“Life of the Mind” redefined for K-12

The Winning Words Conference amassed educators and students from around the country to spread philosophy in primary and secondary schools.

By Raymond Fang

Panelists discussed how philosophy can be “subversive” to traditional models of education because it prompts students to question assumptions in “The Winning Words Initiative,” a conference held in Mandel Hall on Saturday.

Named after the University’s Winning Words Program, a student volunteer organization bringing philosophy to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on the South Side, the conference brought together teachers and students from around the country to share ways to spread philosophy in pre-collegiate education.

The keynote speakers, C.D.C. Reeve, professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Jana Mohr Lone, director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, each focused on a different issue. Reeve discussed the importance of living a life true to one’s values, as Socrates did, while Lone discussed the value of pre-collegiate philosophy in improving critical thinking skills.

Reeve, Lone, and conference organizer Bart Schultz, a senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Winning Words Program, spoke to the Maroon before the conference. Schultz explained that introducing philosophy early on helps develop academic skills such as critical thinking and argumentation.

“It’s important for everyone to be more philosophical. It’s an ideal vehicle for critical thinking and dissecting Socratic arguments,” he said. “When I look at what so many CPS students get, and what UChicago expects, there’s a big gap.”

Lone agreed that philosophy provides an appropriate setting for developing these skills.

“Children start to understand that there are many personalities and many ways to see the world, and as a result…they start to realize the world isn’t binary…. There’s no better discipline for learning to think critically, analytically, learning to give reasons for what you think, to look for assumptions behind what you say and do,” she said.

However, American schools today do not place an emphasis on philosophy, which Lone attributes to schools focusing on career-oriented education.

“My view is that the pivotal reason is that American schools haven’t been geared particularly towards the intellectual; they’ve been geared more towards the vocational. ‘How do you get a job?’ That’s been, in many ways, how people understand education’s goal,” she said.

But Reeve noted that philosophy can be useful in many careers.

“If you actually look at the sorts of people who occupy high-paying top jobs, they tend to be people whose vocational training is backgrounded [sic] by their larger intellectual training,” he said. “Businesses want people with imagination and an ability to…think critically about things. I’d say there is a lot of evidence that philosophy promotes those.”