Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments

"Long ago there were no colors in the world at all.
Almost everything was grey, and what was not grey was black or white.
It was a time that was called The Great Greyness."
The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments is a story by Arnold Lobel about a wizard who introduces color into the world, and the effect on his neighbors. Like much of Lobel's work, the story is both philosophically suggestive and captivating.
I have used this story to talk about the mysteries of color with students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It can be used in a classroom philosophy session or at home with your own child. Some of the questions raised by Lobel's story that make for good discussion prompts include:
Do you think that there was a time when there was no color in the world?
How did color come to be?
If something is red, can it also be blue? Can it be pink? Maroon?
Is the color green made up of blue and yellow? If so, is green only blue and yellow? Or is it something else in itself?
Does color make you feel a certain way? How? Why do you think color can do that?
Are things different colors in different light? At night? Think about what colors the following things are during the day and at night:
A tulip
The rug in your room
Your hair
The blanket on your bed
A tree
Does the color of things change? Or is it the way we see that changes?
Is color in the things that we see? Or is it in us?
Do we all see the same colors the same way? For example, does the color red look the same to everyone? How would we know?
Is color real? What would make you think color is real, or not?
Would the world be different if it were made up of different colors?
Draw a world with colors unlike the ones in our world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Just Delicate Needles

It's so delicate, the light.
And there's so little of it. The dark
is huge.
Just delicate needles, the light,
in an endless night.
And it has such a long way to go
through such desolate space.
So let's be gentle with it.
Cherish it.
So it will come again in the morning.
We hope.

-- Rolf Jacobsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin

December Birthdays

December 4 Arthur Prior (New Zealand, born 1914)

December 7 Gabriel Marcel (French, born 1889), Noam Chomsky (American, born 1928), and Lady Anne Conway (British, born 1631)

December 9 Ernest Gellner (Czech, born 1925)

December 11 Michael Oakeshott (British, born 1901)

December 12 Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz (Polish, born 1890)

December 16 George Santayana (Spanish, born 1863)

December 20 Suzanne Langer (American, born 1895)

December 21 Peter Kropotkin (Russian, born 1842)

December 30 Charlie Dunbar Broad (British, born 1887)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part V

This will be the final post in this series.
What is music?
Is there some quality that anything considered music must have?
Can any sound count as music?
Does all music express emotion?
Is the emotion that music expresses in the music itself? In the composer? In us, the listeners?
What makes music pleasurable to listen to?
Why do we listen to sad music?
This week I invited Lynette Westendorf, a local pianist and composer, to visit our philosophy sessions to perform John Cage's 4'33" and to join the conversation with the students and me about the nature of music. We met in the school band room, and we began by asking the students to consider the above questions, which I wrote on the board, as they listened to Cage's piece. Lynette talked a little about Cage and his work, and then sat at the piano to perform the piece.
It was interesting to watch the students try to figure out what was going on as Lynette raised and lowered the piano lid at various intervals to mark the beginnings and ends of the movements. After 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she stood and bowed. In both classes in which we did this, the twenty plus students had all been incredibly respectful and quiet, and as she bowed they applauded.
First, I asked the students what they were thinking while Lynette was performing the piece. They had various answers -- "I thought she was preparing for a really long time to start playing." "I thought that she was doing some kind of spiritual preparation before starting." "I thought that maybe she was having an anxiety attack." -- but all said that they had realized eventually that the point was that she would not play anything. I told the students that they were a far better and more accepting audience than the audience that first witnessed the performance of this piece in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, who whispered, walked out, and burst into an infuriated uproar at the end.
I told the students that John Cage considered this piece to be a "listening experience." What did they hear? They heard, they said, "the shuffling of feet," "the sound of the piano lid," "the movement of bodies in chairs," and "the humming of the room."
Does the piece count as music?
The students were pretty divided in their views about that. A couple of students argued that it was music because the movements were timed and there was a lot of sound to which to listen.
One student said, "Yes, the piece is music because it is the sound of the world."
Other students asserted that just because there are sounds doesn't mean something is music.
One student took a book and dropped it on the floor, and asked, "Is this music?"
"Well," said another student, "it could be. It depends on whether it is recognized as music."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I think music exists when it is acknowledged as music. Anything can become music if it is understood by someone to be music."
Other students claimed that to be music, there must be rhythm and it must be intentional. Does music have to be intentional? Lynette noted that Cage's view was that it was not necessary for music to be intentional. Part of what he was trying to demonstrate with 4'33" is that music is already present in the world in the form of sounds that we often do not hear, like rain falling or a room humming.
We talked about how of all the arts, music was probably the form most central to human experience. One student pointed out that for most people, not a day goes by that we do not hear music in some form. And yet, we agreed, it is completely mysterious. Why do people like some forms of music and not others? Why does it make us feel so strongly? Can any sound be music? What really defines this art form about which many of us feel so passionately?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part IV

