April 09, 2017
Teaching Philosophy in a Public High School
First off let me say that I have been a longtime supporter and reader of your work. I have been encouraged and strengthened to give a reason for the hope within by listening to and reading your books, articles, debates, classes, and lectures. Thank you for all you do!
Now, let me build to my question with a brief overview. I am a public school teacher and a youth minister at my church and love doing both. With my youth group I spend a tremendous amount of time inculcating the necessity for loving God with the whole being – heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I really want to ground my students the reality of their Faith – that it is more than feeling but is testable, rational and livable! I also teach them apologetics (I am presently going through the NT’s reliability, Jesus’ resurrection...ect.) and Christian doctrine (of which your Defender’s classes have been a huge asset! *PS – Please make a Christian theology book one day when you get the time!!).
At the same time I am a social studies public school teacher (I teach 9th grade World History and 10th grade U.S. History I). I try and bring passion and critical thinking to my students and even get opportunities during “down times” or lunch or extra-curricular events to talk with students who inevitably have questions or want to discuss apologetic/doctrinal related issues (primarily this happens when I start teaching world religions). I cannot tell you how many times issues concerning God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the Christian worldview have come up. There truly are many students desperately searching for answers. I pray every day (literally) that if it is God’s will for me to have a “God appointment” with a student He will give me wisdom and discernment to bring forth the intellectual, spiritual and moral truths that may open their eyes to His Truth. It is a fine balance working a secular system to try and open young people’s minds. Again, your work has been invaluable in helping me to be systematic in reaching young people who have deep questions.
That all said, there has been a tremendous upsurge of students who like talking about such topics. In fact many of them have started promoting a philosophy geared course or club at the school. They really want me to teach it and in fact I have been mulling this over for a few years now. But here is my question, or should I say set of questions or concerns: How could I best go about such a class as a Christian who would be teaching philosophy in a secular setting? In short, when I go about discussing say the existence of God (or morality, truth...ect) how do I teach it without being so one-sided (because the theist answers ARE much more reasonable than their alternatives! *say Anselm or Aquinas*) but at the same time not elevate the opposing perspectives *say Hume or Kant* (which could in effect shake young fragile believers or push skeptical students further down the path of unbelief)? I just cannot come up with a solution save with perhaps teaching philosophy in an historical way rather than a thematic or topical way. But again, part of such a class is to challenge thinking… when ideas are presented they should be countered, mulled over and discussed…. But I do not want to be responsible in any way for creating greater skeptics. Do you have any advice on how to go about such a class? Would you know of any soft or moderate level philosophy textbooks that would be balanced rather than overtly skeptical or atheistic? I pray these questions aren't confusing or too general.....
Thank you for your response and God bless!
What an inspiring report, M! How desperately we need public school teachers like you! What I find especially encouraging is the interest you experience among the high schoolers in deep questions pertinent to Christian faith. That flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that high school students are apathetic about such matters.
I strongly advise you to teach the course topically, rather than historically. After all, it is the topics that they are interested in! The historical approach (which is the way I was taught) is bound to kill interest and promote scepticism (every generation seems to be refuted by the succeeding generation, in the students’ eyes, so where is truth to be found?). Rather use an approach like the book Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy, by Ed Miller and Jon Jensen (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).
You can counteract anti-theistic influences in some of the readings by interacting with the material in your lectures (e.g., “Yes, Kant rejected the ontological argument because existence, he claimed, is not a property; but contemporary defenders of the argument like Alvin Plantinga have formulated the argument without that assumption.”). In fact, your students’ convictions and confidence in you as a teacher will be stronger precisely because you exposed them to opposing views and engaged with them.
You can avoid bias by also criticizing the views of theistic authors where appropriate (e.g., “Aquinas’ first two ways of proving God’s existence depend upon an outdated cosmology.”). Again, so doing will increase your students’ trust in you as a teacher.
Since I don’t teach Intro to Philosophy classes, I’m not in a position to make any textbook recommendations. So I asked several of my colleagues, who suggested texts such as the following:
1. Tom Morris, Philosophy for Dummies
2. William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy
3. Louis Pojman, Philosophy: The Love of Wisdom, 5th ed.
I’m sure you’ll have a sensational class!