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Approximately 28,000 students in 290 of Ontario’s public schools are taking one or both of the philosophy courses on the Ontario curriculum: Theories and Questions, Grade 12, and The Big Questions, Grade 11.

Inquiring Minds

Andrew Wilson asks, Is philosophical inquiry really important?

During the teenage years, three factors combine to create an appetite for philosophical inquiry.

First, teenagers seek to define themselves for themselves. They question adult notions of how things are and entertain possibilities of how things might be.

Second, as teenagers move from the protective shell of childhood, they gain greater awareness of an often chaotic and violent world. This can motivate questions about their place in it.

Third, according to developmental theorists such as Piaget, teenagers undergo a significant change in their mental capacity for abstract thought, and their ability to critically examine and weigh alternative points of view is heightened. This maturational development, combined with a sense of the contingency of the world and one’s self, creates a desire for meaningful and philosophically inclined exploration.

A school system can ignore this educational opportunity or it can bring profound questions and young minds together.

One’s self in the world

According to one account, the ancient Greek philosopher Thales was so intent on gazing at the stars that he fell into a well. The story speaks to the stereotype that philosophers, preoccupied with lofty abstractions, are not attentive to the world around them. This, however, is far from the reality that Ontario’s philosophy students encounter.

Many worldly issues require notions of right and wrong, duties or responsibilities, free will and personhood. Should severe pain be inflicted on animals for medical advancement? Should gay couples be allowed to marry and adopt children? Is terrorism ever justified? Is there a just cause for going to war? A United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) document, published in November, 2004, states:

"By developing the intellectual tools to analyze and understand the key concepts such as justice, dignity and freedom, building capacities for independent thought and judgment, enhancing the critical skills to question the world and its challenges, and fostering reflection on values and principles, philosophy is a “school of freedom.”

The document claims that key concepts and critical skills help provide the mental equipment to challenge narrow nationalism and the rule of brute force. UNESCO advocates that philosophical inquiry foster respect and humanism, qualities essential to world peace. This speaks to one of the challenges in teaching philosophy: How to prompt young people to engage actively and thoughtfully in their world – no matter how chaotic or meaningless it may appear.

Philosophy is a school of freedom, according to 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation … without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason.

In loosening the shackles of prejudice, philosophy encourages young people to question taken-for-granted beliefs, to appreciate other points of view, to examine critically various responses to issues and to consent to those supported by sound reasoning. In studying philosophy they can recognize that making sense of the world is a universal and ongoing human endeavour.

As young people participate in the quest for sense-making, philosophy can awaken them to new and momentous ways of seeing the world and can validate their struggle to find meaning.

Profound questions and young minds are a powerful mix!

Andrew Wilson is a co-founder of the Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association (OPTA) and co-ordinator of the Aristotle essay-writing contest. He teaches philosophy and mathematics at the University of Toronto Schools.

Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association

OPTA is a volunteer organization of teachers and university professors. The group hosts conferences and assists teachers in implementing the Ontario curriculum. Its web site has a question-and-answer section called Ask-a-Professor, where philosophical or pedagogical questions will be answered by one of 15 experts from several Ontario universities. OPTA and the University of Toronto launch a national philosophy essay-writing contest, the Aristotle, this month.

For details on conferences, Ask-a-Professor or the essay contest, visit or e-mail



Three key texts, authored by high school teachers and university professors, are used in Ontario classrooms.

Grade 11

Frank Cunningham, Daniel Lalonde, David Neelin and Kenneth Peglar, Philosophy: The Big Questions, ISBN 1-55130-230-6, Canadian Scholars’ Press

Grade 12

Laura Gini-Newman and Paul Paquette, Philosophy 12: Questions and Theories, ISBN 007-091386-2, McGraw-Hill Ryerson

Wayne Sproule, Philosophy in Action, ISBN 1-55041-109-8, Fitzhenry & Whiteside