Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Galilean Library

I found a wonderful website this week: The Galilean Library. The site is a resource for people interested in the sciences and humanities, and in particular philosophy, history, literature, and history and philosophy of science. It includes a library of essays and interviews aimed at all levels, along with a discussion forum on such subjects as free will and the nature of courage. The philosophy section has an ongoing series of essays about philosophy, beginning with the question of what philosophy is and what it means to do philosophy, and moving on to specific areas of philosophy. Great material here for high school classes!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Philosophy and The Purloined Boy

I recently had a conversation with Christopher Wiley, whose num de plume is Mortimus Clay, the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Purloined Boy. The novel was a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category of the National Best Books 2009 Awards from USA Book News. The plot of the book utlizes themes and ideas from Plato and Aristotle to explore issues about metaphysics, epistemology, and social and political philosophy. The author is a Presbyterian minister who for about a decade taught philosophy part-time to undergraduates at Eastern Nazarene College.

What led you from philosophy to writing young adult fantasy?

For me there wasn’t a direct road from philosophy to fantasy. Both have been part of my life since I started reading seriously as a teenager. I didn’t begin to write young adult fantasy so that I could encode philosophy in order to slip it past the unsuspecting reader. Instead – I’m a philosopher who loves fantasy and got an idea for a story stuck in his head and used philosophy to help get it out.

Do you think that fantasy novels are a particularly good way to facilitate young people’s exploration of philosophy?

Fantasy is a great place to explore philosophical themes. You can even have fun with characters – basing them on philosophers or schools of philosophy. The easiest thing to do is to work with symbolism and foreshadowing. But I think the most fruitful use of philosophy in writing fiction is allowing philosophical problems to arise for the characters to address within the context of the plot. I’d say that philosophy, when practiced well, helps us identify the fundamental issues to respond to in any situation we find ourselves in. Since it is helpful in that way in our lives – it certainly can work that way in a narrative.

You mentioned in our mail exchange that the books are “an attempt to live philosophy from the inside.” What do you mean by that?

Each of us has a life to examine and we examine it from the inside. What makes literature an art that can’t be replaced by any other medium is that it allows the artist to speak within the mind of the reader. All other forms address us from the outside. Even music must be audible to be received. Only the written word enters silently, paradoxically from without and from within at the same moment. As such it enables the writer to propose ideas, images, judgments, etc. with the inner voice of the reader. At the same time the reader is taken out of himself or herself and enters the mind of the author – through the narrator or a character.

Now literally there is no such person as the character one reads about in a book. Even accounts based on real events are not literally true. They’re representations. But they can tell us something true. (Here is where I think Plato was inconsistent. His philosophy of art and his method for teaching philosophy stand in contradiction.) When good fiction does its work disbelief is suspended for a time and the reader can envision the world from another’s perspective. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions to someone. One might say propositions do that. But they don’t, really. A proposition is something a thinker holds before himself or herself and considers. One doesn’t enter into it unless he or she has an unusually sympathetic disposition and a powerful imagination. Through fiction I can help readers entertain questions they may not entertain in any other way.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Winter Solitude

Winter solitude—
in a world of one
the sound of wind.

Matsuo Basho
Translated from the Japanese by Robert Hass

December Birthdays

December 2008 post

Friday, December 11, 2009

Philosophy Cafe

On Tuesday afternoon we had a "philosophy cafe" in the 5th grade. I brought cider and cookies, and told the students that in parts of the world adults went to cafes and had something to eat and drink and talked about philosophy. It created a really different kind of environment for our conversation, very relaxed and more intimate.

We talked about how for most of the year so far, we've been talking about questions of metaphysics and epistemology, about the nature of reality and about knowledge, as well as examining some aesthetics issues. I suggested that we now move into talking about ethics, and we spent a little time talking about what that is.

I like to begin a series of ethics sessions with Plato's story of the "Ring of Gyges," as it raises many fundamental ethics issues in an accessible way. I told the students the story, and then asked them what they would do if they found a ring that allowed them to become invisible. Some of their answers were:

Use it like a toy
Play tricks on people
Fight crime
Play hide and seek
Sell it on eBay
Disappear when my sisters annoy me
Put it on my dog
Sneak out of class
I would hope I wouldn’t find it, because I don’t need it & I don’t want it

I noted that none of them had suggested doing the kind of bad things that Gyges did. Why?

“I think some people do good things because they want to, not just because they’re scared of getting caught if they do the wrong thing,” suggested another student.

“But we might not do what we think we’ll do,” argued another. “We don’t really know what we’d do with the ring because we don’t know how we’ll feel once we have it. Most people get greedy eventually.”

“I think that’s right,” another student agreed. “At some time or other, if you keep the ring, you’re going to get a little greedy and want to use it.”

“I would feel wrong doing those kinds of things,” one girl volunteered. “I feel happier when I do the right thing. Like I feel better when I clean up my room and do extra things around the house.”

We talked a little about the idea that doing the right thing makes you happy, and how you know what the right thing to do is. I described for the students the following dilemma : you have plans to get together with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into another more popular friend, who invites you to go to a movie with a group of people, a film you really want to see and it’s the last day it’s in the theater, but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What's the right thing to do, and why?

Most of the students said they would keep their plan with the first friend, because that was their first commitment and because the more popular friend wasn’t being very nice. We talked about the nature of promises and what it is that makes keeping them seem important. Many of the students seemed to think that we would have special obligations to the friend who had few other friends, and that we somehow owe less to our more popular friend.

“I’d say, ‘Uh uh dude,’” one student declared, “’you already have enough friends.’”

We talked about the idea a student voiced that the people with the most friends do not tend to be the truest friends. Can you have many friends and still be a good friend?

One student proposed that she would ask the first friend if it was okay with her if she went to the movies and they rescheduled their plans. “But I’d make sure to tell her that she didn’t have to say yes, and if she really wanted to be with me I wouldn’t go to the movies.”

“I know!” a student exclaimed. “Let’s make a skit of this.”

The students liked the idea and we divided up into groups of four, and each group acted out the scenario. Some of the students playing the more popular friend tried hard to talk the student facing the dilemma into coming to the movies and were offended at a refusal, and some of the students facing the dilemma tried to convince their less popular friends that it was okay for them to break their plans and go. It was interesting to see the varied ways the scenario played out, and quite fun to observe the students’ dramatic skills!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Real Thief

William Steig's The Real Thief is an appealing story for talking about ethics with young people. It's a short chapter book, which can be read to a child over several nights or along with a child who is already a reader. I’ve also used this story to talk about ethics with middle and high school students.

