The relationship between education and philosophy has changed dramatically between ancient and contemporary eras. In ancient times, educated citizens were encouraged to practice philosophy. Today, excessive focus on specialization marginalizes philosophy into a specialized discipline significantly decreasing students’ development of philosophical capacities across curricula. Yet, developing philosophical capacities occurs beyond specialization. In this paper, I critique contemporary American higher education through a comparison of ancient Socratic and Confucian education by analyzing how philosophy’s role has changed and demonstrating why implementing philosophical development across curriculums in American higher education is practical, despite tensions between both traditional vs. progressive values and the development of technical skills for job placement vs. philosophical capacities.
Currently in American public higher education, philosophy and other disciplines within the humanities are classified as having less job-market value and are therefore treated as less practical mainly because of the highly specialized and market-driven education system. Yet disciplines with higher market values such as the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and other professional programs lack sufficient focus on developing and exercising philosophical capacities in their learning objectives, which require deliberate efforts beyond what specialized expertise or technical education offers alone. Philosophical capacities include analytical analysis, logical reasoning, decision making, identifying assumptions underlying methods and beliefs, sympathetic understanding, and adroit perspective shifting. The two primary conflicts that I investigate that contribute to philosophy’s devaluation in education include traditional vs. progressive values and developing practical skills for job placement vs. philosophical development (self-development). These two conflicts are perennial conflicts that have persisted throughout the ancient eras and continue to contribute to philosophy’s present state of isolation, distorting the social conception of philosophy and misrepresenting the nature and function of philosophy’s role in society and within education.
In recognizing the shift in philosophy’s role between ancient and contemporary times, I compare ancient Socratic and ancient Confucian educational approaches. In the comparison of these two ancient approaches, I demonstrate that the two conflicts that currently contribute to philosophy’s marginalization and devaluation were present in ancient times also. The purpose of showing that the two conflicts existed in the two ancient cultures is to demonstrate that historically, philosophical pedagogy had become a foundational component of educational approaches despite the presence of these two conflicts, while cultural traditions and practical skills remained generally intact. Furthermore, because the two conflicts existed in the two ancient cultures, I emphasize that the two conflicts that contribute to philosophy’s present state in academia are unjustifiable explanations for philosophy’s present state of marginalization; Both Socratic and Confucian approaches valued and implemented philosophical development within their education. Seeing that the ancient Confucian approach is relatively more traditional AND skill oriented in comparison to the ancient Socratic approach demonstrates that philosophy itself is not polarized one way or another, since both valued philosophical development and implemented it within their developmental practices.
The primary purpose of the comparison suggests that philosophy, as an activity or practice, can become integrated as a foundational component of American public higher education. By implementing philosophy into the foundations of American public higher education, students across all disciplines can encounter adequate philosophical development within their specialized fields, which can help us mediate the enduring value conflicts, rather than clinging to one extreme over the other.