Are we neglecting education? Philosophy in schools as a longtermist area


In this post I con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that the Effec­tive Altru­ism (EA) move­ment has over­looked the po­ten­tial of us­ing pre-uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion as a tool to pro­mote pos­i­tive val­ues and grow the EA move­ment. Speci­fi­cally, I fo­cus on eval­u­at­ing the po­ten­tial of pro­mot­ing the teach­ing of philos­o­phy in schools.

I re­view em­piri­cal ev­i­dence and ar­gue that teach­ing philos­o­phy can:

  1. Pro­mote pos­i­tive val­ues, in­clud­ing al­tru­ism and con­cern for sen­tient beings

  2. Grow the EA move­ment by:

    • In­tro­duc­ing cer­tain EA ideas directly

    • Im­prov­ing philo­soph­i­cal rea­son­ing abil­ities such that peo­ple will be more open to EA ar­gu­ments if they come across them. Due to this, I sug­gest that the teach­ing of philos­o­phy to chil­dren and teenagers, com­bined with ex­plicit EA out­reach to young adults, may be an effec­tive way to grow the EA movement

Due to these effects, I ar­gue that pro­mot­ing philos­o­phy in schools is a cred­ible EA in­ter­ven­tion from var­i­ous points of view, in­clud­ing a longter­mist one. Pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues should help with a wide range of is­sues in­clud­ing those that have not come up yet, and may be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in light of risks of value lock-in in the fu­ture. Grow­ing the EA move­ment is likely to be highly de­sir­able whether or not one has longter­mist lean­ings.

My ne­glect­ed­ness and tractabil­ity analy­ses fo­cus on the UK. I ar­gue that the fairly small, but not neg­ligible, amount of at­ten­tion given to the teach­ing of philos­o­phy in schools pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for im­pact­ful in­volve­ment from EAs in two main ways:

  1. Promi­nent philos­o­phy aca­demics in the EA move­ment could join ex­ist­ing ad­vo­cacy efforts to raise the pro­file of philos­o­phy in schools, with an ul­ti­mate goal of in­clud­ing philos­o­phy in the na­tional cur­ricu­lum. This could be highly im­pact­ful if achieved, es­pe­cially if in­volve­ment from EAs can lead to a greater fo­cus on ethics and the in­clu­sion of cer­tain EA ideas

  2. EAs could be­come philos­o­phy teach­ers, say at A-level, and boost the Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren move­ment and/​or help spread an in­ter­est­ing pre-GCSE philos­o­phy course that has re­cently been made available to schools in the UK and el­se­where. Greater adop­tion of this course would be benefi­cial in its own right, but could also help with a long-run goal of hav­ing philos­o­phy in­cluded in the na­tional cur­ricu­lum. I ar­gue that this teach­ing route may be one of the most im­pact­ful available for philos­o­phy grad­u­ates if, af­ter some time in teach­ing, they plan to pro­mote the teach­ing of philos­o­phy through more in­fluen­tial roles such as cur­ricu­lum-setting

I also briefly touch on some other routes, in­clud­ing in­fluenc­ing cur­rent philan­thropic spend­ing in ed­u­ca­tion to fo­cus more on a philo­soph­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. I finish by dis­cussing why ex­ist­ing crit­i­cism of ed­u­ca­tion in EA cir­cles may not ap­ply to teach­ing philos­o­phy.

Epistemic sta­tus: Fairly spec­u­la­tive. This is my first long post on the EA fo­rum, so I wel­come feed­back on con­tent and style. I have never worked in ed­u­ca­tion so am far from an ex­pert and would wel­come feed­back from peo­ple who know more about ed­u­ca­tion than I do. I am not aware of philos­o­phy in schools be­ing dis­cussed much in EA cir­cles so I hope this stim­u­lates some dis­cus­sion (al­though I am aware of efforts such as SHIC which I dis­cuss in the post).

Ac­knowl­edge­ments: Many thanks to Matt Slomka for some very helpful com­ments.


There is con­sis­tently pos­i­tive ev­i­dence on the benefits of teach­ing philos­o­phy to children

The for­mal teach­ing of philos­o­phy to chil­dren stretches back to at least the 1970s when the philoso­pher and ed­u­ca­tor Matthew Lip­man, con­cerned with the rea­son­ing abil­ities of the stu­dents he taught at Columbia Univer­sity, founded the Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren (P4C) move­ment with the goal to ‘im­prove chil­dren’s rea­son­ing abil­ities and judge­ment by hav­ing them think­ing about think­ing as they dis­cuss con­cepts of im­por­tance to them’ (Lip­man, 1991). Lip­man wrote ‘nov­els’ in which the young char­ac­ters in­quired about ques­tions that mat­tered to them, stim­u­lat­ing dis­cus­sion be­tween teach­ers and pupils and fos­ter­ing ‘a com­mu­nity of in­quiry’. P4C ma­te­ri­als have evolved over the years, but in gen­eral P4C in­volves pupils (from age 6 through 16) and their teacher shar­ing a short story, pic­ture, poem, ob­ject, or some other stim­u­lus. The chil­dren then take time to think of their own ques­tions which are then dis­cussed briefly be­fore one is se­lected for more ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sion. The prac­tice of P4C has spread across the world how­ever, with­out be­ing part of the for­mal cur­ricu­lum, it re­mains some­thing that re­lies on highly-mo­ti­vated prac­ti­tion­ers. Teach­ers are un­der mul­ti­ple pres­sures and it is easy for P4C to “fall by the wayside” (Willi­ams 2018).