The story is about Gawain, a goose who is the Chief Guard of the Royal Treasury. When jewels from the Royal Treasury go missing, Gawain is blamed. The Prime Minister, Adrian the cat, makes the argument that because (1) the only way to get into the Royal Treasury is through the door, (2) no locks were broken, (3) only Gawain and the King have keys, (4) the King has no reason to rob his own treasury, and (5) “it is unthinkable” for the King to be wrong about any earthly thing, then Gawain must have done it. Gawain escapes after he is sentenced, and the story shifts to the perspective of Gawain's friend Derek the mouse, the real thief.

The story inspires questions about trust, forgiveness, friendship and loyalty. What should Derek have done? Why did he stay silent? Was his plan to keep stealing once Gawain fled and only the King had keys to the treasury a good plan? Was Derek a good friend to Gawain? Was Derek punished for what he did? What about the King? Did he have any obligations to Gawain? What were they? Did the King and the Court act unjustly? Should Gawain have forgiven the King and the rest of the community?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Recently I've begun working on a book for parents and other adults about ways to inspire conversations about philosophy with young people. As part of this work, I've been thinking about the ways in which all of the philosophy discussions I've had over the years with my three children have contributed to creating an open and inquiring give-and-take with them, which really comes in handy (along with a sense of humor) now that they’re teenagers (well, the youngest is 12, but he's really a young teenager!).

From the time they were pretty young (four or five), we've explored together questions like the meaning of life, dreams, knowledge, the nature of thinking, whether something can come from nothing, friendship and time. Much of the time when the boys were young we began talking about these issues as a result of stories we read together, though as they've gotten older the conversations more often than not begin in the car on the way to some activity in which they are involved.

One thing I’ve observed is how comfortable the kids are raising any kind of question, from “How do you think the first word came to be? to “Can a fiction book be true?” I always try to pay attention to when a question is aimed at a larger philosophical issue, and to help it along with some questions of my own. It seems to me that as a result of years of doing this together, the boys are able to talk with my husband Ron and me about issues that come up with teenagers (drugs and alcohol, curfews, driving, college preparation, etc.) in a more calm and thoughtful way (well, at least some of the time!) than would have happened otherwise.

There is an easiness about our conversations that, I think, is in part due to the environment created by being attentive to exploring larger philosophical questions with them. These philosophical questions are unlikely ever to be settled in any final way, and I believe that having talked about them so often has helped us to communicate more straightforwardly about the almost equally difficult issues that arise in the teenage years.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What is music?

Yesterday I had a session with two fifth grade classes (about 40 or so students), in which a local pianist/composer came in and performed John Cage's 4' 33" to inspire a conversation about the nature of music and art. In each of these classes, I had facilitated a session within the last couple of weeks in which we talked about the nature of art, including questions about whether art must always express emotion, how we know what emotion art expresses and whether that emotion is in the work itself, in the artist, and/or in us, and what makes something a work of art.

“Can art be emotionless?” one student asked in one of the classes. All of the students who responded wanted to claim that art must express emotion.

“All art expresses some emotion,” one student argued, “even if it’s just boredom.”

“But how do we know what emotion art is expressing?” another student asked. “It could be that we see a painting and think it’s sad, but really the artist and the person in the painting were happy.”

Several students maintained that expression, color, a subject’s body language, etc. all suggest certain emotions. Some of us might see the painting as expressing an emotion that is different from the one the artist intended, which led some students to assert that really the emotion is in us, and not in the art.

“Art just triggers emotion,” one student declared, “but the emotion it triggers is in us and not in the art.”

This led us to a discussion about what makes something art. I wadded up a piece of paper and threw it onto a table. “What if I said this was a new work of art I’d just created?”

“Well,” one student responded, “that could be art if you were intending to express something.”

“Okay,” I answered, “so if I said this was my expression of how pointless life seemed, that would make this crumpled-up paper art?”

“Yes,” another student put in. “If you intended to express that, it could be art. But if I was doing my homework and crumpled up the paper I was working on because it was wrong and planned to throw it in the garbage, that wouldn’t be art.”

“So can anything be art?” I asked.

In both classes, most students seemed to think that yes, anything can be art, though some of it is “bad art.” What really matters, most suggested, is the intention of the artist.

When we came into the band room for the performance of John Cage’s piece, the students were, of course, expecting to hear a performance of a traditional music piece. They were, just as students with whom I did this last year were, completely respectful and quiet during the performance of the piece. When it ended, they applauded, and when I asked them what they had experienced, the students observed that the effect of the piece was very relaxing and peaceful. One student commented that they had all been kind of “noisy and jittery” when we all came into the room, and noted how calm and quiet the room had become. Others commented on the way that the piece had allowed them to listen to all the sounds in the room in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. We talked about Cage’s intention that the piece be a “listening experience.” Is 4’ 33” music?

Some of the ideas that came out of this conversation included the claim that for something to be music, there must be a listener, that even one note can be music, and that silence can be a kind of music. We referred back to our earlier conversation about the centrality of the artist’s intention. Cage’s intention in creating 4’ 33”, to generate in listeners a greater openness to listening to all the sounds in the world, was decisive for most students in their conclusion that the piece counts as music. I wonder if this discussion leads the students to notice more the sounds in their lives, and to explore whether all or some of these sounds are music and what makes them so.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs--
He, she, all of them--yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face....
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss--
Elders and juniors--aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white stormbirds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all--
Men and maidens--yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee....
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them--aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

-- Thomas Hardy

November Birthdays

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Philosophy Day

Introduced in 2002, World Philosophy Day, the third Thursday of November each year, is a celebration of philosophy that seeks to bring philosophy into the lives of people everywhere. The day is an initiative by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that honors philosophical reflection internationally by bringing together people from around the world to explore a wide variety of issues.

This year the global celebration is taking place in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The theme is “Philosophy in the Dialogue of Cultures,” and the day is devoted to exploring issues related to dialogue between cultures. Many countries around the world actively promote and are engaged in this worldwide observance. World Philosophy Day is a recognition of the role of philosophy in establishing the conceptual foundation for the principles of justice, democracy, human rights and equality. People all around the world are encouraged to engage in philosophical reflection and dialogue. What a great day!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Women in Philosophy

There has been an ongoing discussion on the Leiter Reports blog about the under-representation of women in academic philosophy. The speculations about the reasons for the dearth of female philosophers include the following possibilities: (1) that the way in which philosophers talk about our profession (using language about arguments, defending our positions, attacking our opponents’ assumptions, etc.) puts off women who tend to be less aggressive and competitive; (2) the perceived impracticability of philosophy and the lack of a clear path to a non-academic job; (3) the lack of female role models; and (4) the lack of a serious effort by the profession to reach out to women.

