Monday, October 25, 2010

Happiness at 10

On Friday I talked about happiness with the fourth grade students with whom I've been working at John Muir Elementary in Seattle. One of the things that's always so interesting to me about discussing philosophy with children is that the conversations frequently parallel in many aspects the discussions I have with college students. They unfold at different levels in terms of language and sophistication, but the issues tend to emerge in very similar ways.

We talked about what's important for happiness, and many of the students expressed the view that central to thinking about what you need for happiness is being aware of what creates unhappiness. That is, many of the children thought that happiness involves avoiding experiences like loneliness, isolation, pain and feelings of meaninglessness.

The students then broached the question, "What exactly is happiness?" In this conversation, they raised many issues about happiness, noting, for example, that you can be happy and unhappy at the same time, that you can have a happy life and still feel unhappy at any particular moment, that happiness seems to be more than a feeling and that, although we talk about feeling happy, happiness is really more like an evaluation of the state of your life. One student suggested that happiness is attainable to everyone, and another said, "I think it's your attitude about life that's most important for happiness." We ended by observing that we often talk as though happiness and feeling happy are the same thing, but that upon reflection happiness, though we still might not know precisely how to define or attain it, is more complex and multifaceted than the experience of feeling happy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Meaning in Education

Since our seminar session at UW last Thursday, I've been thinking about meaning in education. We spent the first part of the session talking about Plato's Allegory of the Cave and enlightenment, the relationship between appearance and reality, knowledge, and human development, and then moved into examining the nature of thinking and thoughts. It was a rich couple of discussions and made me think about my own undergraduate (and secondary) education, and the rare opportunities I experienced for this kind of classroom dialogue. 

It is so clear to me that there is a hunger for meaningful, deep conversations about these kinds of questions. Creating a community of philosophical inquiry in a classroom, a space within which fundamental philosophical questions are explored, makes a space for students to gain experience questioning and analyzing their own experiences and perceptions. I believe that the deepest and most authentic kind of learning occurs when students participate in thinking about a subject (and are not just passive recipients of what is being taught), and a new clarity emerges for them personally. Helping them to engage in collaborative inquiry that is aimed at acquiring meaning and deeper understanding enables these kinds of experiences.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Plato with Fourth Graders

I taught my first couple of elementary school classes in the last week, both with fourth grade students in Seattle. It is always amazing to me the level of philosophical interest and understanding shown by children. Yesterday I had a discussion with about 30 fourth graders about Plato's "Ring of Gyges." In our conversation, the children pointed out the dangers of the ring (thinking you might have more control over it than you do, the risks of it falling into the wrong hands, etc.). They also expressed their sense that you could think now that you know how you would behave if you had an invisibility ring, but really the way you would act if you were actually in this situation could turn out to be quite different than your predictions. We talked about the view that people behave morally only in order to avoid negative consequences if they do not, and the children generally asserted that they often behave in ways that seem morally good not because of the potential consequences if they don't, but because they see themselves as certain kinds of people and being those kinds of people (trustworthy, loyal, kind, helpful, etc.) is important to them.

We also taught our first Philosophy for Children class at the University of Washington this week, and several undergraduates expressed their views that most children do start thinking early in their lives about the larger questions that underlie human existence, but there is typically no vehicle for exploring philosophical questions and along the way that part of many children's selves fails to develop. We talked about how meaningful it can be to talk about questions like the meaning of life, what makes a life worth living, what success means, how we can know what's right and wrong, who we are, etc., and the difference it can make in young people's lives to examine these questions in an ongoing, collective way. We read Jon Muth's story The Three Questions (which I've talked about in an earlier post), and each of the students wrote down the three questions that they think are the most important questions to which they would like answers.

Here are my three:
Why are we here?
Is time just a feature of human minds, and what is the objective relationship (if any) between past, present and future?
What happens when we die?