De­spite this, sys­tem­atic re­views of con­trol­led stud­ies eval­u­at­ing the effects of P4C have un­cov­ered con­sis­tently pos­i­tive effect sizes across a range of out­comes. Trickey and Top­ping (2004) re­view 10 stud­ies that pass cer­tain in­clu­sion crite­ria, find­ing ‘mod­er­ate’ effects that are ‘cer­tainly of ed­u­ca­tional sig­nifi­cance’ across a range of out­comes, em­pha­sis­ing the low var­i­ance of effect sizes. The out­comes with sig­nifi­cant effect sizes in­cluded, but were not limited to, log­i­cal rea­son­ing, read­ing abil­ity, in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, cre­ative think­ing, ex­am­i­na­tion of as­sump­tions and al­ter­na­tive ideas, con­fi­dence, per­sis­tence, maths abil­ity and self-es­teem.

Gar­cia-Moriyon, Robollo and Colom (2005) iden­ti­fied 18 stud­ies of the im­pact of P4C on rea­son­ing skills, con­clud­ing that ‘chil­dren do im­prove their cog­ni­tive skills through this method­ol­ogy’ and not­ing that their stud­ies tended to take place for one school year, whereas Lip­man de­signed P4C to take place across sev­eral years, there­fore spec­u­lat­ing that gains would be greater with longer ex­po­sure to philo­soph­i­cal in­quiry.

After their re­view study, Trickey and Top­ping de­cided to con­duct their own longer-term re­search stretch­ing over 16 months in Clack­man­nan­shire, Scot­land, find­ing a ‘sub­stan­tial gain’ in rea­son­ing abil­ity of a greater mag­ni­tude than the pre­vi­ous stud­ies. Per­haps most in­ter­est­ingly, their study tested long-term effects by test­ing treat­ment and con­trol groups two years later, af­ter par­ti­ci­pants had trans­ferred to sec­ondary (high) school with­out ex­pe­rienc­ing fur­ther philo­soph­i­cal in­quiry in the in­terim. The sig­nifi­cant pre-post cog­ni­tive abil­ity gains in the ex­per­i­men­tal group in pri­mary school were main­tained, whilst the con­trol group showed an in­signifi­cant but per­sis­tent de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in scores from pre- to post-test to fol­low-up. The au­thors state that the study pro­vides ev­i­dence of main­tained cog­ni­tive gains be­yond the ini­tial in­ter­ven­tion.

Whilst re­search has fo­cused pre­dom­i­nantly on cog­ni­tive abil­ities, there ex­ists a smaller body of ev­i­dence that in­di­cates P4C can con­tribute to moral de­vel­op­ment. Sch­leifer et. al (2003) find that P4C im­proved chil­dren along four im­por­tant moral di­men­sions: au­ton­omy, judg­ment, em­pa­thy, and recog­ni­tion of emo­tions. Rus­sell (2002) ex­plores a method of philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tion very similar to P4C, ver­ify­ing a qual­i­ta­tive im­prove­ment in moral con­science and a deep­en­ing abil­ity to re­cip­ro­cate when en­gaged in dis­cus­sion with oth­ers. (Note—I am un­able to ac­cess Sch­leifer (2003) or Rus­sell (2002) to gather more de­tail on these stud­ies). It is sur­pris­ing that there is com­par­a­tively lit­tle re­search on moral growth, but in­ter­est in this area may be in­creas­ing. Gar­cia-Moriyon et. al (2020) out­line a re­search method­ol­ogy that in­ves­ti­gates the im­pact of P4C on var­i­ous af­fec­tive traits in­clud­ing open mind­ed­ness, flex­i­bil­ity, re­spect­ing oth­ers and their rights, self-feel­ing, agree­able­ness, co­op­er­a­tion, as­sertive­ness, tol­er­ance to the un­con­ven­tional, re­flex­ivity ver­sus im­pul­sivity, and achieve­ment mo­ti­va­tion.

Over­all it seems clear that chil­dren benefit from the teach­ing of philos­o­phy, with the strongest ev­i­dence so far in the area of rea­son­ing abil­ity. It is worth em­pha­sis­ing the point made by Gar­cia-Moriyon et. al (2005) that these stud­ies have un­cov­ered these pos­i­tive effects from in­ter­ven­tions that, at longest, lasted 16 months. It seems likely that if chil­dren and teenagers were taught philos­o­phy as a core sub­ject at all ages that such effects would be sig­nifi­cantly greater and, given the ev­i­dence for long-term effects, could per­sist well into adult­hood.

