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?”