It continues to puzzle me why more women don’t study philosophy, though I tend to believe that the final two reasons above offer far more promising explanations than the first two. I’ve been thinking, though, about my own experience teaching pre-college students. Over the past ten years I’ve probably had a dozen or so experiences in which a student (anywhere from age 10-17) has told me, “I think I’d like to be a philosopher when I grow up.” And they have all, 100% of them, been girls. I’m not sure what that experience adds to this discussion, but it does at least give some weight to the idea that female role models make a difference.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listening to Our Children

Somewhat frequently I receive email messages or other communications from parents asking me about how to introduce philosophy into their conversations with their children. The main advice I give people is to listen for the philosophical questions kids ask. I don't believe that bringing philosophical dialogue into your relationships with your children is about teaching them philosophy and looking for opportunities to do so (as we do with, say, teaching kids to read or learn math facts). It is really much more about listening and developing an ear for recognizing kids' philosophical questions.

As parents, we are often quick to answer our kids' questions. (That's a big part of the job of parenting, after all!) And I think that really that’s the most significant impediment to talking about philosophy with our children. Parents are often uncomfortable having conversations with our kids in which we don’t have the answers, and not very skilled at picking up on those questions for which an answer from us is not really what is sought.

You don’t need to have taken any philosophy classes to start these conversations with your children. We all have philosophical questions. Who am I? Why is there something rather than nothing? What does it mean to live a good life? Why am I alive? What is time? And kids have these questions too. In my experience, when you open the door to a discussion about questions like this with your child, he will be eager to explore them with you.

Your child might ask, for example, “Why are people so mean?” Instead of talking about the reasons you think people can be mean, whatever they are, you might instead respond by saying, “What were you thinking about when you asked that?” or “Why do you think people are mean?” or “Do you think some people are mean people, or do they just do mean things? Why?” Now it might be that in this case, what your child really does want is an explanation from you about why some of the kids at school are picking on her. But maybe not.

Being open to picking up on when a question might be philosophical creates the possibility of talking about these larger, fundamental questions. It can add a new dimension to your relationship with your child to examine together questions for which neither of you have the answers, questions that continue to be profoundly mysterious. In these kinds of conversations you can inquire together in a way that allows for a kind of equal give-and-take that is not present in most aspects of the parent-child relationship, deepening your relationships with your children. I have found that years of these kinds of discussions with my own children, now all teenagers, have really helped to develop a strong foundation for what these days are often more personally challenging conversations.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dreams and sleep

This week the fifth grade students and I talked about dreams and sleep and the mysterious world of non-waking life. Our conversation, excerpted below, ranged from an exploration of dreams and nightmares and why they occur the way they do, to wondering about whether all of life is a dream or illusory in some way. We started by talking about the ways in which sleeping is different from being awake.

One student suggested that perhaps sleep is closer to death than being awake.

“Well,” another student responded, “I think that sleeping is more like unconsciousness than death. Sleeping is really not close to death. I mean, you have to sleep to live. If you don’t sleep, then you will be dead.”

“When you’re sleeping you dream, and when you’re unconscious you dream, but when you die you don’t dream,” offered a third student.

“How do we know that?” asked another. “Nobody knows unless they’re dead whether dead people dream or not. No one comes back after they’re dead and tells us that they dream or they don’t.”

“Whenever I have dreams,” one girl described, “my parents ask me what happened. They tell me that when you dream, your subconscious mind is telling you things that when you’re awake you don’t consider. I don’t think that when you sleep you’re close to being dead. Sleep is part of being alive.”

“I think that a part of your mind takes notes on everything you do, and these come out in your dreams. Dreams get you to deal with things in your life that maybe you are trying not to deal with.”

“So then you have to be thinking when you dream because your mind is working. Without thinking there would be no dreams,” declared a student.

We talked about whether the mind stops working at death, and whether you can ever stop your mind from working when you’re alive. We discussed why we dream, and why some dreams are nightmares, and whether we can ever control our dreams.

“I have a dream about Voldemort from Harry Potter,” one student said. “He’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and he rides a bike. He tries to get into our house. He climbs up the outside of the house and starts slamming on the doors, trying to find a way in. I’ve had this dream a few times. It scares me.”

“You can think about things during the day and keep yourself from dreaming about them at night,” suggested another student.

“I wonder if we are really a dream right now,” a boy asked.

“Sometimes,” a girl responded, “I think that maybe we’re all dolls being played with, like my sister playing with dolls. Like maybe there are people much bigger than us just playing with us, like we’re their dolls.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Comments from Memphis High School Students

I had a conversation recently with a colleague about the difference it makes, in his view, when students who have had philosophy in high school enroll in his undergraduate philosophy classes. He said that he almost always recognizes students who have studied philosophy in high school -- he observes deeper thinking about the questions explored in the class and an enhanced ability to write and reason well. We talked about the relative invisibility of philosophy in the United States, and the difference it would make if philosophy were a subject (like history) that all high school students studied, the way they do in many European and Latin American countries.

Soon after this discussion, students in a philosophy class taught by Michael Burroughs at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis sent the following comments on to me, reminding me again of the value of philosophy from the students' points of view.

Aysahn Roach: "What is philosophy? To me philosophy is a class to have group discussions on different philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates. Not only does this class cause debates, but it also helps us really get into the subjects that we are talking about, such as forgiveness. I would offer this class to anyone who is willing to learn or likes to debate about different subjects."

Robert Coats: "We discuss key points about life that I would never have thought of. This class allows me to think outside the box. Some topics we have discussed are: the good life, forgiveness, and destiny. We have discussed more but these topics really stick out to me. Other classmates seem to be really interested in these topics and engage in conversation on them. Listening to the thoughts of others and how they perceive a question really gets me thinking. I believe philosophy is not only beneficial to me, but also to the whole class."

Monday, October 26, 2009


To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats

October Birthdays

See October 2008 post

Monday, October 19, 2009

College Students in Seattle Schools

We began our Philosophy for Children seminar at the University of Washington earlier this month, and this quarter we have 10 students going into 8 different classrooms, from 1st to 12th grade, in six different Seattle public schools. The students are facilitating philosophy sessions in our seminar to help them to get ready to do pre-college philosophy. This past week two students led our discussions of Arnold Lobel's story, "Dragons and Giants" (in Frog and Toad Together), and Plato's Ring of Gyges. Topics in our seminar range from ethics to aesthetics to philosophy of mind and language.