In the two sixth grade classrooms in which I've been teaching this aesthetics unit, the students and I spent a lot of time this week talking about the relationship between having feelings and expressing feelings. We read another portion of chapter 14 in Mat Lipman's Harry Stottlemeir's Discovery, in which two girls have a conversation about art and life.
After the reading, the students raised the following questions:
Do plants have feelings?
Do paintings show more than expressions and ideas?
How did art begin?
We began in both classes by discussing whether plants have feelings and what evidence we might give for demonstrating that they do or don't. One student argued that we know that plants don't have feelings because they don't respond in any way we can perceive. We then talked about the ways in which people often have feelings that they don't express. If people have feelings that are unexpressed, why should the fact that plants don't express feelings lead us to conclude that plants don't have them?
We talked about how mysterious it is to understand someone else's feelings, and whether we can ever really know that another person has feelings. One student suggested that since a person can only be sure that he or she has feelings, we can use that knowledge to believe that other people experience those feelings as well, but we can never really know for sure.
This led us into a discussion about having and expressing feelings, and we talked about the ways in which paintings express feelings. The students came up with three sources for the expression of feelings by paintings: feelings generated by the artist, feelings that are part of the painting itself, and feelings that are in us causing us to respond in a certain way to a particular piece of art.
We then started discussing music, and the ways in which music expresses feeling. Most students seemed to want to claim that all music expresses feeling. One student commented that music to her is a clear example of art arousing feeling that is in us. She noted that a piece of music can make us feel one way at one point in our lives, and that listening to it at a different point in our lives we might experience very different feelings. Another student argued that there are some pieces of music that simply are, in themselves, sad, or happy, or excited. We agreed that music seemed very puzzling. We'll return to the subject in class next week.

Monday, November 10, 2008


My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

-- Robert Frost

November Birthdays

November 7 Albert Camus (French, born 1913)
November 8 Gottlob Frege (German, born 1848)
November 16 Robert Nozick (American, born 1938)
November 17 Mikhail Bakhtin (Russian, born 1895)
November 21 Voltaire (French, born 1694)
November 23 Peter Strawson (British, born 1919)
November 24 Baruch Spinoza (Dutch, born 1632)
November 28 Friedrich Engels (German, born 1820)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part III

This week the sixth graders and I read part of a chapter from Harry Stottlemeir's Discovery (by Matthew Lipman, part of the curriculum developed by the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey), which involves two girls visiting an art museum together and talking as they wander around. The chapter raises many philosophical questions, including questions about art, poetry, nature, and friendship.

The students and I read about three pages together and then I asked the students if the reading brought any questions to their minds. They came up with questions about what it meant to treat someone like a thing, whether we have moral responsibilities to living things that are not human beings, why some people are more sensitive than others, and whether something that is offensive to many people can be considered art.

Although we had some interesting exchanges, especially about the nature of things versus people, this class was not as successful as others I have facilitated. It is sometimes the less successful classes from which I learn the most as a teacher, and I've been analyzing what it was that led this session to work less well than others. I think perhaps I let the conversation become too scattered and didn't sufficiently rein it in -- it is always a balance for me to help the students to take the dialogue where they want to go with it and at the same time to keep it structured, philosophical and coherent. I want to encourage the students to talk with each other (which they do quite well now, rarely just directing their comments just at me), but I also want to make sure that we make some progress in our discussions. I had some difficulty this time in helping the students to build on each other’s ideas, and the conversation really seemed to jump from one point to another in a somewhat jumbled way.

We're going to read another part of the same chapter in Harry next week, which raises (among other things) questions about the relationship between art and life. I think I will plan some more activities and exercises that we can use to help focus our discussion, in whatever direction it ends up taking.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part II

I decided that the second class of the philosophy of art series should involve actually looking at visual art and talking about it. I thought about taking the students to a local art gallery, and then decided that it would be fun for them instead to visit our local junior/senior high school (where they will be 7th grade students next year) and look at artwork by high school students. We have a fabulous art program at our high school, taught by an inspiring and dedicated teacher, Sean McCabe. Sean agreed to spend some time with the 6th grade students.
I took the two classes up to the high school in separate groups, and both had a marvelous time. We looked at artwork Sean had put together in a slide show, including work by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist and other modern artists. We also walked around the art room looking at some very impressive work by high school students.
We talked about the difference between realism and more abstract art, and about such questions as whether everything an artist intends to be art is art, what makes art good or not, whether a work being original is sufficient for it to be art, and the nature of creativity. The visit seemed to help the students to deepen their appreciation of how complex some of these questions are, and looking at art while talking about questions of aesthetics allowed all of these questions to become more concrete.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part I

