By Michael P. McKeating, J.D.
Chesterton Academy of Buffalo
At Chesterton Academy of Buffalo, we require all students to take four years of philosophy. One of the questions I am often asked is: “Why teach philosophy in high school?” There are many reasons, but I like to emphasize four.
1. First and foremost, philosophy teaches one to think. If this sounds fundamental, that’s because it is.
The ability to think—really think—is a scarce commodity today. Today, everyone has an opinion about everything. But few can explain or defend their opinion. If you ask someone where they got that opinion, they may look at you like you just landed from Mars. If they are able to answer at all, more often than not they will begin the answer with: “Well I feel that…” Immediately you are in the realm of emotion, and outside the realm of reason.
The study of philosophy teaches the student to think rationally, starting with observations and propositions and arriving at conclusions following the rules of logic. It teaches one to analyze arguments and to expose logical fallacies.
2. Second, philosophy asks and proposes answers to the fundamental questions of life.
These were succinctly summarized by St. John Paul II in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio:
Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?
The study of philosophy asks, analyzes and proposes answers to these questions. This is essential to any education because, as John Paul II points out, all humans seek answers to these questions in order to give direction to their life.
3. Third, philosophy seeks truth—or at least it always did until recently.
Since World War II, there has risen a branch of modern philosophy called Postmodernism, which holds that there is no such thing as truth. Truth, along with goodness and beauty, are regarded by classical philosophers as the ultimate desires of all men. Aristotle, at the beginning of Metaphysics, said, “All men by nature seek to know.” To know what: truth. Even those who claim not to believe in truth will immediately object to a false proposition, “But that is not true!”
4. Fourth, studying philosophy builds virtue.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as a habitual and firm disposition to do the good (CCC, #1803). St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Catechetical Fathers of the Church, said, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (ibid.).
Plato and Aristotle wrote extensively about virtues and the virtuous life 350 years before the birth of Christ. This is one of the reasons that many theologians consider them to be precursors of the Gospel. The ideas and principles that they formulated about virtue are as applicable today as they were in the fourth century B.C. In philosophy, students can acquaint themselves with and discourse on these timeless writings, applying their understanding of virtue to real life.
As long as rational thinking, understanding the purpose of life, truth-seeking, and virtue-building are important to learn in high school, we also consider it important to teach philosophy in high school.
At Chesterton Academy, freshmen learn from the “Pre-Socratics,” the Greek philosophers who lived before Socrates. To sophomores, we teach Plato and Aristotle, the fathers of Western philosophy, who were viewed by the Church Fathers as precursors of the Gospel. Junior year, we teach St. Thomas Aquinas and early modern philosophy. Senior year, we teach Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Adam Smith, Marx, Chesterton and Belloc.
Click here to learn more about our classical curriculum.