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Too Young for Philosophy?


Too Young To Learn Philosophy?

by Kenneth Lyen

Is there an optimum age for learning a second language, algebra, Shakespeare, music, art, religion, etiquette, swimming, computers, relativity, poetry, and philosophy?

The first time I watched Hamlet, I was about 14 years old, and I was bored. It was only many years later, when I watched it again, did I realise what a masterpiece it was. For me, 14 years old was too young to understand Hamlet. Sometimes you have to gain more of life’s experiences before you can appreciate the world’s greatest literature and art.

I was never taught philosophy as a subject in school. Sure there was "moral education", "civics", "religious education", and the "classics". But it never really tackled the major philosophers or philosophies. It is something that I wished was included in my school education. Only much later did I start to teach myself about philosophy. Nothing fancy, just reading simplified basic books.

Cristina Odone wrote in the Observer of 29 August 2004, that she too regretted having missed out on philosophy at school. Indeed she recommends that it should be added to the British National Curriculum. However, she did concede that teaching philosophy at the age of, say, 12 years old, was perhaps a shade too young.

She wrote: "Like sex, philosophy sampled too early risks becoming mechanical, overladen with truth-stretching anecdotes and ultimately disappointing .... We shouldn't be exposed to philosophy too early. It is too heady a mixture, too bewitching a proposition for a schoolchild to deal with."

So when’s the optimum age for introducing philosophy? High school? Junior College? University?

Until our educational system individualises what is taught to suit the mental age of each student, it is probably too difficult to specify any single chronological age. While it would be nice to have philosophy as a school subject, to be realistic, I doubt many can really understand the ramifications of the subject until they reach university age. Is there any point rote-learning Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" without understanding what it means?

Acting on instinct without any supporting evidence, I would nevertheless cast my vote in favour of the teaching of philosophy in schools. If pressed, I would confess that I have no supporting data to defend my stance. Just a gut instinct. Maybe philosophy can help us to think, maybe it will force us to examine fundamental issues about life and death, maybe it can give us some insights into the purpose of life? At this point my mind's a blur.

When I learnt Shakespeare, I did not understand much of what he wrote, at least not initially. I just memorised the lines. The words gradually sunk into my subconscious, and over time, I experienced many Eureka moments as the meanings suddenly became clear.

It is the same with philosophy. True, many might not appreciate it at first, but the significance will become apparent later on. I would advocate the introduction of philosophy to teenagers, even if it is like casting pearls before swine. Allow me to borrow a line from Shakespeare: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."