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.