One of the things we talked about last week is the importance of letting the classroom discussions flow organically, and not trying to push an agenda. Our seminar discussion of the Ring of Gyges ranged widely, and was a good example of letting a philosophy conversation take its course in its own way. One of the most challenging aspects of doing pre-college philosophy, in my view, is letting go and not trying to control where the students take the discussion. Helping to keep it philosophically focused and making connections between what the students say is crucial, but it is equally crucial to allow the questions and topics of inquiry emerge from the students and not be imposed upon them.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fifth Grade Questions

I had a marvelous class with some fifth grade students yesterday. The first class of the year, we began by talking about what philosophy is and why anyone might be interested in it. I had planned that we would read part of chapter three of Mat Lipman's Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery and probably talk about thoughts and thinking, but this was one of those classes where flexibility was key! As we talked about philosophy generally, one student raised her hand and declared: "I have a question. Why do we work hard and worry about money and what we're going to do for work and food and shelter, when one day we're going to die? What's the point?" This set off a wealth of questions from the students, which included:

Why do we need money? Why don't we barter anymore?
What is time? Why do we measure it?
How did everything begin?
How is the earth so perfect for humans?
Why do we communicate by writing?
How did all these words get invented? Where did names come from?

I suggested that we vote on which question to begin discussing, and the far majority of votes went to, "How did everything begin?" We decided to start by reading part of chapter 13 of Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, which raises this question and related issues nicely. After we read a few pages, the students started wondering about whether something can come from nothing. If the world began, there had to be nothing at some point, and so how could something have come from nothing? And yet, as several students noted, imagining it not beginning is really hard. Although, as one student pointed out, numbers don’t begin and end. Some students suggested that God created the world, but we observed that this still doesn’t solve the problem, because where did God come from?

We then circled back when another student commented, “I have two questions that I have thought about my whole life. What happens when you die? And what’s the point of living when one day you’re going to die?” One student responded that she thought that you live in order to have memories after you’re dead, in whatever place and form that occurs after death. Then a student who had been quiet raised his hand and said, “I think that we are an experiment for God. That God created humans to see what we would do, if we end up destroying the planet and ourselves or not. And if we do, God will create some other beings in some other place and see if they can do better.”

At this point we were out of time, and we agreed that we would begin next time with the question, “If all we know is that we live and then die, what’s the point?”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Justice at Harvard

What's the right thing to do? Harvard professor Michael Sandel has been teaching a moral philosophy course at Harvard for almost 30 years, with 1,000 students at a time often taking his popular class. This class is now online and is also airing on many PBS stations for 12 weeks this fall. Taped in Harvard's Sanders Theater, using several cameras to include the student discussions that are central to Sandel's classes, the course explores questions about justice and the good life, as well as many difficult contemporary ethical issues.

Each hour-long segment includes two 30-minute classes. I think the classes would be helpful resources for talking about these questions with middle and high school students. Topics include "The Moral Side of Murder," "How to Measure Pleasure," "For Sale: Motherhood," and "A Lesson in Lying." The website devoted to the course offers episode summaries and discussion guides, as well as related readings for some of the episodes:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Wrinkle in Time

I love this book. A science fiction young adult novel by Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time was first published in 1962 and has won all kinds of awards. In the engrossing story, packed with philosophical questions, three children travel through the universe by means of "tesseract," a fifth-dimensional phenomenon explained as being the square of the fourth dimension (like a space warp).

The novel provokes questions about the nature of space and time, the relationship between appearance and reality, essential versus contingent properties, the meanings of words, the relationship between equality and conformity, and the meaning of courage. It would be a marvelous book to read over a month or so with middle school students, with weekly discussion groups examining the philosophical issues raised in the book.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

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.

Seamus Heaney

September Birthdays

September 5 Tommaso Campanella (Italian, born 1568)

September 8 Marin Mersenne (French, born 1588)

September 10 Charles Sanders Peirce (American, born 1839)

September 11 Theodor Adorno (German, born 1903)

September 13 Alain Locke (American, born 1886)

September 16 Henry St. John Bolingbroke (British, born 1678) and Pietro Pomponazzi (Italian, born 1462)

September 17 Marquis de Condorcet (French, born 1743)

September 26 Hans Reichenbach (German/American, born 1891) and Martin Heidegger (German, born 1889)

September 29 Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (Spanish, born 1864)

September 30 Ettiene Bonnot de Condillac (French, born 1715)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Philosophy and Learning

Why do I do what I do? I've been doing philosophy in schools for almost 14 years now. At a conference in Memphis this past weekend about doing philosophy with young people, the participants suggested varied justifications for doing what we do. And I've been thinking since about the central reasons that I believe that philosophical inquiry with young people is important. 

For me the heart of the issue is all about learning. I reflect back on my pre-college years, and I remember very little of what I "learned" in classrooms. For the most part, basic skills acquisition aside, I learned to memorize whatever it was I was required to know, and then rapidly forget it after the test. 

What I do remember are the moments of new understanding, when something that was puzzling or interesting to me suddenly became clearer. Those moments emerged in the (what I remember as rare) instances in which I was actively participating in thinking about whatever was being taught. When what we were doing in the classroom was examining some event or idea or concept, and not just being told what it meant. That moment of clarity, when learning comes alive, when a new connection is made or a new way of thinking illuminated. For me that is what doing pre-college philosophy is all about. Because by definition philosophy involves exploring the meaning of unsettled questions and concepts, philosophical inquiry is especially capable of generating such transformative moments. And it is in those moments, I think, that real and deep learning really happens.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

High School Philosophy Classes

There is lots of exciting work in philosophy going on in high school classrooms around the country! Here are two public high school philosophy classes about which I’ve recently learned:

In Memphis, Michael Burroughs, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Memphis, is teaching a philosophy class at Booker T. Washington High School. So far the class has been exploring questions concerning what constitutes the good life and questions about the nature of justice. The class has organized a blog about their work --

And in San Diego, Josh Cottrell, a high school teacher, is teaching the first philosophy class ever offered in the Poway Unified School district. “Critical Thinking: Philosophy in Literature” is a thematic approach to philosophy, augmented with poetry, prose, visual art and film, covering epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, and some metaphysics. Josh reports that “the students are totally engaged. In fact, I'm stunned at their engagement. These kids (juniors and seniors) are taking this class as an elective and earning UC "g" credit for the course. This class is not required, and in fact is more work than many of their required academic classes. Yet, I'm finding that they are not only doing the readings, but annotating their readings like graduate students! I've rarely seen that kind of work ethic in my honors and AP students.”