Re­search into the effects of P4C con­tinues with stud­ies on out­comes such as imag­i­na­tive cre­ativity, em­pa­thy, re­silience to var­i­ous forms of in­doc­tri­na­tion, widen­ing ac­cess to cul­tural cap­i­tal, moral growth, and civic em­pow­er­ment.

Teach­ing philos­o­phy could im­prove val­ues and grow the EA movement

Given the ev­i­dence that I have out­lined, I pro­pose that teach­ing philos­o­phy could be of in­ter­est to EAs in two ways:

  1. Pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues, in­clud­ing al­tru­ism and con­cern for sen­tient beings

  2. Grow­ing the EA move­ment by:

    • In­tro­duc­ing cer­tain EA ideas directly

    • Im­prov­ing philo­soph­i­cal rea­son­ing abil­ities such that peo­ple will be more open to EA ar­gu­ments if they come across them. Due to this, I sug­gest that the teach­ing of philos­o­phy to chil­dren and teenagers, com­bined with ex­plicit EA out­reach to young adults, may be an effec­tive way to grow the EA movement

The small body of re­search into the effects of P4C on moral de­vel­op­ment, out­lined in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, in­di­cates im­prove­ments in em­pa­thy and moral con­science. The work of Daniel Bat­son (1991) on the em­pa­thy-al­tru­ism hy­poth­e­sis in­di­cates that in­creased em­pa­thy can evoke al­tru­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion to help oth­ers. There­fore it seems plau­si­ble that more wide­spread philo­soph­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion could lead to more al­tru­is­tic so­cieties.

In ad­di­tion, the ev­i­dence out­lined in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion around im­prove­ments in the ex­am­i­na­tion of as­sump­tions and al­ter­na­tive ideas, and log­i­cal rea­son­ing, sug­gests po­ten­tial for ex­plicit dis­cus­sion around the moral sta­tus of sen­tient be­ings in philos­o­phy class at a suit­able age. Un­for­tu­nately there is no di­rect ev­i­dence of the im­pact of P4C on em­pa­thy to­wards be­ings out­side of a core moral cir­cle, such as non-hu­man an­i­mals and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. How­ever, it seems plau­si­ble that ex­plicit dis­cus­sion of the moral worth of these be­ings could re­sult in in­creased in em­pa­thy to­wards them, given the in­creased em­pa­thy that has been ob­served to­wards hu­mans due to philo­soph­i­cal learn­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, there is re­cent ev­i­dence that teach­ing the ethics of eat­ing meat can re­duce de­mand for meat prod­ucts, how­ever this was speci­fi­cally for uni­ver­sity stu­dents (see Sch­witzgebel et. al (2020)). Re­search into ex­pand­ing the moral cir­cles of younger stu­dents through teach­ing ethics could be of high value.

(EDIT 31/​07/​20: As pointed out by MichaelStJules in the com­ments sec­tion there is a re­cent study (Bryant, Dillard (2020)) that demon­strates that ed­u­cat­ing mid­dle and high school­ers in USA about the con­se­quences of eat­ing meat can lead to diet change. Those cit­ing an­i­mal welfare as their main mo­ti­va­tion were most likely to change their diets).

As well as im­prov­ing val­ues at younger ages, the ev­i­dence from the pre­vi­ous sec­tion im­plies that the teach­ing of philos­o­phy could train peo­ple’s minds such that they be­come more ac­cept­ing of EA ideas when they come across them. Firstly, the ev­i­dence cited in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion around the long-term effects of learn­ing philos­o­phy im­plies that re­cip­i­ents of a core philo­soph­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion will have greater philo­soph­i­cal rea­son­ing abil­ities at older ages, say at un­der­grad­u­ate study. The rele­vant abil­ities from the pre­vi­ous sec­tion that are de­vel­oped through philo­soph­i­cal study in­clude the ex­am­i­na­tion of as­sump­tions and al­ter­na­tive ideas, and log­i­cal rea­son­ing. It seems highly plau­si­ble that adults, both young and old, with greater abil­ities in these skills will be more ac­cept­ing of some of the more difficult or con­tro­ver­sial EA ideas. For ex­am­ple, two ideas that re­quire some open-mind­ed­ness and log­i­cal rea­son­ing abil­ity to take se­ri­ously in­clude: the long-ter­mist claim that the pri­mary de­ter­mi­nant of the value of our ac­tions to­day is how those ac­tions in­fluence the very long-run fu­ture, and the idea that speciesism could be a form of dis­crim­i­na­tion com­pa­rable to racism and sex­ism. If in­deed a philo­soph­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion can in­crease the like­li­hood of peo­ple warm­ing to or en­gag­ing with such EA ideas when they come across them, it im­plies that the teach­ing of philos­o­phy to chil­dren and teenagers as part of their core ed­u­ca­tion could be par­tic­u­larly effec­tive in grow­ing the EA move­ment when com­bined with ex­plicit EA out­reach to young adults.

