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.