One of the challenges of doing philosophy with pre-college students is the isolation that many people engaged in this work experience. Often I hear from, especially, high school teachers who are teaching the lone philosophy class in their districts and have no one with whom to communicate about what's going on in their classrooms. The Pre-College Philosophy Committee of the American Philosophical Association (APA) is trying to address this issue by developing a new national organization, PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), that will provide resource-sharing and support to K-12 philosophy teachers around the country.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Truman Show

The Truman Show, by director Peter Weir, is a film about Truman Burbank, who is adopted at birth by a television network to be the star of a reality television show. Truman grows up unaware that his whole life is a staged television show, available 24 hours a day to viewers, and that everyone in his life is an actor, including his wife.

The film raises many philosophical questions, including questions about ethics, free will and determinism, the nature of truth, and the relationship between appearance and reality. It’s a provocative film for discussing these issues with middle and high school students. Some questions it raises are:

Is Truman’s life real?
Is “The Truman Show” morally acceptable?
Do we “accept the reality of the world with which we’ve been presented,” as the creator of “The Truman Show” asserts?
Does anyone know Truman?
Is creating a “perfect world” and imposing it on someone morally permissible? What would be the benefits of living in the safe, constructed world of “The Truman Show?”
Is there more truth in the world than in “The Truman Show?”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Harry Potter

Over the past two weeks I've been re-reading the seven Harry Potter novels. A lovely way to spend long summer afternoons.

I've been thinking how much fun it would be to teach a year-long course that involved reading and talking about all of the novels, perhaps to fifth or sixth grade students. The stories are so full of philosophical suggestiveness. It would be interesting to teach them together with an English teacher, and read the novel from both literary and philosophical perspectives.

As I read the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I created a list of some of the philosophical questions that occurred to me as I read:

The "Mirror of Erised" is a mystical mirror that shows the “deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts.” What do you think you would see looking into the mirror? Would the mirror be able to tell you something you don’t know? If you are not sure of the “deepest desire of your heart,” can it be really be your deepest desire?

What does it mean to trust other people? What must be true for us to say we “trust someone?” Can we ever trust someone completely? What would that mean?

Is bravery the absence of fear? Is it action despite fear? Is courage an act or a quality of a person? What does it entail?

What are the obligations of friendship? Do they vary based on circumstances? If so, what circumstances?

“Horcruxes” are objects used to split a person’s soul and thus seek immortality. There is a comment in the novel that for Voldemort, splitting his soul is the same as splitting his mind. What does this mean? Are the soul and the mind the same thing, or only for Voldemort (and if so, how would that work)? What are the soul and the mind?

How do you prove something is not real?

If something is happening to you, is it real?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of Eye –
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Emily Dickinson

August Birthdays

August 6 Nicolas Malebranche (French, born 1638)

August 7 Nelson Goodman (American, born 1906)

August 10 Jean-Francois Lyotard (French, born 1924)

August 16 Catherine Trotter Cockburne (British, born 1679)

August 19 Gilbert Ryle (British, born 1900)

August 20 Paul Tillich (German-American, born 1886)

August 22 Max Scheler (German, born 1874)

August 23 Jakob Friedrich Fries (German, born 1773)

August 25 Karl Joseph Hieronymus Windischmann (German, born 1775) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (German, born 1744)

August 27 Johann Georg Hamann (German, born 1730) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (German, born 1770)

August 29 John Locke (British, born 1632)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And the Pursuit of Happiness

Maira Kalman writes a wonderful illustrated New York Times blog, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," about American democracy, with a new post on the last Friday of every month. In March she wrote "So Moved," about tolerance, the democratic process, civility and compromise. It is a marvelous piece to use to broach these issues with high school students.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Online Philosophy for Children course

The Institute for the Advancement for Philosophy for Children, in Montclair, New Jersey, is offering a fall online class on "Teaching Children Philosophical Thinking." Here is the description of the class:

This innovative course prepares teachers and philosophers to facilitate philosophical dialogue with children and adolescents, in classroom settings and elsewhere. The course is suitable for both beginners and those who wish to build on their current practice and extend their knowledge. Participants will study the theory of Philosophy for Children, engage in an online philosophical community of inquiry, and experiment with Philosophy for Children practices in their own classrooms.

I do not have any experience with the IAPC online courses, but I have attended IAPC seminars in New Jersey in the past and they were marvelous and very inspiring.

More information about the online course can be found on the IAPC website at:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Solar Eclipse

Nothing there is beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.
Archilochus (description of the total solar eclipse of April 6, 648 BCE)

A complete solar eclipse will take place Wednesday morning (July 22) that will last for six minutes and 39 seconds, the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century. Those of not in the far East will be able to watch live webcasts of the event (information at

There won't be another eclipse like this in the lifetime of anyone now living. And those 12 decades just a blip in cosmic time. A wonderful inspiration for discussions about the nature of time and the wonder of the universe with students.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Jane Kenyon

July Birthdays
July 1 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (German, born 1646)
July 12 Henry David Thoreau (American, born 1817)
July 15 Jacques Derrida (Algerian-French, born 1930) and Richard Cumberland (British, born 1631)
July 17 Alexius Meinong (Austrian, born 1853)
July 18 Immanuel Fichte (German, born 1797) and Thomas Kuhn (American, born 1922)
July 19 Herbert Marcuse (German, born 1898)
July 28 Ernst Cassirer (German, born 1874), Ludwig Feuerbach (German, born 1804), and Karl Popper (Austrian-British, born 1902)
July 29 Jean Baudrillard (French, born 1929)
July 31 Hilary Putnam (American, born 1926) and John Searle (American, born 1932)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stormy Night

I have used Michele Lemieux's book Stormy Night in elementary school philosophy classes. It’s a great resource for an introductory session to help the students start to recognize philosophical questions and to think about the questions they have.

Stormy Night is wonderfully illustrated with black and white line drawings. It starts off with a young girl going to bed. Kept awake by a storm, she lies there, thinking, “I can’t sleep! Too many questions are buzzing through my head.” All of us, including children, know this feeling.