Fi­nally, as briefly touched on, it seems rea­son­able that some EA ideas could be in­tro­duced di­rectly into philos­o­phy cur­ricula at suit­able ages, which may also in­crease the like­li­hood of peo­ple tak­ing an in­ter­est in EA more broadly later on. Ideas such as con­cern for non-hu­man an­i­mals, helping the global poor, and obli­ga­tions to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions seem pen­e­tra­ble by chil­dren who are near­ing teenage­hood or ear­lier, if some of the anec­dotes from the Stan­ford En­cy­clo­pe­dia ar­ti­cle on Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren are ac­cu­rate. Th­ese ar­eas also seem to me to be pretty nat­u­ral eth­i­cal ques­tions that could be in­cluded in a school philos­o­phy cur­ricu­lum. In­deed the UK’s School Cer­tifi­cate in Philos­o­phy, which I dis­cuss in more de­tail in my ne­glect­ed­ness and tractabil­ity sec­tions, in­cluded the fol­low­ing EA-rele­vant dis­cus­sion ques­tions with­out ex­plicit in­volve­ment from an EA to in­clude them: “Should we ex­per­i­ment on an­i­mals?”, “Do an­i­mals think?”, “Can ma­chines think?”, and “Is it more im­por­tant to be good than to be happy?”. I see no rea­son why ques­tions around obli­ga­tions to the global poor or fu­ture gen­er­a­tions can’t also be in­cluded in core philos­o­phy cur­ricula.

More philos­o­phy in schools is im­pact­ful from a long-ter­mist point of view

Pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues should help with a wide range of is­sues in­clud­ing those that have not come up yet. Also, it is vir­tu­ally self-ev­i­dent that grow­ing the EA move­ment is de­sir­able from a per­spec­tive of do­ing the most good. How­ever, in this sec­tion I want to out­line why more philos­o­phy in schools may be a wor­thy pri­or­ity speci­fi­cally from a long-ter­mist point of view, via the key mechanisms I pro­pose of im­prov­ing val­ues and grow­ing the EA move­ment.

Firstly, as out­lined on the 80,000 Hours web­site, pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues such as al­tru­ism and con­cern for other sen­tient be­ings could be im­por­tant from a long-ter­mist point of view in light of risks that val­ues held by so­ciety could get ‘locked in’ for a long time, for ex­am­ple in con­sti­tu­tions or at the dawn of a su­per­in­tel­li­gent AI. If such a value lock-in sce­nario oc­curs in the fu­ture, it is best to have ‘im­proved’ val­ues as much as pos­si­ble be­fore this point. It would be im­por­tant to start as soon as pos­si­ble, as ‘val­ues-build­ing’ is some­thing that can con­tinue for a very long time. In­deed val­ues-build­ing would only be ‘finished’ if we had figured out the ‘perfect’ val­ues and suc­cess­fully em­bed­ded them into all in­fluen­tial in­sti­tu­tions and peo­ple. There­fore if we find the con­cept of ‘value lock-in’ a cred­ible one, this mo­ti­vates pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues as an im­por­tant en­deav­our to be­gin now. Will MacAskill in his fo­rum post on whether we are liv­ing at the most in­fluen­tial time in his­tory, gives some pos­si­ble fu­ture pe­ri­ods that could be the most in­fluen­tial ever, most of which are in­fluen­tial due to the prospect of value lock-in. In­deed it is partly for the rea­son of value lock-in that 80,000 Hours lists ‘broadly pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues’ as a ‘po­ten­tial high­est pri­or­ity’ is­sue that they find to be promis­ing, but haven’t in­ves­ti­gated enough yet to be con­fi­dent.

One may counter the im­por­tance of pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive val­ues now by ar­gu­ing that we are cur­rently liv­ing at the most in­fluen­tial time in his­tory as we are at a unique ‘time of per­ils’ where we have the tech­nolog­i­cal power to de­stroy our­selves but lack the wis­dom to be able to en­sure we don’t. In such a case we should be spend­ing re­sources now on near-term ex­is­ten­tial risk miti­ga­tion, rather than on slower ‘buck-pass­ing’ strate­gies that en­able de­ci­sion-mak­ers to be as effec­tive as pos­si­ble in the fu­ture. I think that the ‘time of per­ils view’ is a cred­ible one, but note that, given the cur­rent heavy fo­cus in the EA com­mu­nity on di­rect ac­tions to re­duce ex­is­ten­tial risk, it seems rea­son­able that we should put a greater share of re­sources into ‘buck-pass­ing’ strate­gies than we cur­rently do. In ad­di­tion, as re­cently ar­gued by Will MacAskill, it is pos­si­ble, given the ob­ser­va­tion that civil­i­sa­tions have re­cov­ered in the past and the im­mense de­sire for hu­mans to avoid ex­tinc­tion, that we have over­es­ti­mated the pos­si­bil­ity of com­plete and per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion or civil­i­sa­tional col­lapse. This, if true, may im­ply a shift to­wards some­what broader at­tempts to in­fluence the long-run fu­ture.

