Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Thinking about Death

I have been thinking about death since I was about 5 years old. For much of my life, I've had the sense that other people don't think about the subject very much, or at least try not to think about it, and certainly don't often want to talk about it, at least not in the West. 

Since the pandemic began, however, questions about death, illness, and mortality have become inescapable. My sense is that right now more and more people are thinking in deeper ways about death and the meaning of living a mortal life.

But even before the pandemic, in my experience children have always thoughts and wanted to talk about these subjects far more than most adults. Over the years, when I have asked groups of children what they most wonder about in life, invariably many respond with questions like, “Why do people have to die?” or “What happens when you die?” My colleagues recount the same experiences, and parents and grandparents also relate that their children and grandchildren have many thoughts and questions about death.

For example, in a conversation on Zoom this spring with a group of fourth grade students, we were talking about whether you can be happy and sad at the same time. Most of us responded affirmatively, and wondered together about whether you can ever be purely happy, without any sadness.

One student said, "I agree that you can be happy and sad at the same time. Even though we think of sadness and happiness as opposites, they can sometimes be put together. That’s usually moments when you feel happy in your life and then you realize that your life isn’t going to last forever. It will maybe last a long time, I’m only 9 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me, but still, I want to stay in life and I know I can’t.”

This was such a powerful and poignant expression of the pathos of the human condition: we are mortal and one day our lives will end. I have been thinking about this comment since, and about the ways that children seem so attuned to the fact that mortality is at the heart of our existence, that our lives have what philosopher Samuel Scheffler calls “temporal scarcity.” We live every day knowing that our days, however long they continue, are numbered. Our mortality is the essential element of our identity as human beings.

I've been wondering if it is at the beginning and end of life that we are most in touch with this awareness: when death is new and when it is near. The concept of death is so powerful for us as children because it is then that we first become aware that our lives are finite. At the end of life, the reality of death's proximity leads us to evaluate how we have lived. In between, we become caught up in the demands and rhythms of life and don't seem to spend much time considering what our inevitable deaths mean for how we should live our lives, except perhaps when we suffer loss. 

But awareness of death, however sad and painful it can be, can help us to treasure life 's preciousness, and give our lives greater depth and meaning. As poet Wallace Stevens said, "Death is the mother of beauty."

Friday, August 21, 2020

In Limbo


In Limbo

I recently had a video conversation with In Limbo, a new online space dedicated to exploring the philosophical dimensions of the pandemic. The video is here.

The site began as a result of an effort to create a bibliography that records various philosophical writings on the pandemic, which can be found here. This includes both the way that the pandemic is affecting philosophical activity and the philosophical issues raised by the pandemic.

One of the issues the conversation led me to think about is the nature of the community of philosophical inquiry and the many paths that can lead to it. For example, I have resisted for many years trying to facilitate philosophy sessions, workshops, and classes online, because I believed that the online setting was not conducive to creating a robust community of inquiry. I found it hard to imagine that the kinds of deep and open conversations that occur in the physical settings in which we lead philosophy programs were possible online.

Of course, this spring I had no choice but to take my classes online, and it has been a learning experience to discover that online philosophy sessions can be places of trust, openness, and sustained conversation. Perhaps it is the intimacy of a Zoom session, where we are starting at each other's faces and often glimpsing each other's homes and personal spaces. Perhaps it is the longing to feel more connected, in the midst of a time of isolation and uncertainty. Although I miss profoundly ordinary physical contact with students and educators, and the embodied texture of an exchange that is fostered by being in a room together, I have been gratified to find that online communities of philosophical inquiry can have genuine relational and intellectual depth.

This is not to say that I hope that the rest of my professional life can be spent in Zoom sessions! But given that for however many months to come, most or all of my philosophical classes will be online, this does present an opportunity to explore all of the ways that community can be developed and sustained in virtual spaces. 

Particularly in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the question of how to create connections  intellectual, emotional, personal, social — while "in limbo" is a pressing one. On the one hand, life feels fractured and lonely, and many of the cracks in our communities are widening and becoming more visible. On the other hand, many people are expressing a renewed appreciation for the importance of connection and relationships. In the online philosophy classes I've been part of, I've observed an enhanced willingness to express vulnerability, to try out unorthodox ideas, and to remain open to differing perspectives. I come away with a great deal of hope.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Loneliness and Isolation

During the pandemic, the topics of loneliness and isolation came up in many of the Zoom conversations I had with children. 