I'm going to write a series of posts about the philosophy of art unit I'm doing with sixth grade students this fall. Yesterday was the first session of the unit. We started by listing some of the things the students said they would consider art, which included paintings, sculpture, music, and poetry and also rocks, mountains, clothes and buildings. As the discussion ensued, most of the students wanted to say that anything could be art. We talked a bit about whether the basis for considering a work to be art can be that the artist thinks it is. I gave an example of stacking up dishes after dinner and saying to my sons, "Look at that wonderful work of art." Would that really be art? Most of the students, at least at first, seemed to want to say, "Yes, if you think it's art, it is art." Or that at least by explaining it in a certain way a person could transform almost anything into art. We also talked for a little while about whether art has to be created by human beings.

Next we discussed a puzzle adapted from W.E. Kennick's Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics: A famous sculptor buys 120 bricks and, on the floor of a well-known art museum, arranges them in a rectangular pile, 2 bricks high, 6 across, and 10 lengthwise. He labels the work Pile of Bricks. Across town, workers at a construction site take 120 bricks of the very same kind and arrange them the same way, wholly unaware of what has happened in the museum - they are just getting ready to use them. Can the first pile of bricks be a work of art while the second pile is not, even though the two piles are seemingly identical in all observable respects?

Most of the students’ first reaction to this puzzle was to say that both are works of art. But this became more problematic when the students wanted to say that the construction pile would only be a work of art because the sculptor’s pile was one. One student wondered how the same work could be art if something else existed, but otherwise not. Someone suggested that maybe the artist’s intention mattered here. If the workers did not intend their pile to be a work of art, maybe it couldn’t be one. Others said that if other people saw the construction site pile as a work of art, it could be one even if the workers who arranged the bricks didn’t think so.

I asked the students to draw or in some way fashion two pieces of blank paper so that one would be art and one would not be. Some of the students then displayed their work to the class and explained why one work was art and one was not. It was interesting: many students argued that even a work the artist thought was not art could be art -- paper folded in a certain way, a line drawn across a page. When someone held up a blank page, though, virtually all the students agreed that this could never be art. No one had worked on it, one student said. The exercise resulted in the students coming up with several ways to distinguish art from non-art: whether there was any effort put into the work, whether the artist intended that the work be a work of art, and whether the work is acknowledged as art in some way.

At the end of the session, we wrote down a list of the students' questions:

How is art created?
How did art come to be?
Is everything art?
Do opinions about art besides the artist’s opinion matter?
Why do we use the word “art?”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

October birthdays

October 1 Catharine MacKinnon (American, born 1946)

October 4 Richard Rorty (American, born 1931)

October 14 Hannah Arendt (German, born 1906)

October 15 Friedrich Nietzsche (German, born 1844)
and Michel Foucault (French, born 1926)

October 18 Henri Bergson (French, born 1859)

October 20 John Dewey (American, born 1859)

October 29 A. J. Ayer (British, born 1910)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Can you test moral sense?

The Moral Sense Test is a Harvard University web-based study into the nature of moral judgments. The test is a series of moral dilemmas that purport to analyze the psychology behind our moral judgments. The site notes that the study "has been designed for all humans who are curious about that puzzling little word 'ought' — about the principles that make one action right and another wrong."