The remainder of the book is filled with this young girl's questions and her thoughts about life and death, and their illustrations. “Where does infinity end?” “Is there only one of me in the world?” “Will I always make the right decisions? And how will I know if they’re right?” “Will I know when it’s time to die?”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

25 Philosophers

This is a nice, accessible resource for high school students: It lists 25 philosophers, from Confucius through Descartes and Kant to Mary Midgley and Foucault, and gives a short synoposis about each of them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


ochikochi ni taki no otokiku wakaba kana

fresh young leaves –
the sound of a waterfall
both far and near

Yosa Buson

June Birthdays

June 5 Charles Hartshorne (American, born 1897) and Adam Smith (Scottish, born 1723)
June 6 Isaiah Berlin (British, born 1909)
June 9 Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (Russian, born 1829)
June 14 Bernard Bosanquet (British, born 1848)
June 18 Jurgen Habermas (German, born 1929)
June 19 Blaise Pascal (French, born 1623)
June 21 Jean-Paul Sartre (French, born 1905) and Anthony Collins (British, born 1676)
June 23 Alan Turing (British, born 1912) and Giambattista Vico (Italian, born 1668)
June 24 Julia Kristeva (Bulgarian-French, born 1941)
June 25 Willard Van Orman Quine (American, born 1908)
June 27 Emma Goldman (Lithuanian-American, born 1869)
June 28 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French, born 1712)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Little Book of Thunks

Thunk: "a beguiling simple-looking question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light."

The Little Book of Thunks is a wonderful resource for talking about philosophy in a classroom or with your own children. About the first quarter of the book discusses philosophy sessions with young people -- how you can do them and why you should. The little book (and it is little, only 90-odd pages) then lists 260 thunks. For example:

Can you have a friend you don't like?
Which is more important, being right or being nice?
Does a sound exist?
If you could take a pill that meant you would never fail, would you?
Can you touch the wind?
If I acquire your memory who am I then?
When you comb your hair, is it art?
Can a fly see a skyscraper?
Can you have a third of love?
Why don't dogs laugh? Is it because they don't have a sense of humor?

Monday, June 1, 2009

College Students in Pre-College Classrooms: Philosophy Books and Other Ideas

Thursday was our last seminar session at UW for the spring. Through this class, twelve college students introduced philosophy into public school classrooms around Seattle over the quarter. The seminar included students majoring in philosophy and education.

On Thursday the seminar students presented the lesson plans they had implemented in the classrooms in which they had been working. The philosophy sessions they had led ranged from discussions about how we know what we know in a second/third grade classroom to a fourth grade class questioning the nature of friendship to explorations of identity with fifth grade students to a dialogue about the nature of good and evil in a high school classroom.

One pair of students who worked with second and third graders came up the idea of doing a book-making activity, in which the children created their own “philosophy books” using paper, scissors, and pens. The books had pages designated for the following questions, which the class discussed and the students filled in as the discussion ensued:

What is philosophy?
How do you know what you know?
An original philosophy question, which the children drew and/or wrote. The students ended up asking questions such as “Are there dragons? and “Are aliens real?” and “What is the meaning of time?”

Most of the college students had rewarding experiences bringing philosophy into pre-college classrooms, and the teachers with whom they worked really enjoyed the opportunity to have their students introduced to philosophy. One seminar student wrote, “After taking this course, I discovered that if I become a teacher, I want to be a teacher who produces excitement in her students. I’d want my future students to know what philosophy is and to appreciate the wonder that arises in thinking as a philosopher. I’d want them to go about their classes and their lives with this kind of thought."

Friday, May 22, 2009


From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee

May Birthdays

May 3 Niccolo Machiavelli (Italian, born 1469)
May 5 Soren Kierkegaard (Danish, born 1813) and Karl Marx (German, born 1818)
May 7 David Hume (British, born 1711)
May 9 Jose Ortega y Gasset (Spanish, born 1883)
May 18 Joseph Butler (British, born 1692), Rudolf Carnap (German, born 1891), and Bertrand Russell (British, born 1872)
May 19 Johann Gottlieb Fichte (German, born 1762)
May 20 John Stuart Mill (British, born 1806) and Wilfrid Sellars (American, born 1912)
May 21 Rudolph Hermann Lotze (German, born 1817)
May 23 Sarah Margaret Fuller (American, born 1810)
May 24 William Whewell (British, born 1794)
May 25 Ralph Waldo Emerson (American, born 1803)
May 30 Mikhael Bakunin (Russian, born 1814)
May 31 Henry Sidgwick (British, born 1838)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Philosophy in the Classroom

This week and next students in our Philosophy for Children seminar at the University of Washington will be doing philosophy lessons in a variety of public school classrooms around Seattle, from 5th through 10th grade. We have been meeting for seven weeks now, and in the seminar we've discussed topics ranging from the nature of the mind to identity to free will. In each class, we spend some time talking about the students' experiences in their pre-college classrooms, and then spend most of the remaining time doing a philosophy lesson that can be done in a K-12 classroom. The seminar students are from around the university and include philosophy majors, education students, and others. It's gratifying to see college students excited about introducing philosophy to pre-college students!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part VII

Can one person make a difference?

The last class for the Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust unit involves watching the film Not in Our Town, which describes a series of hate crimes that took place in Billings, Montana, in the 1990s, and the town's reaction to these events. The people in the town really came together and fought back, and the film illustrates what can happen when people speak out against activities they believe are wrong.

After the film, we broke up into small groups and talked about the film, and then the students responded to two questions: What would you most like to change about school? What could you do to change this? I asked each student to answer these questions, and then each group picked one or two ideas that they wanted to see implemented.

When we came back together, we got up on the board the list of changes the students desired, which included:

More time to do things other than school or school sports, so a shorter school day or less homework
Better school lunches
Students treating one another better
Less favoritism on the part of teachers
More individualized choices about classes, so that students could design what they study based on their interests and goals
More choices for sports

The next day, we talked about all of the ideas that had emerged from the groups, spending over an hour discussing the reasons the students thought these changes were needed and how they might approach making them happen. It was exciting to see how engaged and energized many of the students were in thinking about these issues. They chose two that they would like to work on as a group: better school lunches and more time outside of school.

We talked about the importance of creating a plan and thinking through exactly what they wanted, and about how much power they had to make change. Students often seem to think that here they are, locked in a situation (school) over which they have little control, and though they complain a lot, they don't seem to try very hard to make anything in school better. We talked about how empowering it can be to work together to make change happen and about recognizing that what you think and say and do matter.

Postscript: The language arts teacher, Jane Orme, told me today that the students began working on a survey about school lunches to distribute to all of the students in the school, and are on their way to trying to improve the situation.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part VI

Why did some people become rescuers during the Holocaust? What makes some people, despite the risks, act to prevent moral wrongs? Is being a bystander morally wrong?

In this class we see the film The Courage to Care, involving profiles of individuals during the Third Reich who helped protect Jews in France, Holland and Poland. The film raises questions about what motivated rescuers to assist victims in Nazi-occupied Europe and the moral dilemmas non-Jews confronted when deciding to engage in rescue work.

Most of the people interviewed in the film note that the decision to help really wasn’t a well-considered decision, but a split-second choice to act. They “had to do it,” the rescuers say. We talked in this class about how many moral choices are made in a moment, and what you choose is really based on the kind of person you have been up until that point.

