Students sit for the philosophy baccalaureate exam in Nantes, France (OSV News photo/Stephane Mahe, Reuters).

The majority of Americans are unlikely ever to take a course in philosophy. Though most colleges offer at least a general introduction to the subject, students who enroll in a philosophy course for the first time are likely doing so either because of core requirements or because of a scheduling mishap. U.S. students whose education ends with a high-school diploma are even less likely to have studied philosophy, since very few high schools offer even an introductory course and even fewer require their students to take one.

The American neglect of philosophical study—and the typically American skepticism of intellectualism—is not shared by some of our peer nations. For example, the French baccalaureate—a comprehensive set of exams taken at the end of students’ secondary education—requires that lycée students complete a full-year course on philosophy. This course goes beyond a cursory introduction to major philosophical questions and challenges students to engage deeply with famously difficult material, such as Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Should we, like France, incorporate philosophy requirements into our university and even high-school curricula? What might be the benefits of doing so?

In Why Teach Philosophy in Schools?, the British philosopher of education Jane Gatley seeks to “provide a failsafe argument for including philosophy on school curricula.” Gatley briefly reviews the history of including philosophy in pre-college curricula, as well as the most common arguments for doing so, which she finds wanting. She then offers her own account of the aims of education and argues that philosophy is especially, and perhaps uniquely, qualified to provide intellectual skills that are essential for achieving these aims.

Gatley’s writing is clear and rigorous, and her book is a fine addition to the literature promoting philosophy at the pre-college level. Because she develops her account of the aims of education along pragmatic lines, her argument should convince even skeptics who consider philosophy a useless luxury. But Gatley’s pragmatism is a double-edged sword: though it may convince some readers who think only in terms of productivity and GDP that it is actually practical to teach students to think philosophically, such a starting point is woefully inadequate for assessing the true value of philosophy, let alone for thinking about what makes for a good life or a good society and how education can contribute to both. Indeed, Gatley’s line of thinking may even lead to Machiavellian conclusions at odds with her politely liberal politics. Fortunately, Gatley’s two main arguments can be set on a firmer foundation.

Gatley argues that any academic curriculum ought to prepare students to “effectively interact” with the world so that they can “achieve their aims.” Unlike other academic disciplines, which use well-defined theoretical concepts to give students the ability to interact with some particular aspect of the world, philosophy can illuminate our ordinary concepts, which are not the province of any particular discipline. Without the illumination that philosophy provides, these ordinary concepts tend to lead us into muddles that have direct and meaningful impacts on our everyday lives. If we seek to solve a problem that involves how mass-bearing bodies attract each other, we can turn to physics, which provides the well-defined theoretical concept of gravity and mathematical procedures that allow us to apply it to the problem at hand. But if we seek to have a meaningful and fulfilling friendship, there is no particular science with well-defined theoretical concepts that will help us. Friendship may be partially illuminated by several disciplines—literature, sociology, neuroscience, and theology—but philosophy is best equipped to navigate the difficulties that an ordinary concept like “friendship” raises. And unlike other academic disciplines that jealously police their own boundaries, philosophy requires an openness to the findings of other disciplines in its pursuit of the whole truth. As a result, it is uniquely able to mediate and integrate various conceptual schemes when addressing questions that require an interdisciplinary answer. 

Gatley’s pragmatism is a double-edged sword.

Gatley concludes that, without philosophy, “any theoretical curriculum is suboptimal,” for it will fail to use the best resources available to address head-on our students’ most pressing questions about ordinary concepts, and it will also fail to provide our students with the tools they need to integrate the different disciplines they encounter in their studies. If philosophy can really help students with these two problems, as I think it can, then there is good reason to include it in the curricula of both universities and high schools. We would be wise, then, to push our local school boards (and perhaps also our state and federal governments) to find a place for philosophy in the curriculum and to dedicate enough resources to teach it well. Ideally, it would be taught by actual specialists in courses specifically dedicated to it, not simply by having teachers in adjacent disciplines raise “philosophical questions.” There would be practical obstacles to doing this: Where to find more time in an already overly busy school day? Where to find the money in already overstretched budgets? How to navigate parental concerns about the content of such a course? But these kinds of difficulties could all be resolved, and they certainly don’t outweigh the value of incorporating philosophy in a high-school curriculum.


