A Reflection On Teaching Philosophy in Senior High School Catholic Schools

Jan 28, 2021 | Columns

By Fr. Francis Paul S. Escaño, RCJ

Philosophy is a handmaid of theology

St. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian Philosopher in the Middle ages said, “Philosophy is the Handmaid of Theology.” He said this to emphasize the importance of the mind or critical thinking in order to fathom the things divine. He believed that the way to understand God and the Church doctrines is to use the power of thinking and the discipline that deals with it is Philosophy. Way back 2009 or 2010 before K-12 was introduced by President Benigno Aquino III, there was a meeting among heads of philosophy schools in the country in Manila to discuss the status and the future of philosophy in the school curriculums. One topic raised was to ascertain the place of philosophy in the curriculum because of the importance of critical thinking among our students. Today, the Union of Societies and Associations of Philosophies in the Philippines (USAPP) is working on the professionalization of philosophy in the school curriculums. Philosophers or teachers of philosophy are all convinced that philosophy is instrumental in developing the critical minds of the students. Indeed, it is true that learning is not just about memorization and parroting lectures but also developing of minds that can see clearly the right and wrong in any situation. 

When I was assigned in our college of Philosophy in Cebu I taught many different subjects in philosophy and of different disciplines in philosophy. Each discipline of philosophy has its own characteristics and sometimes one discipline is in conflict with another discipline. No wonder why when we observe clearly each philosopher or teacher of philosophy each has his/her own specialty. No one specializes for all disciplines because doing so is a huge task to comply. To master one discipline is often done so that it becomes your foundation philosophy in order to critic or understand other disciplines. However, educational background and schools where a teacher finished his/her philosophy matters a lot in ones field of mastery. 

K-12 curriculum transferred Philosophy from college into high school or senior high school. In the beginning everyone thought that the content and approach could just be the same. Philosophy teachers and school administrations were not prepared of the difference. In college we give so much emphasis on academic freedom inside the classrooms by simply leaving everything to the discretion of the professors in-charge. This is so because we believe in the maturity of the college students and the role of tertiary education in the preparation for work afterwards. Only in the seminaries where philosophy is much guided by the institute because we have to be certain that its content can truly prepare seminarians to theology. 

High school education is different from college. If college environment allows much independence to the students, in high school there is still control and strict guidance to the learnings of the students. With this environment in high school, teaching philosophy must also be under the supervision of the institute and conform to the mission – vision of the institute. 

It is the mind that thinks guides the actions of a person. Whatever one thinks, believes or understands that what he/she will do as well. Philosophy develops that kind of mind. But because of different disciplines in philosophy there are also different ways of thinking that develops in different persons. 

Here are some of the branches of philosophy that also determines its different disciplines:

LOGIC – a philosophical science on correct inferential thinking. Inferential thinking means the drawing out of a conclusion from some mental premises. The Material Object of Logic is concepts, propositions and syllogisms. The Formal Object is the inferential relations of concepts and propositions, with regard to valid inference.

In this field of philosophy where terms (concepts), ideas, propositions, arguments, reasonings, abstraction, syllogisms and fallacies are studied. The course is divided according to the three acts of the mind: simple apprehension, Judgment and Reasoning. 

COSMOLOGY OR PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE – This philosophy studies all beings and their specific nature. It is on the physical world and the ultimate principles of bodily nature. Since, all created beings are subject to change, this philosophy mainly deals with beings in motion or mobile beings. The Material Object is all beings. The Formal Object is beings in motion. This study includes four causes (material, formal, efficient and final), time, space, place and motion (generation and corruption). 

ETHICS – This branch of philosophy studies action both as acts of man and human acts. It comes from a Greek word, ethos, means “a characteristic way of acting”. It covers the discussion on how to determine the morality of an act so that man can either be culpable or inculpable of his actions. Today, there are different ethical theories like: Christian ethics, Utilitarianism, Situation Ethics, Environmental Ethics and Ethics of Intention. To study each of them needs a careful consideration. The possibility of mixing them up can lead to confusions. 

EPISTEMOLOGY OR THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE – This philosophy studies human knowledge per se. It is a common discussion on how we can study knowledge when it is not evident concretely. It is undeniable however, that knowledge truly exists in man. Knowledge exists in the very act of human knowing. This study focuses on the truthfulness of human knowledge through the intentional conformity between what is in the mind and in the reality. Since knowledge is also the “making up of the mind”, it is similar to judgment. The external expression of judgment is proposition. 

Epistemology or “episteme” (greek) is a demonstrative or scientific knowledge. It also deals with the validity and invalidity of knowledge. 

METAPHYSICS – Aristotle considers this as the “first philosophy” because it studies the first causes and principles of reality. It literally means “beyond physics” as coined by Andronicus of Rhodes. The Material Object is all reality. The Formal Object is Being as Being. Being is that which exists or that is. It is the first and innermost principle of actuality or existence (Esse). This study includes: substance and accidents, Matter and Form, Esse and Essence, Transcendental Properties of Being, Principles that govern Being, Causality and the concept of Person. 

