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?”