On a slightly differ­ent note, it is worth con­sid­er­ing Greaves (2016) which in­tro­duces the idea that we may cur­rently be ‘clue­less’ about what we should do to make the world bet­ter given that com­mon in­ter­ven­tions, per­haps par­tic­u­larly those in global health, have a large num­ber of effects that we can’t rea­son­ably ig­nore, but that we have no real way of ag­gre­gat­ing. If clue­less, it is rea­son­able to sug­gest that we should spend more re­sources try­ing to get out of such a clue­less state. This may be achieved by pro­mot­ing philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tion and grow­ing the EA move­ment. It is also in­ter­est­ing to note that my sug­ges­tion of pro­mot­ing philos­o­phy in schools al­igns with a re­cent post on the EA Fo­rum that ar­gued that in­creas­ing the benev­olence and in­tel­li­gence of ac­tors can be benefi­cial from a longter­mist point of view. Given the ev­i­dence I out­lined ear­lier, philos­o­phy in schools should ac­com­plish both.


Pro­mot­ing philos­o­phy in schools is fairly ne­glected in UK

The UK na­tional cur­ricu­lum cur­rently con­tains cit­i­zen­ship ed­u­ca­tion which is taught from 11-16 and re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion which is taught from 5-16. Philos­o­phy is not part of the cur­ricu­lum, how­ever there is a philos­o­phy A-level taught from age 16-18 that is op­tional.

There are some efforts to pro­mote the teach­ing of philos­o­phy in schools both from a cur­ricu­lum and non-cur­ricu­lum fo­cus. The fol­low­ing are the main efforts in the UK to pro­mote philos­o­phy in schools, which I be­came aware of from ma­te­ri­als from the 2019 Philos­o­phy in Schools: En­riched Cur­ricu­lum, En­riched Lives con­fer­ence.

  • SAPERE (The So­ciety for the Ad­vance­ment of Philo­soph­i­cal En­quiry and Reflec­tion in Ed­u­ca­tion) pro­motes the P4C move­ment through­out the UK through train­ing, con­fer­ences and aca­demic re­search pro­jects. Their to­tal in­come in 2019 was £762,773

  • The Philos­o­phy Foun­da­tion does philos­o­phy ses­sions and work­shops in schools, com­mu­ni­ties and work­places

  • The NCH School Cer­tifi­cate in Philos­o­phy Short Course is a philos­o­phy course that was de­vel­oped in 2019 as a part­ner­ship be­tween New Col­lege of the Hu­man­i­ties and Cran­leigh School. This course is cur­rently tar­geted to years 9-10 (ages 13-15), and is available to all schools both within the UK and internationally

The NCH School Cer­tifi­cate in Philos­o­phy Short Course was de­vel­oped af­ter an ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to con­vince the gov­ern­ment to al­low a philos­o­phy GCSE, led by philoso­pher AC Grayling.

Whilst I can­not claim that the teach­ing of philos­o­phy or efforts to in­cor­po­rate it into cur­ricula are en­tirely ne­glected, this may boost the po­ten­tial of fur­ther fo­cus in this area as there is ex­ist­ing work and re­search to build on. I go into more de­tail on how EAs can get in­volved in the next sec­tion.

In terms of large gift giv­ing (£1m+) in the UK in 2016, non-uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion was only £23m whilst re­li­gious giv­ing was £47m and higher ed­u­ca­tion a much larger £656m. Whilst I don’t know the break­down of this £23m, it seems highly likely that only a small frac­tion is re­lated to philo­soph­i­cal or val­ues-based ed­u­ca­tion. In the US, ed­u­ca­tional philan­thropic giv­ing is vast with Bill Gates spend­ing nearly $390m in 2017 and the Wal­tons more than $190m. This giv­ing fo­cuses on par­tic­u­lar K-12 poli­cies in­clud­ing in­creased ac­countabil­ity for teach­ers, more school choice, and higher-stakes test­ing, that are all quite con­tro­ver­sial. It seems clear to me that val­ues-based ed­u­ca­tion is not re­ally on the radar for ed­u­ca­tional philan­thropists at the mo­ment.


There are a num­ber of ways that EAs can build on ex­ist­ing progress in the UK

Ad­vo­cacy for philos­o­phy in the na­tional curriculum

Firstly, I think that promi­nent philos­o­phy aca­demics in the EA move­ment could join ex­ist­ing ad­vo­cacy efforts to raise the pro­file of philos­o­phy in schools, with an ul­ti­mate goal of the in­clu­sion of philos­o­phy in na­tional cur­ricula. Not only could this in­volve­ment from promi­nent EAs add more voices to the ad­vo­cacy, but it could also boost the sta­tus of ethics and in­crease the prob­a­bil­ity of the in­clu­sion of cer­tain EA ideas into a cur­ricu­lum. The ini­tial de­vel­op­ment of any cur­ricu­lum is im­por­tant as large de­vi­a­tions from this start­ing point are rare.