Some of the dilemmas in the test might be useful to use when talking about moral philosophy with pre-college students, and it would be interesting to discuss the test in general with students. Can a test like this really help us decide why some actions are right and others wrong? Anyway, taking the test doesn't take much time and is kind of fun!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The One Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ursula LeGuin short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a powerful story for discussing with high school students utilitarian ethics and the question of whether the suffering of one person is permissible if it brings about the greater good. The story is set in a joyful and seemingly perfect city, where there is no hunger, poverty, violence, or boredom. The citizens are content, engaged in creative ways in their community, and there is great peace and happiness.
Except that in the city, in a locked basement room the size of a broom closet, there is a child. The child is about ten years old, naked and alone, and is left in that locked room to which no one comes, except on occasion to kick the child to make him or her stand and quickly fill the water and food bowls.
LeGuin writes: "[T]he child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often."
The children of Omelas learn about the existence of this child as they reach adolescence. They learn that the existence of their perfect society depends on the misery of this child. Some of them want to help the child, but they understand that to do so would instantly destroy the beauty and peace and joy of their city. Those are the terms, LeGuin tells us. They are absolute.
I usually read the story (which is not very long) aloud with students. We then break up into groups and the students are asked to discuss what they would do if they lived in Omelas and had just been told about the child in the basement.
Many of the students instantly say that they would leave the city because they could not live knowing that their happiness depended on such terrible misery. Others say that while it is a horrible situation for the child, to help the child would be worse because it would destroy the happiness of everyone, and that to leave would mean leaving everyone and everything they love. When we come back together, we talk about what the right thing is to do in this situation. Is it right to leave the child there? Is it right to set the child free? Is it worth the life of one innocent child to free a society of violence and poverty?
Is Omelas a utopia? Why or why not? What makes something a perfect society?
Invariably at some point in the discussion one or two students raise the question, don’t we base our happiness on the misery of others now? Isn’t our society like Omelas? We talk about whether we share the problem of the people of Omelas in our lives. These discussions are usually very spirited and interesting, and I’ve found that the power of this story really brings these issues home for teenagers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Philosophy Talk and the Mystery of Music

A good resource for thinking about what questions to ask when talking to students about philosophy is Philosophy Talk, a weekly one-hour radio series exploring issues of philosophy. Calling itself "the program that questions everything . . . except your intelligence," the series is very engaging and most past shows can be downloaded online.
I am working on a unit for sixth grade on philosophy of art. My plan is to do some sessions on visual art, on poetry and on music. I listened recently to the show on "Why Music Matters" with David Harrington, a founding member of the Kronos Quartet, and it helped to get me thinking about the questions we can explore in our sessions on music.
What is music? Are there universals of music? Is there some quality that anything considered "music" must have? Can any sound count as music in the right context? Is there any objective difference between musical sounds and non-musical sounds? Is music a language? Does all music involve the expression of emotion? Is what makes something music the way it affects the listener? Harrington says that as a violinist, he thinks about music as friction, and he talks about music as the "friction that humans have rubbing against the world, and in a certain way that creates sound." So can ugly sounds be music? Is there such a thing as good taste in music?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Death and Philosophy

If we did not die, if our existence did not unravel in the endless darkness of death, would life be quite so precious, so extraordinary, so moving?
Andre Comte-Sponville,
Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne

Whenever I ask students what they think are the most fundamental questions of human life, always on the list is some form of the question, Why do we have to die?
I lost a very close friend, one of those few friends who are really more like family, this week. He died suddenly, leaving three children behind. Can philosophy help me to deal with this loss? Can it help me to understand death? Can it help young people?
One way in which I've explored this question with students is by reading with them the picture book The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, about the life a leaf named Freddie and his struggle to understand death and the cycle of life, and discussing the following questions:
Was fall frightening for the leaves? Why?
Daniel tells the leaves that in fall the leaves change their home, and he says that some people call this “to die.” What does this mean?
Freddie tells Daniel he is afraid to die. Why is he afraid?
Daniel says that death is a natural change just like spring becoming summer, or summer becoming fall. Do you think this is true? What is a "natural change?"
How do you think Freddie felt when he was all alone, the last leaf left on his branch? Do you think he was ready to die? Is there such a thing as being "ready to die?" What does that mean?
Freddie saw how strong and firm his tree was as he fell from it. He felt proud that he had been a part of its life. Why do you think he felt that way? Is death a part of life? How would life be different without death?
The author ends the book by calling it “the beginning” instead of “the end.” Why does he do that? What is the difference between a beginning and an end? Are they always different? Can beginnings be endings, and endings beginnings?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Is this really philosophy?

". . . That slight uncertainty
which makes us sure."