The six-minute film "Baboon on the Moon" is about a baboon who lives alone on the Moon. Wordless and moving, the video portrays the baboon as full of longing for the Earth, struggling with feelings of sadness and loneliness. The video raises questions such as:
Is there a difference between being alone and being lonely?
Is loneliness always negative?
When we feel lonely, do we always also feel sad?
Do we appreciate things more when we cannot have them?
What makes a place a home?

In one conversation, after watching the video a group of nine-year-old children discussed how much more they appreciate both their friends and the opportunity to attend school than they had before the pandemic. One child talked about how much he had often dreaded going to school, but now that school was online he realized that there were many things about physically being in school that he really valued and missed. 

We explored the ways that solitude can feel differently when it is chosen rather than involuntary. "I like to be alone, but it's different when you have to be alone," said one child. But we also talked about how forced solitude might eventually foster a new appreciation for being alone, especially once the pandemic is behind us and our ordinary social lives resume. Will we have a greater capacity for solitude once it is no longer compulsory? 

Psychologist Sherry Turtle contends that solitude is necessary to develop genuine relationships with other people. She writes, “Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments." If this is true, might we be able to cultivate even deeper attachments and connections post-pandemic?

Friday, July 24, 2020

Guest Blog Post on Philosophy and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Lexi Pelzer, a high school student who volunteered for our Center this past year, was a student at Overlake High School and is now a rising sophomore at Phillips Exeter Academy. She asked if she could write a guest post for this blog, and I thought that the theme of her post, which describes how philosophy has been helping her during the pandemic, was particularly timely as we start to consider what education will look for the coming school year:

With a sigh, I turned on my computer screen for the twentieth morning in a row. As I tuned into Latin class, I found myself, as usual, longing for the closeness and camaraderie of in-person courses. I also felt a lingering sadness over my canceled lacrosse season, and I missed my friends, whom I had not seen for weeks. I knew that, in so many ways, I was incredibly fortunate: my parents still had their jobs, we were all in good health, and I was able to attend online school. Nevertheless I couldn’t shake feelings of frustration and depression. 

But just as I found myself developing a nihilistic outlook, I discovered Existentialism. While carrying out research for a history project, I stumbled across Sartre’s and Camus’s writing, which included their theories about living a meaningful life. This introduced me to existentialism, a philosophy based on the idea that existence precedes essence. This philosophy suggests that humans are not born with certain traits, but rather use our free will to make choices and complete actions that make these traits a part of who we are. While there are some parts of our lives—including age, class, race, and culture—that we cannot change and that significantly affect the options available to us, we can still make choices about how to approach the situations we encounter. It is our actions in response to these situations, existentialism argues, that determine who we are and give us a sense of purpose. 

Excited by these ideas, I decided to apply an existentialist approach to my recently upended life. To begin, I tried to identify the things in my life that I truly found meaningful. Online education, for example, had been a challenge for me, since I didn’t love virtual coursework, and my school had switched to a credit/no credit system that didn’t reward hard work with high grades. Thinking about it, however, I realized that what I found most meaningful about my time in school wasn’t homework or grades, but the chance to think critically about new ideas and challenge myself. I still had the opportunity to do these things in my online classes, so I threw myself into my studies. I set up meetings with my teachers to discuss new ideas for projects and used my assignments as opportunities to explore topics that deeply interested me. I soon saw that the online format of my courses—which had once seemed a huge hindrance to my studies—actually gave me the opportunity to work independently and to draw new connections between subjects.

In addition, I recognized that missing my friends was an indication of how meaningful they were to my life. Determined to take actions that aligned with what I valued, I took on the role of friendship facilitator, arranging FaceTime calls, scheduling Netflix watch parties, and even dropping off homemade cookies at my friends’ houses (made while wearing gloves and a mask). The events themselves may not have been quite what I was used to in terms of spending time with those I care for, but putting time into the things I valued made me feel good about myself. 

Perhaps most important, my changed circumstances gave me time to realign my priorities and support things that I found meaningful, but hadn’t committed enough time to in the past. For example, I had always considered myself a feminist and advocate for racial justice, but—studying my life through an existentialist lens—I realized that I hadn’t been taking enough action towards furthering these causes. In addition to discussions with my friends and family about social justice, I began signing petitions, making calls to legislators, taking classes on gender studies, and donating to organizations dedicated to racial justice and equality. While the pandemic made some forms of volunteering and protesting more challenging, I saw that there were still plenty of ways for me to take action and, in the process, to live a purposeful existence. 