As men­tioned, there was a re­cent and ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to con­vince the gov­ern­ment to al­low a philos­o­phy GCSE, led by philoso­pher AC Grayling and with in­volve­ment from other promi­nent philoso­phers in­clud­ing Angie Hobbs, Si­mon Black­burn and Ju­lian Bag­gini. This pre­vi­ous at­tempt pro­vides a base that makes it easy for promi­nent EA philoso­phers to get in­volved. Clearly cur­ricu­lum change, like any in­sti­tu­tional change, is difficult and re­lies on buy-in from spe­cific gov­ern­ment ac­tors. How­ever, it is worth not­ing that there is some pos­i­tive at­ten­tion from promi­nent poli­ti­ci­ans such as David Willetts, a former minister of state for Univer­si­ties and Science who spoke at the 2019 Philos­o­phy in Schools: En­riched Cur­ricu­lum, En­riched Lives con­fer­ence. In ad­di­tion, changes in per­son­nel can lead to sud­den changes in policy, es­pe­cially if these changes oc­cur due to a change in gov­ern­ment. It may also be that the strength of the case for the in­clu­sion of philos­o­phy in cur­ricula is grow­ing given in­creas­ing dis­cus­sion around top­ics such as free speech, sys­temic racism and cli­mate change, which are some­what philo­soph­i­cal in na­ture.

Spread­ing philos­o­phy as a teacher

In re­sponse to the dis­ap­point­ment of the gov­ern­ment re­ject­ing the re­quest for philos­o­phy to be a GCSE, John Tay­lor from Cran­field School and AC Grayling cre­ated the NCH School Cer­tifi­cate in Philos­o­phy which, af­ter a pi­lot year, has already been rol­led out to around 20-30 schools in the UK for ages 13-15. Fol­low­ing a course of study dur­ing which philo­soph­i­cal ideas are in­tro­duced and de­bated, the School Cer­tifi­cate in Philos­o­phy in­vites stu­dents to en­gage in a per­son­ally-cho­sen philos­o­phy pro­ject which will typ­i­cally take around 20 hours of work and can be pro­duced in a va­ri­ety of forms (e.g. writ­ten re­port, pre­sen­ta­tion, art­work or video). This pro­ject-based learn­ing could cre­ate a good first im­pres­sion of philos­o­phy due to the hands-on ap­proach, rais­ing the prob­a­bil­ity of con­tinued study.

I pro­pose that philos­o­phy grad­u­ates in EA may find it im­pact­ful to be­come philos­o­phy teach­ers and spread this course, whilst also teach­ing philos­o­phy in an­other ca­pac­ity such as at A-level and/​or by sup­port­ing the P4C move­ment. It might be most benefi­cial to fo­cus on teach­ing at top schools, as this is where fu­ture lead­ers are most likely to come from. Ex­pan­sion of the School Cer­tifi­cate is good in it­self of course, but will only be tractable if there are teach­ers who are will­ing to teach it. Ul­ti­mately, large-scale adop­tion of this course would strongly boost a case for philos­o­phy as a GCSE, which in turn could boost a case for for­mal in­clu­sion of philos­o­phy into cur­ricula at other ages.

One rea­son why it might be highly im­pact­ful for philos­o­phy grad­u­ates to teach philos­o­phy is that they may, in many cases, not have a very high-im­pact al­ter­na­tive. Philos­o­phy grad­u­ates are not in a great po­si­tion to earn-to-give and the re­cent EA skills sur­vey noted that philoso­phers are not re­ally needed in the EA move­ment. Per­haps ed­u­ca­tion is a good route for many EA philoso­phers who ei­ther can’t or don’t want to pur­sue a route in global pri­ori­ties re­search. It is worth not­ing how­ever that non-philos­o­phy grad­u­ates can also teach the NCH course and sup­port the P4C move­ment.

As I de­tail in the next sec­tion, I think that pre­vi­ous crit­i­cism in the EA move­ment of teach­ing as a ca­reer route may not be that rele­vant to teach­ing philos­o­phy. In ad­di­tion, there may be var­i­ous benefits to hav­ing EA-al­igned teach­ers at schools who can, for ex­am­ple, spread EA ideas through an ex­plicit EA or philos­o­phy so­ciety and ad­vise stu­dents on high-im­pact fields of study and ca­reers. Teach­ers can, and prob­a­bly should, look to go into more in­fluen­tial roles in the long-run such as ed­u­ca­tional man­age­ment or policy roles from which they may be able to pro­mote philos­o­phy in schools more effec­tively.