From Advice from the Muse
by Richard Wilbur

The start of the school year and planning for the year's philosophy classes. Usually I start my philosophy classes by asking students to offer some possible answers to the question, "What is philosophy?" (Of course there is no incontestable answer to this question – philosophers themselves disagree about what philosophy is.)
We talk about what the students think philosophy is for a while, and usually some form of the following ends up on the board:
Thinking about unsettled questions
Talking about fundamental questions
Trying to understand ourselves and our world
Thinking about thinking
Discussing questions that are impossible to answer
This list seems to me not bad for an initial understanding of what philosophy is all about. The more challenging task is, throughout the year and during each class, to evaluate whether what we are doing is philosophy (and not psychology, or history, or science, or telling personal stories) and to push the group (including myself) to keep our discussions philosophical.
It's very easy, especially with younger students, to veer off course and end up talking not, for example, about whether lying is ever morally acceptable (clearly a philosophical discussion, in my view) but about one child's story of her experience lying to a teacher about something one day. Because personal stories often help to illuminate a philosophical position, the fact that a student is telling a personal story doesn't alone take us out of the realm of philosophy. But it is a danger zone. (As fun as it is to get to know the students personally, I'm not there to inspire a social discussion in the classroom.) So I often will ask a student, "How does this illuminate the question we're thinking about? What is the question? Tell us how what you're describing helps us to think about how to answer it."
I tell students that our discussions are philosophy discussions because we're analyzing the questions behind the questions. So not, is this fair? But, what is fairness? Not, is this person leading a good life? But, what are the essential ingredients for living a good life? I frequently ask myself in the middle of class discussions, is this a philosophical question? If it isn’t, what can I do to turn it into one?
I often think of one of my graduate school professors, Larry Bonjour, who was skeptical about the possibility that real philosophy could take place in elementary and middle school classrooms, and I imagine him standing there saying to me, “Is this philosophy, Jana?” A touchstone for me is a paraphrase of a statement by Bertrand Russell: “The value of philosophy is to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.” I remind myself that none of the questions we discuss in philosophy class should be questions that are answerable in any final way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Three Questions

“There once was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act. ‘I want to be a good person,’ he told his friends. ‘But I don’t always know the best way to do that.’”
From The Three Questions
by Jon J. Muth

Muth takes Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions, as the starting point for this picture book account of a young boy’s search for an understanding of the ethical dimension of human existence. Nikolai asks his friends to help him to find the answer to the three questions that he considers to be the most important ones for helping him to know the right way to act.
When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?
Nikolai's search leads him to seek the help of someone he thinks of as wiser than himself, who helps him to decide that the meaning of life rests in the relationships we form and the way we treat others. The answers to Nikolai’s questions cannot be discerned in the abstract; he comes to understand his questions and their answers only in the context of his experiences.
The story raises some interesting philosophical questions about the nature of thinking about philosophy in general and ethics in particular. I always ask students with whom I read this story, what do you think of Nikolai’s questions? Do you think they are the most important questions in life, and does and/or should our understanding of these questions change over time and with experience? Are the most important questions in life the same for everyone?
Some of the questions elementary school students in my classes have suggested as the most important questions in life are: Why does the world exist? Why do people fight? Where does infinity end? Is life a dream? Is there only one of me in the world? Why do we have to die?
The Three Questions raises the issue of whether we can develop an understanding of the meaning of our lives in the abstract -- that is, by thinking about the implications and significance of human existence -- or does answering the kinds of questions Nikolai asks require relationships with others, experience and maturity? And can relationships and experiences come about through thinking and reading?
In Nikolai, we meet a sympathetic person whose search becomes, in a sense, our own, and through his experience we begin to imagine the ways in which we might search for the answers to the questions of our lives. In this story, it is not only the character Nikolai, but also the author Jon Muth and his source Leo Tolstoy, whose experiences and beliefs underlie the questions the story explores.
Is there a right way to act in all or most situations, and can we come to know what it is? This is of course a standard question in any introductory college ethics class. The way it is usually analyzed is through study of the ways that some of the great philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Hume, etc.) have thought about the issue. A story like The Three Questions, alternatively, allows us to explore this question through the imagination, through a narrative encounter with someone else’s experience.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Getting philosophy into classrooms