Unfortunately, Gatley’s account of the aims of education tends to undermine her own case. There is nothing wrong with preparing students to interact effectively with the world so they can achieve their own ends. But everything hinges on how we interpret this. Someone like Augustine might say that philosophical education is fruitful because it helps students understand the true meaning of happiness. Such an education, Augustine would say, allows us to determine how best to engage with the world so that that we might lovingly respect it.

But Gatley is no Augustine; her background assumptions seem to be more aligned with those of classical liberals like John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Such a liberalism tends to promote the cultivation of an arsenal of means without making any judgment about the value of the ends to which those means may be directed. Indeed, a dogmatic liberalism may refuse to make judgments about the value of various ends, as long as those ends do not interfere with anyone else’s pursuit of her own ends. 

The value of philosophy interpreted along such lines consists only of its utility—how well it helps us achieve our ends, whatever they happen to be. Thus, Gatley takes the “general utility” of an academic education that includes philosophy to be one of its key strengths. But “utility” for what? While something may have utility for many good ends and can thus be said to have “general utility,” we still need to know what the ends are before we can assess the value of the means.

Following the work of the Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard, Gatley proposes to replace the popular philosophical distinction between instrumental goods and intrinsic goods with two other distinctions: intrinsic versus extrinsic and final versus instrumental. The intrinsic/extrinsic distinction relates to the location of value: Is the value always present in the good (intrinsic), or conditionally present based on surrounding circumstances (extrinsic)? The final/instrumental distinction relates to the way in which one chooses the good: Is it chosen for its own sake (final), or for the sake of some further good (instrumental)? While most philosophers treat intrinsic and final goods as the same thing (since what is good per se is also worth pursuing as an end in itself), Gatley’s revision allows her to suggest that a good can be intrinsic without being final, or vice versa. 

If final value is not the same as intrinsic value, then final value becomes something to be determined “by each individual, rather than by the nature of the activity valued.… Since there is no clear relationship between intrinsic and final value, there is no reason to stipulate that students ought to value the pursuit of truth as an end in itself.” Thus, by separating intrinsic and final value, Gatley subjectivizes ends: what is finally valuable to me may not be finally valuable to you, and that is just because we happen to be different people with different interests. As a result, Gatley claims that the “educational value of truth could rest on its extrinsic and instrumental value” since “there is no moral imperative to value some things rather than others.” Indeed, Gatley takes it as a strength of her strictly pragmatic view of education that it “avoids commitment to more complex goals with potentially controversial ideas about the good life and society.”

But is this avoidance really a strength? It seems difficult to reconcile Gatley’s claim that there is no moral imperative to value some things rather than others with her judgment that it would be “wrong to teach ways of understanding the world that are clearly misleading or false, such as outdated scientific theories or holocaust denialism.” If education is “about the pursuit of useful ways of understanding the world” (emphasis mine) rather than truth (whatever its utility), and if there is no moral imperative to assign final value to things, then what is to prevent a Holocaust denier from directing the conceptual skills she has learned from philosophy toward spreading historical falsehoods? One might think, pragmatically, that pursuing the useful tends to direct you toward the true, but if everyone determines for herself what counts as having final value, then things that are generally useful may be directed to any end, true or false, good or bad.

Shouldn’t education also provide us with guidance on how to discern genuinely valuable ends, since there is a truth about what is genuinely desirable, a truth that philosophy is uniquely equipped to discover and articulate? An education directed solely to the cultivation of generally applicable conceptual skills may produce students better able to interact with the world according to their whims, but this is what ancient philosophers called a “powerless power.” In focusing exclusively on means, we are likely to drive ourselves toward ends that don’t in fact fulfill us. The sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius compared a person in this predicament to a drunk stumbling about because he doesn’t know which path will bring him home. 

Why Teach Philosophy in Schools?
The Case for Philosophy on the Curriculum
Jane Gatley
Bloomsbury Academic
$84 | 210 pp.

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Ryan M. Brown specializes in ancient Greek philosophy. He teaches at Villanova University.

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