Life is different these days. Whether we are worrying about family members, getting tested for the virus, or tuning into yet another online class, the things we do today bear little resemblance to the activities we carried out in the past. As existentialism shows us, though, we still can—and we must—take action to live authentically. That, at least, will never change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

New Book and Zoom Philosophy Sessions

It has been over a year since my last post, primarily because I have been working hard to finish my new book, Seen and Not Heard, which is now with my publisher in the editing stage! Here is a description:

How might society benefit if children were recognized as independent thinkers, capable of seeing clearly and contributing in valuable ways to our world? How would children’s lives change if what they said was not often ignored or patronized? 
In a series of conversations with children about many of life’s important philosophical questions, Seen and Not Heard reveals children as perceptive and original philosophical thinkers. Guided by discussions about the meaning of childhood, friendship, justice and fairness, happiness, and death, the book considers how listening to children’s ideas can expand our thinking about societal issues and deepen our respect for children’s perspectives. 
In the United States and around the world, ageism remains a widespread prejudice, leading us to make assumptions about, dismiss, and underestimate the perspectives of people of particular ages, including children. Before they utter a word, their voices are judged as less important than those of adults, or as not important at all. Seen and Not Heard invites us to rethink our beliefs about children and become more receptive to the ways we can learn from the children in our lives. 

The book will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2021.

This spring was for us at the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, like it was for many people, a launch into education via Zoom. Initially I was concerned that the interactive nature of my classes would not translate well to an online forum.

I have been surprised to find that facilitating philosophy discussions online, with both adults and with children, can be a powerful and meaningful experience. The conversations I had this spring were thoughtful, honest, and inspiring. I learned a great deal and was thrilled that a New York Times reporter wrote an article about our Philosophy Zoom classes for children. I'm anticipating our philosophy sessions online in the fall with far more excitement and far less apprehension than I felt last spring.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflections about Death

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a classroom of fourth grade students about death. It began when we read a chapter from Natalie Babbit's Tuck Everlasting, which raises interesting questions about death, living a mortal life, and the possibility of becoming immortal. I have posted about this book in the past

The students wondered whether, if you were immortal, you wouldn't feel any pain, physical or emotional.

"Maybe you wouldn't feel pain if you were immortal. I mean, pain is something uncomfortable and no one wants to feel it, so if I knew I wouldn't feel pain, I might want to be immortal."

"I think that if you were immortal, maybe you wouldn't feel physical pain anymore, but you would still be able to feel emotional pain. I think you would still have your emotions if you're immortal. But I think emotional pain scars people more than physical pain."

"If you couldn't feel emotional pain, I wouldn't want to become immortal, because feeling emotional pain helps you to feel what others feel."

"I agree with that. If you don't have any emotions, you're essentially like a robot, and you can't feel what other people feel."

Most of the children seemed to conclude that if becoming immortal meant you would stop feeling emotions, including emotional pain, they wouldn't want to be immortal. This led us to talking about whether you would want to be immortal in any event. 

Several children immediately said they would want to live forever. Why? One student responded it was because she was scared of dying, and many students agreed. 

Other children said they were not scared to die because they wanted to see what happened after death. One student commented, "I wouldn't want to live for so many thousands of years that everyone I ever knew would be dead." 

Several students noted that if they stayed the same age always, there would be many things they would never get to do. "Part of life is change," said one child. "Never changing would be a really different kind of life from what we're used to."  Another child remarked, "If I lived forever, once the sun exploded, I would just be floating around in space for eternity. That would be terrible."

The students explored the idea of "eternity," and one child reflected, "I think immortality is more frightening than death." Another child agreed, saying, "It’s scary to think of living forever. It would completely change how it feels to be alive." 

In his story "The Immortal," Jorge Luis Borges concurs: “Death…makes men precious…every act they execute may be their last…Everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous.”

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Custom of Racism

This week I had a conversation with a group of fifth grade students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School that began with reading Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side. This picture book tells the story of a friendship that forms between two girls in a time and place in which a fence stretches through the town separating the white and black townspeople.

The students wanted to talk about who had made the fence and why. The first student who spoke said it was obvious, that the fence was made by white people because of racism. Other students speculated that the fence might have been put up for all kinds of reasons – farming, a company owning the land, two landowners keeping their property separate – but then it became a symbol, as one student put it, of "segregation and racism." 

"Metaphorically speaking, the fence was built by history. There have been lots of times of unfairness in history. But it's not all one-sided. Sometimes white people and black people just don't like each other, and both sides want to be separate." 

