Pre-university Philosophy

by Frank Cunningham

In Ontario, grade 13 students wishing to enter an Ontario university must first successfully complete a certain number of Ontario Academic Courses. The first Ontario Academic Course (OAC) in philosophy was introduced into the secondary school system in 1995. The course was the result of nearly 20 years of campaigning by university and secondary school teachers of philosophy. Much of the lobbying was conducted by the ‘Ontario Secondary School Philosophy Project', a group endorsed by the Committee of Chairs of Ontario University Departments of Philosophy. The Committee of Chairs has also committed Philosophy Departments in the Province to track teaching of the OAC and to help those teaching it. Unlike philosophy in Quebec's CEGEP's, the OAC course in philosophy is not compulsory and is offered only in schools where there is sufficient student demand and faculty. Nonetheless, the course has met with great success, and in the 1997-98 year there were 5,600 enrolments in the course across the Province.

Beginning in the academic year 2002-03, grade 13 will cease to exist in the Ontario schools. Grade 13 OAC's will be replaced by grade 12 courses offered in university streams called "destinations". The Province's new curriculum for grades 11 and 12 is now being finalised and currently includes two non-compulsory courses in philosophy: a course in grade 12 called, Philosophy: Questions and Theories, and a grade 11 course, Philosophy: The Big Questions. The grade 12 course is in a university destination stream and it is similar to the current OAC in philosophy. The grade 11 course is in an open stream, which means that the philosophy course will be open to students who have opted for any of the possible destinations (workplaces, colleges, and universities). The grade 11 course is not a prerequisite for the grade 12 course.

The existing guideline for the OAC in philosophy as well as other information about teaching philosophy in Ontario secondary schools can be found on a website housed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Once the new philosophy courses are approved in their final forms (perhaps in the fall of 1999 or early in 2000), information about the courses will be posted at the same OISE site. Inquiries may also be addressed to the Co-Chairs of the Ontario Secondary School Philosophy Project, Frank Cunningham and David Jopling.

Here are some generic questions that the Ontario Secondary School Philosophy Project has received in the past and their short answers:

1. What are the natures of the courses and how will they be organized?

Both anticipated new courses mandate a selection from among the main areas of philosophy — ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and so on. In addition, critical thinking skills and the main historical figures and schools of philosophy will be taught. However, there is room for discretion on the part of instructors both with respect to selection of topics and organisation and choice of textbooks. Currently, there are no prescribed textbooks for the new courses, and teachers will be expected to select texts suitable to local interests and needs. There are many excellent introductory texts available, some with useful instructors' manuals. Textbooks with Canadian content are few and far between, and Canadian philosophers should consider trying their hands at producing some.

2. Who will teach the courses?

Existing high school philosophy courses are, and will continue to be, taught by instructors whose primary teaching expertise is in some subject other than philosophy. Most, but not all of the current teachers of the OAC's in philosophy, have taken at least some university courses in philosophy. Because there will not likely be more than two courses in philosophy offered in Ontario high schools, the schools will not include departments of philosophy. The current philosophy OAC is located in History and Contemporary Studies; and the new courses will be housed in Social Sciences and the Humanities. In neither case, however, is the pool of potential teachers confined to these areas. Many of the teachers who offer the existing philosophy OAC are from Science and Mathematics or Literature.

3. How will the quality in the teaching of courses ensured?

There is no guarantee that the philosophy courses will be taught well. However, experience with the OAC has shown that nearly all of the offerings are well taught, as there are many teachers eager to offer the course with some background in philosophy, and those without are open to and grateful for help from university philosophers. To this end, the Committee of Chairs of Ontario University Departments of Philosophy has worked to maintain close contact and co-operation between university philosophy departments and local schools.

Some examples of such collaboration include the following:

  • University departments have assisted with the maintenance of high school school libraries with suitable textbooks. The idea here is that teachers benefit from consulting a range of philosophy textbooks when choosing a course text.
  • Many university departments have designated an individual to serve as a secondary-school liaison officer. Such liaison officers may offer or co-ordinate consultation.
  • The provision of guest lecturers from university departments. Graduate students and senior undergraduate students in philosophy departments are encouraged to take on such work.
  • A Subject Area Association in Philosophy is being formed. This Association will include both secondary school teachers and university professionals, and will organise workshops and conferences aimed at supporting the teaching of philosophy in Ontario high schools.

Whether taking a certain number of university courses of philosophy can be made a general prerequisite for the teaching of high school philosophy courses remains to be seen. However, if the courses become regular offerings in schools, the schools themselves may well look to hire people with extensive training in philosophy, particularly if demand for the courses warrants the introduction of additional philosophy courses in years to come.

4. How will the introduction of philosophy in Ontario's secondary schools affect education programs and enrolments in philosophy in universities?

The existence of the OAC in philosophy has not had a noticeable quantitative impact on undergraduate enrolment. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that it has improved the quality of students taking philosophy courses in university, as those with aptitude in the subject find this out in time to enrol in philosophy courses, and those without such an aptitude learn to avoid philosophy courses. So far, the question of whether the OAC should count as a credit or an exemption for university course work has been approached on a case-by-case basis. There are no departments of philosophy in the schools, and the teaching of philosophy is not offered in Schools of Education. Students wishing to teach philosophy in a secondary school are being advised that a major in philosophy alone will not gain them entrance to a School of Education. Philosophy is not designated what is called a “teachable subject” in Provincial educational parlance, and no school will hire someone to teach philosophy exclusively. Therefore, philosophy students interested in becoming secondary school teachers are advised to take a major in some other, mainstream subject and a second major or a minor in philosophy. While there is reason to think that having some formal training in philosophy will give students an edge when applying for work in schools that offer or wish to offer philosophy, it is unlikely that the introduction of philosophy in Ontario schools will produce a large number of jobs.

5. Are there prospects for philosophy courses in earlier grades and in elementary schools?

The Ontario Secondary School Philosophy Project, the Committee of Ontario Chairs, and the new Subject Association in Philosophy are and for some time will be more than fully occupied with the facilitating effective teaching of the anticipated grade 11 and grade 12 courses. However, should these prove successful, this may well prompt efforts to expand philosophy offerings in Ontario high schools.