We discussed the people who didn’t help, the vast majority who were bystanders, and examined whether that behavior is wrong. When you see someone being bullied in the hallway, should you help? Do you balance the risk to you against what difference you might make? Many students commented that most of the rescuers seemed to be single people, without families and children whom they would have put at risk. It seemed to them to make a difference if you were just risking harm to yourself only, or if you taking a risk that could affect others as well.

We talked about courage and what it means. Did the rescuers have more courage than people who did not help? Several students made the point that the rescuers were people who were thrust into circumstances where they had the chance to help, whereas many others might not have been given so clear a choice. One of the men interviewed in the film describes moving all around Europe as a Jewish teenager, hiding from the Nazis, and all the people who helped him in small ways (giving him shelter for a night, pretending to know him when asked by police, etc.). Many such small acts likely remain unknown and unpublicized, yet lives were saved because of them.

Are most people bystanders? When students see bullying in the hallway, most do not do anything. Why? We discussed the complex reasons people are bystanders, and how some people become the kinds of people who are not. President Obama said recently, in the context of a Holocaust memorial, that “no one can make us bystanders without our consent.” If our moral choices to help are often made without time to think, it seems that we consent to become bystanders long before those choices are before us.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part V

In this class we view the film Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth. The film is an interview with Alfons Heck, who describes his childhood experiences as a member of the Hitler Youth and his rise to prominence as a leader in the organization, and then his shame and revulsion as he realized after the war the full extent of the horror to which he had contributed.

Heck discusses the indoctrination he underwent as a child, describing hearing Hitler over the radio from the age of 5 and noting that "we swallowed our daily dose of nationalistic instruction as naturally as our morning milk." He speaks candidly about the Jewish neighbors and friends he had known and liked as a child, and his eventual "total indifference to their fate" as he watched them being deported, after years of accepting the propaganda taught in school and elsewhere that characterized all Jewish people as enemies of Germany.

In our small groups and the larger discussion that follows, we talk about the forces that attracted children to the Hitler Youth and whether there are group pressures similar to those of the Hitler Youth in today's society. We discuss responsibility and Heck's statement that, as a contributor to the Nazi effort, he too was "guilty of the crime of mass murder." Is he guilty of mass murder when, as one student put it, he "had been taught by everyone in his life since he was a little boy that fighting for Germany and getting rid of all Germany's Jews was the right thing to do?"

One student this week commented that since everyone was taught that the Jewish people were inferior, they were not wrong to act in accordance with that belief. But not all people did so. What about the people who did question the Nazi doctrine? We analyzed whether the children who joined the Hitler Youth were making a choice, or whether there was no meaningful choice within the context of their lives at the time.

We also spent a long time examining the question of forgiveness, whether Heck should forgive himself and what such forgiveness would mean. Does forgiveness entail forgetting? Exoneration? One student noted that Heck had spent much of his life in a kind of atonement for his actions as a member of the Hitler Youth. Does this then entitle him to forgiveness? From himself? From others?

Friday, April 24, 2009


The picture book Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon, is a wonderful book for inspiring discussions about what makes something what it is and about friendship. It tells the story of a young fruit bat who becomes separated from her mother and lands in a nest of baby birds, becoming an adoptive member of the bird family. The baby bat learns to act like a baby bird and struggles to accommodate herself to the family, but she never completely fits in. Eventually she is able to regain her identity as a bat, and she and her bird friends wonder together about friendship and being alike and different at the same time.

The following are some questions that can be used to discuss this story in a classroom or other group setting or just with your own children:

Duck a duck?
Cat a cat?
Human being a human being?
Animal an animal?
Bird a bird?
Smile a smile?
Feeling a feeling?
Thought a thought?

A duck catch mice?
A bat write a letter?
A television eat grass?
A person fly?
A dog purr?
A teddy bear talk?
A person turn into a lion?
A painter plant a garden?
A child drive a car?
A doctor play the piano?
A book talk to you?

What makes a child become an adult?
Is an adult the same person he or she was as a child?
Can an animal ever become a person?

Can you be friends with any of the following?
The moon.
A car.
A stone.
A pair of shoes.
A book.
A movie.
A cat.
A plant.
A house.
A piece of land.
An idea.
A dream.
A painting.
A tree.
A parent.

If someone is a friend, is the following true?
I spend time with him or her a lot.
I talk to him or her a lot.
We share thoughts with each other.
We share feelings with each other.
I like him or her.
I want to be near him or her.
We help each other.
The person thinks that I am his or her friend.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part IV

Why do people obey authority even when they sense that what they're doing is wrong? Central to the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur was people's tendencies to conform to the situations in which they find themselves.

In this class we watch a clip from the film Obedience, which documents the Milgram experiments. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, decided to create an experiment to see how far people would go in situations in which they are ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. Milgram wanted to see when a person would refuse to obey the experimenter.

The subjects of these experiments were told that the experiments were testing how learning is affected by punishment. Labeled the “teacher,” the subject watched as the “learner” (who, unknown to the "teacher," was part of Milgram's team) was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to each wrist. The “learner” was then told to memorize word pairs for a test and warned that wrong answers would result in electric shocks. Each teacher was taken to a separate room and seated before a “shock generator” with switches ranging from 15 volts labeled “slight shock” to 450 volts labeled “danger – severe shock.” Each “teacher” was told to administer a “shock” for each wrong answer, with shocks increasing by fifteen volts every time the “learner” responded incorrectly. The shocks were not real, but the “teachers” thought they were.

Before the experiment began, Milgram imagined that most volunteer subjects would refuse to give electric shocks of more than 150 volts, the point at which the learner starts to yell and complain of heart pain. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists predicted that slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the volunteers (so 1 out of 1,000 people) would administer all 450 volts. However, more than 80% of people continued to administer shocks after reaching 150 volts, and more than 50% of the “teachers” gave the full 450 volts!

This film is always a surprise for most of the students. They are surprised by the numbers of people who obey the experimenter, even when it is clear that the subjects are troubled by what they are doing. We had small group discussions for about 20 minutes after the film, and then came back together for a large group discussion. The students were interested in examining the question of responsibility, and what responsibility the person who is inflicting the pain bears versus the responsibility of the person ordering the acts. They quickly made the connection to the Holocaust and all of the people who did not defy the edicts of the Hitler and the Nazis. We talked about whether a person is ever morally obligated to defy authority, and what it is about human beings that results in such widespread conformity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part III

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, decided to implement an exercise in her classroom to help her students understand racism and discrimination. She divided the class into students with brown eyes and students with blue eyes, and spent one day discriminating against the brown-eyed students and the next discriminating against the blue-eyed students. In 1970, when she did this exercise for the third year, it was filmed by PBS. In the film A Class Divided, the students in the 1970 film reunite 14 years later to watch the film and discuss the effect of the exercise on their lives.