"Maybe, but in the story the white people were the ones with the power, and they built the fence to keep black people out."

"The fence is a warning. It's not a physical obstacle, because you can easily climb over it. It's a warning about what will happen to you if you violate the rules of segregation." 

This led to the question about whether the enforced separation between races still happens today.  

"Yes, but it's more vague and not a threat in the same way it was then. There aren't fences separating black and white people that are as intentional and obvious." 

"I agree, it's still happening, but not as publicly. It's more secret and private, and not as accepted by the community anymore." 

"It's not the law anymore, so it's less about segregation and more about the privileges white people have: white people getting jobs when black people are more experiences, white people being paid more, or white people just getting treated better. It's not as accepted by the community, so if you do something racist, people disapprove, but it's still there, just less distinct and publicly accepted." 

"I think that things are getting better. This school used to be totally segregated and now it's not. But racism is more a custom than a law now, and that makes it harder to get rid of it. People are used to racism and when something is a custom, it's much harder to change than it is to change the law." 

I was really struck by how well these students, a very diverse group, were able to talk about this issue without it being focused on the personal, as an abstract and important question that affects everyone's lives, but that could be explored in a dispassionate, thoughtful way. And it led me to think more about the distinction the student made between laws and customs, seeing customs as the more intractable of the two, and changing the law as only the first step toward genuine change.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

I'm a Frog!

I haven't been posting this school year very much, as I have been working on my new book, which should be finished before the end of the year and published next year. But I have had several interesting conversation lately with children, and thought I would share some of them. 

In a fifth grade class last month, we read the story I'm a Frog by Mo Willems, about which I have written in the past. The story raises questions about the nature of pretending.

After reading the story, the children articulated the questions about which the story led them to wonder. They then voted to discuss the question, “Does everyone pretend?” 

"Everyone pretends, but kids pretend more. Kids have more time to play pretend. Like at recess." 

"I was wondering if dreaming counts as pretending. I kind of think it does, because when you dream you're imagining something." 

"I disagree. Dreams aren't pretending because they are based on what happens to you in real life and turns whatever happens into a kind of jumbled mess. Actually, I think it could go either way. What you dream is not real, it's made up, but you don't get to choose, you don't make it up." 

"I think that if imagining something when you're awake is a form of pretending, but you're not actually doing anything, just fantasizing about something, then dreaming could be pretending too." 

"I don't know if dreaming really counts, because you're sleeping and you might not even remember what you dream. Daydreaming, where you're making up a fantasy in your head, counts as pretending, but not dreaming while you're asleep." 

"Dreaming isn't a form of pretending because you're not intending to pretend anything." 

"I agree. You have to be able to control when you pretend. You can just do it in your head, you don't have to do physical stuff. But you do have to have control." 

I asked if this meant that pretending had to be intentional, though it did not require doing anything in particular other than thinking about it. In the story, Piggy defines pretending as acting as if you are something you're not – is that right? 

"I think you can pretend to be something you are, too. Like if you have low self-esteem, and you didn't think you could do something, you could pretend you could do it, and then maybe you actually could do it." 

"If pretending is acting like something you're not, everyone does pretend. Probably everyone dressed up for Halloween at least once. And even if you didn't, you pretend that everyone else is actually who they are dressed up to be." 

"I think that pretending is a way of helping your brain practice being creative. You get new ideas by giving yourself a break. Like if you do a lot of math, and you don't take any breaks and your mind gets cluttered and can't focus as well, pretending will open up more creativity for you." 

"There is definitely a connection between creativity and pretending. You can spread your creativity in lots of ways, like through art. Pretending is another way to do that." 

I asked, if pretending is positive and important, why do we stop? 

"Maturity. You see other people stopping and you think it's not cool to pretend anymore, that it's immature." 

"Most kids pretend. When you're older, maturity takes over your creativity. You think, 'I'm older, I'm not supposed to be doing this anymore, it's immature.' " 

"Everyone pretends, some more and some less, and about different things. An adult might not pretend to be a flower princess, but an adult might pretend that they have a lot of money, or that they are the ideal self they want to be." 

"When you're younger, you pretend, and you're more confident it can actually happen. When you're older, you can still pretend the same thing, but you think it probably won't happen." 

"But maybe instead of pretending to be something, as an adult you can actually just try to become that thing." 

