%C3%A9at

I agree, I've been saying it for years that there should be two mandatory modules on every university course: Philosophy and Physical Education. The baseline of requirement is a formed body and a formed mind.

Universities in Poland do at least PE and in most cases have an introduction to philosophy in first year. I moved to England to study and I was shocked to discover they don't care about this at all.

How would one undertake to study the International Baccalaureate without having to take the exams? I'm 34, and this sounds pretty awesome!

When I studied philosophy, the first row in the aula were all very old men, who (I think) weren't really students. They just came in, sad down and listened. I think I'll sit there again one day. When I'm old and full of philosophical questions :)

Philosophy and personal finance are two extremes that should be covered in K-12 but are not part of any standardized test so no public school is going to use resources for them. As a result we are at great risk overall of having a nation of shallow-minded, debt-enslaved consumers.

It is also compulsory if you follow the International Baccalaureate program, under the name of Theory of Knowledge. I think this is extremely useful for future social / natural scientists and engineers.

<shameless plug> Maybe time to repost an old link of mine: http://codosophia.blogspot.fr/ </shameless plug>

I applaud the French for this approach - of course there may be direct repercussions of teaching the masses to think and learn... and be smart.

> Is truth preferable to peace?


> Does power exist without violence?

This one, I like.

Philosophy is the thing I turn to when I am sad/stressed/troubled. Best course the french schools gave me.

A rant:

When I was a teenager, I agreed with the French model as presented in this article. But as I continued on to university (in Canada), my 'inner discourse' turned into "How practical and valuable do employers see my education?" This turned out to be what I preoccupied myself with the most right before graduating university (around three years ago) and even now that I am in the US.

Well, it turns out North American employers don't see humanities or liberal arts degrees as creating critical thinkers. Or at least they don't believe people with either of these degrees are capable of enough critical thinking to come up with solutions to business problems. This means they are less valuable. They are lower on the critical-thinking ladder, so to speak. The only notable exception is philosophy majors, but even those are approached by employers sceptically at first. Anyway, because of this, it seems like your character, personality, and interests are key in deciding if you're a right fit. But this kind of opens up a complicated discourse on social dynamics, interview double-speak, and so on and so forth. Basically, more prejudices are at play, I believe.

This French model is good for personal growth, for creating a virtuous citizen, and a knowledgeable, cultured person, which was the point of educational institutions in part of the Middle Ages and, ultimately, in the Renaissance. France has a history of this stuff. Many writers in the 1900s spoke of how learning the French language meant learning about culture, philosophy, art, etc. Stuff that would sound "sophisticated" nowadays. So if you wanted to be cultured, you learnt French. What was the opposite? English. Learning English was many times looked down upon by liberal arts and humanities folks, because most people learnt it to conduct business. Learning English did not include learning about art, culture, and literature. Of course, there are very few exceptions, but this holds even in modern times. Most people learn English for business. To quickly trace its origins and demonstrate how old this concept has been in place (and how it is now phased out, which should tell us something about adopting it in its entirety), the concept of being "cultured" was associated with a specific type of curriculum that created "well-rounded" citizens. Being "worldly" came from the idea of "homo universalis" (man of the world, universal man) that was used in the 15th century. It came from the most notable example, Renaissance Italy. Renaissance, as in "rebirth". And it was called as such because in this time, it was a return to even older emphasis on classical notions of what was important for a society, which originated many, many centuries before 15th century Renaissance Italy. I don't think the answer lies in this type of curriculum.

My point: All this sounds fine and dandy, but how does this translate into getting employed, which seems to be the focus of our civilization these days? This is a rhetorical question (for me): it doesn't translate. The critical thinking part of this type of curriculum has already been put in place in other more technical degrees (such as Engineering and CS) that offer a better employment rate with higher pay. It is what our society has deemed more important and values more and rewards. We are ultimately to 'blame' for things being like this. I spent many years hoping for this French model to work and for people to change their prejudices and have people with humanities or liberal arts degrees live a decent life with a decent job, working in what they love, and being able to afford to start a family.

These days, I am lucky that I work my 9-to-5 crappy writing job (which is not sustainable, by the way, and for which I had to move to a different country to find) and cannot even think about renting my own apartment, starting a family, or indulging in a few things here and there. I go to work by day, and work on learning technical skills (programming, a few CS concepts here and there) at night and sometimes on weekends, when I'm trying to make myself available to my immediate family, so as to avoid getting them upset by my estrangement.

Yes, if I move out to the middle of nowhere I can probably find something with slightly better pay. But as someone with a liberal arts degree, I can't say cows and hay inspire me to continue living.

It's not that getting employed is the focus. It's that if you can't get employed, then your degree will only make you miserable (not least because you are saddled with a load of debt). There needs to be a balance between the student's short term interests and society's long term interests. And that means - whatever else you learn as well - at college you must learn a saleable skill.

To impress whatever philosophy is currently most fashionable.

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