In­fluenc­ing philan­thropists with in­ter­est in education

As men­tioned, many philan­thropists such as Bill Gates are in­ter­ested in ed­u­ca­tion but di­rect money to ed­u­ca­tional causes that are of­ten con­tro­ver­sial or are un­likely to be that im­pact­ful from a long-ter­mist point of view. The Bill & Melinda Gates foun­da­tion cur­rently fo­cuses on in­creas­ing ed­u­ca­tional ac­cess for black, Lat­ino, and low-in­come stu­dents. Whilst this is un­doubt­edly a good thing, from a long-ter­mist point of view it is un­likely to be as good as pro­mot­ing philo­soph­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

It may not be very tractable to shift philan­thropic spend­ing, but suc­cess in do­ing so could lead to very large benefits, mean­ing that such an ap­proach has high ex­pected value. In or­der to in­fluence philan­thropists, peo­ple could seek roles in grant-mak­ing or­gani­sa­tions that have an ex­ist­ing in­ter­est in ed­u­ca­tion, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates foun­da­tion, and make a case for a greater fo­cus on philos­o­phy in ed­u­ca­tion. Of course other philan­thropic or­gani­sa­tions such as the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject could also di­rect spend­ing to­wards philos­o­phy in ed­u­ca­tion, but at the mo­ment I am not con­fi­dent enough in the value of such spend­ing in com­par­i­son to ac­cepted EA al­ter­na­tives such as miti­gat­ing x-risks to en­dorse this as a goal (al­though my view on this could change).

Some other pos­si­ble routes

Some other promis­ing routes in­clude:

  • More re­search into the benefits of and op­ti­mal ways to teach philos­o­phy to chil­dren and teenagers

  • Go­ing into party poli­tics or policy-mak­ing to ei­ther be­come or in­fluence the key de­ci­sion-mak­ers who set ed­u­ca­tional curricula

  • Others that I haven’t thought of and may be clear to those who know more about ed­u­ca­tion than I do

Pre­vi­ous EA dis­cus­sion of ed­u­ca­tion may have over­looked the po­ten­tial of philosophy

I feel that ex­ist­ing dis­cus­sion of ed­u­ca­tion in EA cir­cles may have over­looked the po­ten­tial of pro­mot­ing philos­o­phy in schools.

80,000 Hours’ past crit­i­cism of ed­u­ca­tion may not ap­ply to teach­ing philosophy

In Jan­uary 2017, 80,000 Hours pub­lished a blog post en­ti­tled 5 rea­sons not to go into ed­u­ca­tion which fol­lowed on from a Teach­ing Ca­reer Re­view pub­lished July 2015.

Essen­tially the key points made are:

  1. Teach­ing in the high-in­come world will only help the rich­est peo­ple in the world

  2. Teach­ing is very pop­u­lar amongst the so­cially-mo­ti­vated so it’s difficult to make a differ­ence on the margin

  3. You can only im­pact a small num­ber of stu­dents at a time through teach­ing which may be less than other approaches

  4. Teach­ing is not a great path for build­ing ca­reer cap­i­tal com­pared to other routes

  5. Teach­ing salaries are low rel­a­tive to the skill and com­mit­ment required

  6. Not much is known on how to im­prove aca­demic perfor­mance or the benefits of do­ing so (so ap­plies to ed­u­ca­tion more broadly than just teach­ing)

I am not go­ing to claim that all of these points are weak or ir­rele­vant. How­ever, if we are fo­cus­ing on philos­o­phy ed­u­ca­tion as a means to im­prove val­ues and grow the EA move­ment, points 1 and 6 be­come moot. Ad­di­tion­ally, point 2 de­pends on the ne­glect­ed­ness of the spe­cific ap­proach which I have ar­gued in this case is pretty high. Point 5 is true when con­sid­er­ing state school­ing in the UK, but is less true when con­sid­er­ing top pri­vate schools where I think most of the benefit of a philos­o­phy ed­u­ca­tion can be re­al­ised, due to the fact that fu­ture lead­ers are more likely to come from these schools. Over­all I would ac­cept point 5 but don’t see it as par­tic­u­larly rele­vant to the ques­tion of do­ing good given that, de­spite low salaries, job satis­fac­tion in teach­ing is pretty high ac­cord­ing to the 80,000 Hours re­view.

Points 3 and 4 are prob­a­bly both fair, but spe­cific to teach­ing, and may not be as rele­vant to cer­tain ed­u­ca­tional work such as ad­vo­cacy and man­age­ment or cur­ricu­lum-set­ting po­si­tions which can be exit op­tions for teach­ers. I would sug­gest that any­one pur­su­ing the teach­ing route aims at these more in­fluen­tial op­tions in the long-run.

It is worth not­ing that 80,000 Hours in their teach­ing pro­file ac­tu­ally sug­gests that some­one who is set on teach­ing “work in a top-tier school, where one has the po­ten­tial to in­fluence the ca­pa­bil­ities and val­ues of your coun­try’s next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers in poli­tics, busi­ness and re­search, and so on”. Rather than be­ing a ‘best ap­proach in a low-im­pact area’ I think that in­fluenc­ing val­ues in a top school may be high-im­pact in its own right.

SHIC fo­cused on EA out­reach which proved ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful

The clos­est thing to what I am propos­ing that has been tried in the EA move­ment may be high-school EA out­reach. For ex­am­ple, Stu­dents for High Im­pact Char­ity (SHIC) was an or­gani­sa­tion that de­liv­ered ed­u­ca­tional work­shops for high school stu­dents (pri­mar­ily ages 16-18) through in­ter­ac­tive con­tent fo­cused on EA ideas. SHIC sus­pended op­er­a­tions in 2019 and a sub­se­quent post went into some rea­sons why.