As always, the children left me with a lot to consider. In particular, I've been thinking ever since our conversation about the ways in which pretending to be something you actually are, but perhaps are not confident that you are, can allow you to fully grow into that part of yourself.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Children and Wonder

In the book I'm currently writing, I have been working on a chapter about children's particular strengths. Our society generally has such a deficit view of childhood, but children also exhibit abilities that adults often strive to recapture. To point out a few examples, children tend to have a strong sense of wonder, vibrant imaginative capacities, a heightened awareness of the world around us, and an ease with vulnerability. As adults, we work to cultivate these childlike qualities, to keep alive our wondering, questioning selves, nurture our imaginative capacities, pay more focused attention in our daily lives, and to be more open to genuine encounters with others. Yet we don’t seem to recognize that children are sources of wisdom for revitalizing these aspects of ourselves.

Children exhibit a capacious capacity for wonder, viewing the world through new eyes and appreciating the mysteries at the heart of life. A strong sense of wonder leads to a willingness to be surprised, to approach the world with a sense of astonishment. This is sometimes referred to as “beginner’s mind,” where we see what is around us with a fresh perspective. Watch a four-year-old in a spring garden, looking with wide eyes at flowers growing out of the ground.  Or listen to the "why?" questions of a five year old, seeking to understand the world around her.

Search “childlike wonder” online and you will find thousands of pages devoted to helping adults “regain their childlike wonder.” Few of these pages, however, suggest that adults should seek the help of children. Yet children often are experts in viewing what is around them, even the simplest things, with wonder.

When wonder is articulated, it is often through questions, and children’s questions demonstrate a keen awareness of life’s preciousness and fragility. When I recently asked groups of nine and ten year old students what they thought were life’s most important questions, their responses included:

Why are we alive?
Who made God?
Is there a universe beyond the universe?
What happens when we die?
Could the world ever end?
What will happen to the world in 20 years?
What makes someone love you?
What is the right thing to do?
Will I be what I want to be when I grow up?
Do my friends like me?
What is space made of?
What is the meaning of life?
Do I matter?
Will people remember me?

I will be writing posts here much less frequently this academic year, as I am trying to get this book written!

Friday, June 22, 2018

What is dessert?

Last week I led two end-of-the-year philosophy sessions. One of the activities I like to do as a last session for the year is a prompt that encourages students to think about what is required for something to count as a dessert. It's fun, and also is a reminder that philosophical questions can be found in the most ordinary activities.

I typically bring in some sweet treats (cupcakes, cookies, etc.) and distribute them to the students. Then I ask them, "Is this dessert?"

In both classes last week, some of the students said the cookies were dessert, because they were sweet. Other students claimed that the cookies were not dessert, because they were not eaten after a meal. Sweets not eaten after a meal, several students asserted, were "treats," not dessert.

What makes a dessert a dessert?

Some students think that it is the kind of food that matters -- only certain foods count as dessert, because dessert requires sugar, most say. Other students argue that any food can be a dessert, as long as it is a treat at the end of a meal. In one class, I asked the students to imagine that they invited me for dinner and asked me to bring dessert, and I brought brussels sprouts because I like them and they are a treat for me. What would they think?

This led to a conversation about the difference between what we might like as a dessert and what is commonly understood by the term 'dessert.' We agreed that usually when people ask you to bring dessert, they are asking for something sweet. But does that mean that all desserts have to be sweet? Or eaten at a certain time?

In one of the classes, we went around the room and students stated their favorite desserts or desserts they liked. At the end, I asked whether the students thought that desserts were important.

One student claimed that dessert is like "coffee for kids," because "it packs us with energy, but after a while it makes us tired." Another student stated that, "It's not good for your teeth, or your health, so it's not important. It's not really needed in the world."

Several students disagreed. "It is important," said one student. "You need food to taste good, so dessert is important. It's important to have good tasting food."

"It makes me happy because it tastes good," offered another student.

"I think it can be like a way for people to escape, like a drug. It could lead to obesity and heart attacks. If it makes you happy and you go on eating, then it will stop making you happy."

"I don't think dessert makes you happy. It's a filler for other interesting things. It makes you happy but you could do something else to make you happy."

"Sweets don't make you happy because the happiness is already inside you. Happy is a neutral state, how you are if you aren't sad or angry. You can't make yourself happy, you just are happy, or not."

"I disagree. I think that part of the reason dessert does make you happy is because we don't always eat it. If we had it all the time, we wouldn't look forward to it. The specialness of it is what makes us happy."

Finding perplexity in the everyday is one of the things I hope students take away from their involvement in philosophy classes.

This will be my last post for the school year. Back in the fall!