I'm often asked how the center got started and about ways to get into schools to do philosophy with young people. I decided to start the center when I was about to finish my Ph.D. in 1996. I had become interested in working with pre-college students, and a non-profit center seemed to me the best way to do this. Forming a non-profit allowed me to apply for grants and to solicit and accept tax-deductible donations. The center is still an independent non-profit, though in 1999 we became affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington.
The summer before I finished my dissertation, I did a two-week workshop with the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey. It was fabulous! Inspiring and wonderful training for bringing philosophy into K-12 classrooms.
When the center began, we assumed that we would spend a lot of our time facilitating workshops for teachers. We quickly realized, however, that teachers were already overburdened with growing requirements for what they had to teach, and that especially with the increase in standardized testing, most teachers were not interested in adding another area to what they were doing. (Moreover, in the United States most teachers are relatively unfamiliar with philosophy, as it is not a required secondary school subject and most people who study it choose to do so in college.)
Ultimately we decided that the better approach would be to develop what we call the “Philosophers in the Schools” program. Modeled after “Artists in the Schools” residency programs, our program places adults trained in doing philosophy with young people into K-12 classrooms around Washington State. As short as six weeks to as long as an entire school year, these weekly (and, sometimes, biweekly) sessions use literature, art, activities, and puzzles to talk with young people about the large, unsettled questions of philosophy.
There are many ways to develop this kind of program. If you are not a classroom teacher, the key is to develop a relationship with a teacher or teachers. If you don’t know any teachers, you might start by offering to volunteer in a local school, by tutoring or helping out in classrooms in other ways. This is a great way to get to know teachers and students.
Also, consider talking with teachers in whose classes you are interested in doing philosophy about their upcoming plans. Are there readings or subjects that are being taught in the classroom for which you could prepare related philosophy sessions? One of the most exciting ways to build philosophy programs in schools is to work with teachers to create interdisciplinary units.
For some more detailed ideas about how to start a pre-college philosophy program, see our website. Another good source for assistance is the American Philosophical Association Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy pamphlet: So, You Want to Teach Pre-College Philosophy?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust

Pen and ink
by Mollie Hunt
8th grade student
Winthrop, WA, 2008

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, learning about the horror of it as an elementary school child, experiencing recurrent childhood nightmares about the Nazis. For years I stayed away from the subject, avoiding books and films that dealt with it.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, though, I began thinking more and more about genocide generally and the Holocaust in particular, and what I could do as an educator to get involved in working to prevent further genocides. I started reading books about the Holocaust, watching films, and thinking about developing a philosophy class that looked at the Holocaust and the moral questions raised by it and other events of genocide.
I talked to the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other educational resources around the country. One of the best resources I found was Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization dedicated to helping teachers lead their students in critical examinations of history, with particular focus on genocide and mass violence. In 2005 I enrolled in their online seminar for teachers, "Holocaust and Human Behavior," and that eight-week class provided me with abundant ideas and resources for what I wanted to do. I highly recommend this online class!
At the time that I finished the Facing History course, I was doing general philosophy sessions in some middle and high school classes. The students were reading some Holocaust literature, including Elie Wiesel's Night and The Diary of Anne Frank. Although the students were reading this material and discussing it, there was no intensive Holocaust unit in place. The English teachers welcomed my offer to do a unit on "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust." That first year, we watched films and read various short pieces about the Holocaust, and discussed moral questions about individual responsibility and the nature of community, forgiveness and courage.
The unit has become an annual eight-week series of classes in the eighth grade that encompass philosophy, language arts and history, taught by me and the language arts and history teachers. It includes five films, discussion groups with parent volunteers helping the two teachers and me, multimedia projects, and visits to our school at the end of the unit by speakers who have experienced the Holocaust.
Through viewing films, working on projects and participating in ongoing discussion groups, we explore the following questions:
What is a community? What shapes its identity?
Is it morally permissible to resist authority in certain situations? Is it ever morally obligatory to resist?
Is indifference morally wrong?
What keeps people silent in the face of moral wrongs?
How does knowledge of past wrongs affect our moral responsibilities?
Do we have a moral obligation to help others?
What is courage?
What is forgiveness? Who has the power to forgive oppressors? Is forgiveness possible?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Being philosophically naïve

When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I sometimes thought that the initial wonder and enthusiasm that drew me to philosophy as a high school student was in danger of being eclipsed by the pressure I was feeling to show how philosophically sophisticated I was. I loved the rigor and depth of the work I was doing on the graduate level, but I also often felt like a fraud. What did I really know about philosophy anyway? It seemed to me that I had to be very careful not to make obvious all the gaps in my philosophical knowledge. And no matter how much philosophy I read and how many classes I took, there were (and are) many gaps.
A criticism frequently heard in upper level philosophy classes and professional philosophy circles is that a particular point is "philosophically naïve." As a grad student, it was clear to me that philosophical naiveté was not a quality to be flaunted. But what is philosophical naiveté and why is it something to be avoided?
As I understand it, to be philosophically naïve is to lack knowledge about the long intellectual history of the discussion of many philosophical issues, and so to miss the depth and complexity of particular questions. That is, to be philosophically naïve is to see the issue as simpler than it is and therefore to analyze it in ways that are superficial, given the history of the discussion in philosophy about it. By contrast, to be philosophically sophisticated is to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant philosophical work on a particular topic, and an understanding of which questions are interesting and which less so.
I have thought a lot about philosophical naiveté and sophistication since graduate school. Because I work with pre-college students, some of them very young, many of the philosophy discussions we have would be considered philosophically naïve. The students with whom I work generally do not have much understanding of philosophy’s long intellectual history, and they approach questions such as “What is knowledge?” or “What is the right way to live?” without any real sense of the sophisticated ongoing discussion taking place about such questions.
So, on the one hand, young people’s explorations of the questions of philosophy don’t often appreciate their historical and intellectual complexity. On the other hand, though, such “naiveté” can make possible a fresh perspective. Young students examine these questions openly, with few preconceptions about what they already know and about which answers are more interesting than others. They tend to lack self-consciousness about showing how smart and/or knowledgeable they are -- they plunge in to explore questions new to them without worrying that they should know something they don't.