THEODICY OR PHILOSOPHY OF GOD – It is the philosophic knowledge of God that ca be obtained from the consideration of this world by the unaided light of human reason. The Material Object is God. The Formal Object Quod is God as the principle or source of the being of this world. The Formal Object Quo are truths self-evident to human reason, which when employed in conjunction with this world, are the medium by which several truths can be demonstrated about God. 

This study answers the question, Does God Exists? The proof of God’s existence is demonstrated through arguments from the world or creation. The attributes of God, creation, providence and conservation are also covered in this study. 

HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY – The epoch of philosophy can be divided into three: Ancient, Medieval and Modern philosophy.

Ancient Philosophy – deals with the material beginning of cosmos or world. Like for example: Thales (water), Anaximander (Apeiron), Anaximenes (fire), Empedocles (fire, air, water, earth and love), Democritus and Leucippus (Atoms), Phytagoras (numbers), Parmenides (being or one), Heraclitus (change).

Medieval Philosophy – is commonly known as the time of Christian Philosophy. It was the period of the blossoming of philosophy among Christian thinkers like: the Apologists and Fathers of the Church. To name a few: Tertullian, St. Justin Martyr, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Irenaeus, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, Origen, St. Augustin, Avicenna, Averrhoes, St. Thomas Aquinas, Boethius, Peter Abelard, William Ockham and many others. The common topics of discussion during this period are faith and reason, Universals, Being, Esse and Essence, God’s Existence.

Modern Philosophy – This is a period that shifted from the western philosophy as they said it. Practically, the first or known “father of Modern Philosophy” Rene Descartes, in France, because of his distaste to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas redirected philosophy to the focus of the mind or thinking. Primarily, this modern period placed Man as the center of discussions. Knowledge of man, Man and others, Man and the World, Man and God. While at the other side of the World, in London, Francis Bacon, also reacting against Aristotle and St. Thomas who used deduction is reasoning, he taught it is through inductive method that we can arrive at a certain knowledge. He said, we subject all knowledge at the test of experience.

Modern Philosophy has revolted the world of philosophy. It was the time of distaste to the influential Medieval Philosophy or Christian Philosophy. Many of these modern Philosophers deny Metaphysics or the study of Being which concept leads to the idea of God as the Being of all beings. Some of the Modern Philosophy disciplines are:

Existentialism, a branch of philosophy that answers the questions on Man and the World. Mostly, the ideas revolve around human experience in relation to the situations of the society. However, there are existentialists who boldly proclaimed that life is absurd and death is the fulfillment of life. It is divided between atheistic and theistic existentialism. 

Phenomenology is another discipline where it teaches that everything in consciousness is what matters. However, in the end it proclaims that even God can only by the product of the mind and cannot be real but just an abstract concept. 

Analytic Philosophy and Hermeneutics are focused on the analysis of language and relations of words in the mind, propositions or communications. There is nothing much about Man and his relations with God. If ever there is, man and God are just words without personality. 

With the many disciplines and branches of philosophy, what kind of philosophy fits to the Catholic Schools?

The characteristics of catholic schools

We go back to the characteristics of the Catholic Schools as narrated by the Vatican Council II documents. Catholic schools have special missions in the education of the young and primarily it is the proclamation of the gospel and in the service of the church. 

SPECIFIC CHARACTER OF THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL (CATHOLIC SCHOOLS (S.C.C.E., Malgré les declarations, 24June 1977) – Vat. II Vol. 2)

33. Having stated the characteristics of the Catholic school from the point of view of ‘school’, we can now examine its Catholic quality, namely its reference to a Christian concept of life centered on Jesus Christ.

34. Christ is the foundation of the whole educational enterprise in a Catholic school. His revelation gives new meaning to life and helps man to direct his thought, action and will according to the Gospel, making the beatitudes his norm of life. The fact that in their own individual ways all members of the school community share this Christian vision, makes the school ‘Catholic’; principles of the Gospel in this manner become the educational norms since the school then has them as its internal motivation and final goal.

35. The Catholic school is committed thus to the development of the whole man, since in Christ, the perfect man, all human values find their fulfilment and unity. Herein lies the specifically Catholic character of the school. Its duty to cultivate human values in their own legitimate right in accordance with its particular mission to serve all men has its origin in the figure of Christ. He is the one who ennobles man, gives meaning to human life, and is the model which the Catholic school offers to its pupils.

36. If, like every other school, the Catholic school has as its aim the critical communication of human culture and the total formation of the individual, it works towards high goal guided by its Christian vision of reality ‘through which our cultural heritage acquires its special place in the total vocational life of man’. Mindful of the fact that man has been redeemed by Christ, the Catholic school aims at forming in the Christian those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ and help him to play faithfully has his part in building up the kingdom of God.

37. These premises indicate the duties and the content of the Catholic school. Its task is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues characteristic of the Christian.