Watching the exercise unfold in the third grade class in 1970, it is striking how quickly the students who are labeled as the “superior group” for the day take to discriminating against their peers. In a very short time, Jane Elliott created an enormous gulf in her class. The exercise powerfully demonstrates the effect of the “us and them” mentality on a community.

This week is the first class in the “Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust” unit in which the community volunteers who have been recruited and trained for this unit participate. The film is always compelling for the students. After viewing it, we break up into nine small groups, each with 4 or 5 students and an adult , and spend about a half hour discussing the features of the film that surprised the students, whether it is natural for human beings to discriminate and when that is acceptable and when it isn’t, and the nature of community. Then the whole group comes back together and we talk for another 20 minutes or so about the film and the students’ reactions to it.

The students generally are surprised by how quickly the third graders start to discriminate, even against children who had been their closest friends the previous hour. One student said that she thought that we should do this exercise in their grade. When I asked the group what they thought about the idea, some thought it would be less effective with older students because, one student contended, “the older you get the less influenced you are by what your teachers tell you.” Many of the students, though, thought that this could be very successful in the 8th grade. Several students suggested that the biggest challenge would be getting some of the students’ parents to permit this to take place.

“Yeah, I was really surprised that this teacher could do this exercise year after year and no parent objected!” remarked one student. “I don’t think that would happen today.”

We talked for a little while about the differences in the way parents interact with the school system today, as opposed to almost forty years ago. Then one of the students commented, “I don’t think there’s really any racism in our school. I’m not sure we would need this exercise.”

“I disagree. I think there’s plenty of racism here. All you need to do is go out in the hall and listen,” responded another student.

“I think that there are all kinds of discrimination,” reflected a student. “People get into groups here and judge each other. Like in the lunchroom, where you sit and who you sit with makes a difference.”

Reflecting about what constitutes discrimination and whether it is always wrong, whether communities are necessarily exclusive, and how easily people can accept a situation that puts them into a position of superiority over others, starts the students thinking about how an event like the Holocaust could happen. As part of this unit, the students are reading Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, a novel about a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Next week we will examine further questions about the forces the influence people’s moral choices, looking at the nature of conformity and obedience to authority.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust -- Blog Series Part II

This morning I taught the second class of the "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust" unit to two eighth grade classes. This class is an introduction to moral philosophy, a way to give the students some background before we launch into the issues raised by the Holocaust. We began by talking about Plato's Ring of Gyges story. I asked the class what they would do if they had a ring that allowed them to become invisible, and whether they thought Plato was right that there would be no difference between what a morally good person would do and what a person who was not morally good would do.

Most of the students seemed to think that although many people might do things they wouldn't do otherwise if they knew there would be no consequences, they thought that there would be differences among what people would do. One student noted that she would never kill anyone, no matter what, because her conscience wouldn't let her and she knew if she did, she'd be wracked with guilt for the rest of her life. Other students mentioned rules against killing and stealing, for example, that were so ingrained into their thinking that they couldn't imagine violating those rules.

I gave the students a problem to consider: You have a friend and you know this friend has been robbing houses and using the money for himself. You are worried about him, feel badly about the people from whom he has stolen, and you are trying to decide what to do. Should you tell someone?

The students felt very strongly about this scenario, in widely varied ways. One student said that no matter what, “you don’t rat out your friends.” Another student argued that you also have some obligation to help the people being robbed, because what would the community be like if no one helped other people? Others thought that you needed to look at what would happen if you told: your friend would end up in juvenile prison, your friendship would be over, and other students would dislike you for telling on your friend, versus people’s homes no longer being robbed and your feelings of feel relief about that.

I pointed out to them that they were using several perspectives that philosophers talk about when analyzing moral issues. Most of the time, we tend to look at moral questions through a particular lens, whether it be rules-based, an examination of the likely consequences of our moral choices, our intuition or conscience telling us what is right, etc. What can be helpful about moral philosophy is that it can help us to widen the lens through which we view moral problems, and help us to make better moral decisions.

“But you can’t judge someone else’s moral choice!” one student declared. “Everyone has the right to make their own decisions, and you can’t really say that those decisions are good or bad.”

“But aren’t some decisions better than others?” I asked. “For example, if I was walking by a pond with water no deeper than my waist, and I saw a toddler drowning, and I decided not to wade in and lift the child out of the water because I didn’t want to get my jeans wet, wouldn’t you be correct in saying I made a poor moral decision?”

“No!” the student insisted. “I could say you did a nice thing if you saved the child, but I couldn’t say you were obligated to do that.”

This resulted in a very lively discussion about what moral obligations we might have, and where they come from, and if they always apply. Do we have obligations to help other people? We talked about bullying in the hallways and whether students have an obligation to intervene, and whether being a bystander is morally acceptable. What is the right balance between our obligations to ourselves and our obligations to others?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Philosophy? It's so difficult!

Created by 5th grade students
Methow Valley Elementary School
Winthrop, Washington

I was reflecting this morning about a conversation I had last week, in which I was asked by an acquaintance about my work. Her response to what I do was, "Philosophy? I took one philosophy class in college, but it was so difficult!" I've been thinking about this because it is so typical of the response I get when I tell people what I do, but it is not at all the response my pre-college students have, and it is not the response I think they will ever have.

Most of the K-12 students I've worked with are really comfortable with philosophy after several classes (not all of the students take to it, of course, but I don't think any of them feel intimidated by the discipline). I think back to my introduction to philosophy. I was lucky enough, in a public high school, to have the opportunity to take a philosophy class, and it is what inspired me to study philosophy in college. And after all my years of studying philosophy, the foundational affection I have for the discipline is still rooted, I think, in that high school class and its emphasis on exploring the big mysteries of life with which philosophy began.

I guess this is one of the main reasons I think it matters that students get introduced to philosophy earlier in life than college. College philosophy classes are taught in a certain way, and the emphasis on the history of philosophy and learning the arguments philosophers make in support of one view or another can be both intimidating and mystifying if you haven't already developed an interest in the questions themselves. Many college students do embrace philosophy after an introductory college class, but many more take one class and that's it, or are never introduced to philosophy at all. My hope is that many of the students I've taught over the years will take philosophy classes in college because the students have been thinking about the questions and have become interested in what philosophers have to say about them!