"We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle."

From The Railway Children by Seamus Heaney
Sometimes a first look at a question, without knowledge of other people’s previous ideas about it, can yield a novel way of seeing something. After all, central to philosophy is the critical examination of all of the things we think we know. Analyzing a question of philosophy from the point of view of one who knows nothing has the potential to illuminate new ways of understanding. In this sense, it is our imaginative facility for wondering about the world that is the essential intellectual tool.
Can naiveté be in some ways an asset to philosophy?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What are thoughts?

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds. . . .

From Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens

Over the past six years I have taught philosophy to the same general group of children, starting in kindergarten. Each year I’m amazed on the first day of philosophy when the students are invariably right back in it, as if six or so months hadn’t elapsed since the last time we talked about philosophy together. What I really notice as the students have gotten older is how much more philosophically rich our conversations are becoming, and how much more they talk directly to each other instead of directing all their comments at me. They are so alive during philosophy class, passionately interested in the questions and seeming to have little fear of speaking their thoughts in the group.

In fifth grade we started each session by reading a couple of pages from Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery, a philosophical novel written by Matthew Lipman for the purpose of doing philosophy with children of around this age. The novel portrays a group of children about this age having philosophical discussions, and when I read it with students it always inspires many questions. One of my favorite discussions that we had this past year was about the nature of thinking.

Do thoughts require language? Can you have thoughts without knowing you’re having them? Can we control our thoughts? Do we think when we’re asleep? One child asked whether dreaming can be defined as thinking when sleeping. It quickly became apparent to the children that what they thought they understood – what thinking is – was actually far more puzzling than they’d expected.

This led to an animated discussion about dreaming, and about whether we can know when we’re dreaming and when we’re not. One young boy said, “Isn’t it possible that everything is a dream? That there is some being on another planet or something who controls what we do, and we think we’re in this class but really we’re always dreaming.” I told the class that this comment echoed a famous argument by the philosopher Descartes, who asked us to think about whether we can ever really know that we are not dreaming or being otherwise fooled into thinking we are doing what we seem to be doing.

At this, one girl who had obviously been deep in thought about these questions, raised her hand and said, “Jana, can I come up to the board and draw what I’m thinking? I can’t express it in words, but I think I can draw what I mean.” She came up and drew two pictures: one of a person lying in bed dreaming, and the other of the dream the person is having. What if, she said, this (pointing to the picture of the dream) is really happening, and this (pointing to the picture of the sleeper having the dream) isn’t real at all?

I’ve thought often about that moment since then. This question about the nature of thought is extremely puzzling. What is thinking? Does it require language? Can newborn babies think? I’m tempted to say no, they can’t, but then I wonder, so when does thinking begin? Does it coincide with the acquisition of language? If so, how is it that this young girl couldn’t, as we say, put her thought into words, and so drew the expression of it instead? Is the thought there before the expression of it? Sometime I will have a thought, but I can’t quite express it, it’s just out of reach. Do I start thinking once I access that thought and can express it? So was this young girl having a thought, say, which she was having trouble expressing, and once she was able to draw it she was able to think about it? Is having a thought different from thinking?

The drawing led the class in a different direction, to a discussion about whether something has to be able to be seen and touched to be real. Is the mental world real? Are numbers real? One child said excitedly, “It’s possible we have all of it wrong!” Another child responded, “No, because if we’re having the dream then we must exist, even if we can’t be sure that the dream is real and what we think is real isn’t.” Everyone thought about this comment for a while, and we agreed to talk more about it the following week.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Why are we here?

At the end of our philosophy sessions together this year, I asked the 5th grade students with whom I'd been working what questions they'd like to keep talking about. I loved their questions. Here are some of them:

Why are we here?
Why am I me?
Why do we have philosophy?
What is art?
How do we know life isn't just a dream?
What are emotions?
How do we know we have minds?
Why do we ask questions?
What is the imagination? Is the imagination memory?
What started everything? What is the beginning?
What is time?
How do we know other people see what we see and hear what we hear?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Can Children Do Philosophy?