The role of philosophy in catholic education / Christian philosophy for catholic schools

Catholic Schools offering High School education never really imagined that one day it will cater philosophy subject for their students. This is very obvious by the unpreparedness of most High school teachers today in teaching philosophy. Even philosophy teachers never expected that one day they will face high school students in their philosophizing. There is no problem about the course, what was challenging was the capacity of the high school students to receive the higher method of reasoning. All high school subjects are guided by textbooks where they all follow certain formats. This formatting is possible for all subjects that can be objectively studied. But philosophy is a work of higher thinking where thinking cannot be easily confined into a certain format. Nevertheless, since it is a requirement, all philosophy teachers just follow the standard format. This situation is unjust to philosophy per se. 

Philosophy as art of thinking is important in the formation and education of students in Catholic Schools. This course can connect the students to the study of Theology, God, Ethics/Morality and the Dignity of Man. We can realize in philosophy that Man is graced by God and Human Life is a gift from God. However, we have to safeguard properly the kind of Philosophy discipline students are learning. It will be possible that at the end of the course they will also hate God, hate the Church and think that human life is absurd. Only Christian Philosophy teaches that Man is a gift from God and his Life is a treasure. 

A developed reasoning among students is always the goal of education. But it will be challenging when students become critical and turn into enemies of the institutions. This challenge is still a product of a developed mind. The most common topics that students attack by their reasoning are the Church’s doctrines, the existence of God and the reality of faith. This happens when the philosophy they learn is leaning towards hatred to God and the Church. I believe there is a need to examine this situation. I can be wrong in my observation but more often this is the main cause. 

The very first time I taught Philosophy in Senior High School outside the seminary college was in one Catholic School in Cebu managed by the sisters. I was called to teach because the principal observed that their students were so critical against Religion and God. On my very first day I was asked by some students if it is true that God exists. I answered them by asking if they understood their questions? Do you understand existence? Do you understand the word God? Can you understand if I explain to you the relation between existence and God? Then I asked, why do you ask whether God exists or not? They said that one of their teachers said so that God may not exist. In the faculty room I believe that that teacher was with me. 

Students more often are critical against the faith but with no strong foundation to their stand. In here is the need of teaching a correct and proper philosophy while they are in the process of clarifications of their minds. It does not guarantee that if they are studying in a Catholic School they are all automatically become pious believers. Sometimes surrounding them are faculty who are non-believers themselves and be particular with philosophy teachers because some can be silent outside but full of intellectual rebellions inside. 

Re-defining philosophy today in SHS catholic education

With due respect to our textbooks and books companies and authors but I believe that each Catholic Institute examines the kind of philosophy each textbook and author is discussing. Teachers who are not Philosophy major or have no enough knowledge in philosophy will just simply parrot what is written in textbooks without considering the consequences of the ideas being relayed to the students. As of today considering the enumerated characters of a Catholic School, only Christian Philosophy fits to the mission of the Catholic Schools. It is a philosophy that follows the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. May I return to the words of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Vatican:

With his Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II wished to emphasize the need for philosophy, so as to advance in the knowledge of the truth and to render earthly existence ever more human. In fact, philosophy “is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it.” This question arises both from the wonder that man experiences in his encounter with others and with the cosmos, and from the painful and tragic experiences that assail his life. Philosophical knowledge, therefore, is seen as being “one of the noblest of human tasks.” (CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION, DECREE ON THE REFORM OF ECCLESIASTICAL STUDIES OF PHILOSOPHY, #2)

Philosophical trends have multiplied in the course of history, showing the richness of the various rigorous, sapiential searches for truth. While ancient wisdom contemplated being from the perspective of the cosmos, patristic and medieval thought offered a deeper, purified vision, identifying the cosmos as the free creation of a God who is wise and good (cf. Wis 13,1-9; Acts 17, 24-28). Modern philosophies have particularly emphasized human freedom, the spontaneity of reason, and its capacity to measure and dominate the universe. Recently, a certain number of contemporary schools of thought, being more sensitive to the vulnerability of our knowledge and our humanity, have focused their reflection on the mediating roles of language[3] and culture. Finally, moving beyond Western thought, how could one forget the numerous and sometimes remarkable efforts to understand man, the world and the Absolute made by different cultures, for example Asian and African cultures? This generous exploration of thought and language, however, must never forget that it is rooted in being. “The metaphysical element is the path to be taken in order to move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment, and thus to correct certain mistaken modes of behaviour now widespread in our society.” From this perspective, philosophers are invited energetically to reclaim philosophy’s “original vocation”:[5] the search for truth, and its sapiential and metaphysical characteristic. .” (CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION, DECREE ON THE REFORM OF ECCLESIASTICAL STUDIES OF PHILOSOPHY, #3)

The philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas is important both for the acquisition of intellectual “habitus” and for the mature assimilation of the philosophical heritage. He knew how to place “faith in a positive relation with the dominant form of reason of his time.” For this reason, he is stilled called the “apostle of truth.” “Looking unreservedly to truth, Thomas’ realism was able to recognize the objectivity of truth and produce not merely a philosophy of ‘what seems to be’ but a philosophy of ‘what is’.” The Church’s preference for his method and his doctrine is not exclusive, but “exemplary”. (CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION, DECREE ON THE REFORM OF ECCLESIASTICAL STUDIES OF PHILOSOPHY, #12)