The post im­plied that the main rea­son why SHIC wasn’t a suc­cess was that it was hard to en­gage with stu­dents long-term due to the fact that the out­reach was tem­po­rary and de­liv­ered by peo­ple who are not staff mem­bers at the school. The out­reach was also fo­cused on EA con­cepts and it is noted that “while it could be very in­fluen­tial to al­ter the na­tional, state, or provin­cial cur­ricu­lum, this is likely to be difficult to do”. This is in­deed true if we are talk­ing about EA speci­fi­cally. How­ever, as I have ar­gued, I think it may be more promis­ing in the case of gen­eral philos­o­phy. Gen­eral philos­o­phy in­struc­tion at schools, com­bined with EA-spe­cific out­reach to young adults at uni­ver­sity, may be an effec­tive over­all strat­egy.

Con­clud­ing remarks

As men­tioned in my epistemic sta­tus note, all of this is quite spec­u­la­tive and I hope for en­gage­ment and feed­back. I am open to the pos­si­bil­ity that this is not in fact a wor­thy long-ter­mist area for EAs, but it would be in­ter­est­ing to see where the main points of con­tention are.

In the event that this idea is well-re­ceived, fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion would be war­ranted as this post is only de­signed to start a dis­cus­sion and provide a base to work on. If such in­ves­ti­ga­tion is war­ranted, I would be in­ter­ested in con­nect­ing with peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in be­ing in­volved.

Aca­demic References

Bat­son, C.D., Bat­son, J.G., Slingsby, J.K., Har­rell, K.L., Peekna, H.M. and Todd, R.M., 1991. Em­pathic joy and the em­pa­thy-al­tru­ism hy­poth­e­sis. Jour­nal of per­son­al­ity and so­cial psy­chol­ogy, 61(3), p.413.

Bryant, C. and Dillard, C., 2020. Ed­u­cated Choices Pro­gram: An Im­pact Eval­u­a­tion of a Class­room In­ter­ven­tion to Re­duce An­i­mal Product Con­sump­tion.

Gar­cía-Moriyón, F., Re­bollo, I. and Colom, R., 2005. Eval­u­at­ing Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren: A meta-anal­y­sis. Think­ing: The jour­nal of philos­o­phy for chil­dren, 17(4), pp.14-22.

Gar­cía-Moriyón, F., González-La­mas, J., Botella, J., Vela, J.G., Miranda-Alonso, T., Pala­cios, A. and Robles-Loro, R., 2020. Re­search in Mo­ral Ed­u­ca­tion: The Con­tri­bu­tion of P4C to the Mo­ral Growth of Stu­dents. Ed­u­ca­tion Sciences, 10(4), p.119.

Greaves, H., 2016, Oc­to­ber. XIV—Clue­less­ness. In Pro­ceed­ings of the Aris­totelian So­ciety (Vol. 116, No. 3, pp. 311-339). Oxford Univer­sity Press.

Lip­man, M. (1991) Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren, in: Costa, A.L., 1991. Devel­op­ing Minds: Pro­grams for Teach­ing Think­ing. Re­vised Edi­tion, Vol­ume 2. As­so­ci­a­tion for Su­per­vi­sion and Cur­ricu­lum Development

Rus­sell, J., 2002. Mo­ral con­scious­ness in a com­mu­nity of in­quiry. Jour­nal of Mo­ral Ed­u­ca­tion, 31(2), pp.141-153.

Sch­leifer, M., Daniel, M.F., Pey­ron­net, E. and Le­comte, S., 2003. The Im­pact of Philo­soph­i­cal Dis­cus­sions on Mo­ral Au­ton­omy, Judg­ment, Em­pa­thy and the Recog­ni­tion of Emo­tion in Five Year Olds. Think­ing: The Jour­nal of Philos­o­phy for Chil­dren, 16(4), pp.4-12.

Sch­witzgebel, E., Cokelet, B., Singer, P., 2020. Do ethics classes in­fluence stu­dent be­hav­ior? Case study: Teach­ing the ethics of eat­ing meat. Cog­ni­tion, Vol­ume 203, 104397

Top­ping, K.J. and Trickey, S., 2004. ‘Philos­o­phy for chil­dren’: a sys­tem­atic re­view. Re­search pa­pers in Ed­u­ca­tion, 19(3), pp.365-380.

Top­ping, K.J. and Trickey, S., 2007. Col­lab­o­ra­tive philo­soph­i­cal en­quiry for school chil­dren: Cog­ni­tive effects at 10–12 years. Bri­tish Jour­nal of Ed­u­ca­tional Psy­chol­ogy, 77(2), pp.271-288.

Top­ping K. J., & Trickey, S. (2007). Col­lab­o­ra­tive philo­soph­i­cal en­quiry for school chil­dren: Cog­ni­tive gains at two-year fol­low-up. Bri­tish Jour­nal of Ed­u­ca­tional Psy­chol­ogy, 77, 781–796.

Willi­ams, S., 2018. A brief his­tory of p4c, es­pe­cially in the UK.