"The orgin of philosophy is wonder."
Plato, Theaetetus
When I tell people I spend a lot of my time in K-12 classrooms doing philosophy with young people, often I’m met with a somewhat skeptical response. How do you teach philosophy to children? What philosophy do you teach them? Is this religious? Are children really able to do philosophy?
In many ways, such responses capture the heart of what it is to think about philosophy and to think about it with children. It is a puzzling endeavor, in many ways. Because I don't really teach philosophy to children. And I certainly don't teach them any particular philosophy. Sometimes our discussions touch on religion, but what we're doing is not a religious activity. So what do I mean when I tell people, yes, children are definitely able to do philosophy?
This of course raises the question, what is philosophy? Literally philosophy means "love of wisdom." When I talk with students about what philosophy is, I like to talk about unsettled questions, about thinking about the questions that lie underneath other questions. For example, if someone says, "Is it true? -- a philosopher might ask, "What is truth?" Or when students argue over whether something is fair, a philosophical approach would be to ask, "What is fairness?"
So when I say children are able to do philosophy, I don't mean that ten-year-olds are able to grasp the intricacies of Descartes’ arguments about knowledge. (Though I hope that doing philosophy at an early age will eventually lead them to be curious about what Descartes had to say!) In fact, teaching philosophy for me rarely involves lecturing about what the great philosophers thought or what contemporary philosophers think (though sometimes that comes up and is helpful). What's most central about doing philosophy with children is examining for myself and helping children examine for themselves the ancient puzzles that philosophy seeks to explore. Those wonderful, mysterious questions about life and death and beauty and consciousness that are at the core of the human experience.

The Why Questions

Around the age of four most children start asking the “why” questions. Why do things have to be fair? Why do we have to die? Why is blue a color? Why do we have minds? The beginning of intellectual curiosity. Children generally have no idea that they are joining a dialogue that has been going on for thousands of years. They don't think they have the answers, and they aren't even really looking for someone to give them answers. They just want to wonder about these questions, and we can wonder along with them. In some ways, children are the ideal philosophers, because they do not have to grapple with long-held and often unexamined assumptions about what they know about the world. They assume they know very little. I think that we adults can learn a great deal from that.
When my children were preschool age, we had long thoughtful discussions about these kinds of questions, discussions that were different than many other kinds of talks I had with my kids where I was typically the expert, answering their questions. Here we were co-thinkers in a way. Unlike the more practical questions the boys asked (“where are my gloves?”), I had no answers to these questions, finding them endlessly puzzling myself. These were the kinds of questions, after all, that had led me to study philosophy in college and then graduate school.
When my oldest son, Will, was in preschool and kindergarten, I convinced his teachers to let me try leading philosophy classes with their students. I would bring a philosophically suggestive story to read or tell, and we would discuss the questions raised in the story for a half hour or so. It was marvelous. We read stories like Owl and the Moon," in Owl at Home, by Arnold Lobel, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, and "Dragons and Giants," in Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel. We talked about questions like: What makes something alive? What is time? Does everything have a cause? What does it mean to be brave? Can you be brave and afraid at the same time?
Meanwhile I was having a very different experience as a teaching assistant in philosophy at the college level. Although my students were bright and interested in philosophy (after all, they were choosing to take the classes), they were very reticent about speaking honestly in class about their thoughts, clearly concerned about what their peers might think of them. Their curiosity about philosophy and its questions was too often overtaken by their interest in getting good grades, and making sure that we spent most of our time going over what was likely to be on their exams. They were learning various philosophical arguments, to be sure, but all too often they weren’t really doing philosophy, as I saw it; they were just passively taking in the views of past or current philosophers.
I began thinking about the first philosophy class I had taken, in my public high school during my senior year. It had been a life-changing experience for me. It was so exciting to be in a classroom talking with other students about questions I’d been thinking about for years. And being introduced to the idea that people could do this as their jobs! I remember thinking, “You mean there are people who actually get paid to spend their time thinking about these questions?” I was hooked.
Philosophy is not typically taught in the United States before college, and many adults I know have never been introduced to it. Given young people’s natural disposition to thinking about these large and puzzling issues, it seems to me that philosophy belongs in the school curriculum starting in elementary school. And especially in this time of greater and greater emphasis on what's needed for students to pass state tests, it's revitalizing for students to have a time in the school week devoted to dialogue about questions that have no settled answers, about which they can wonder and imagine without fear of their responses being wrong.