Monday, November 29, 2010

The Thief

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is 1996 novel for young adults, the first of the series The Queen's Thief. The story's main character, Gen, is a thief who boasts about being able to steal anything, ends up in jail, and is recruited to steal a mythic spiritual object by the king. The novel tells the story of Gen and the people who accompany him on this journey to find and take this mysterious object.

This adventure novel is a philosophically rich page turner. It raises questions about loyalty, identity, political and social philosophy, heroism, and the obligation to tell the truth. Gen is a complex character whose identity is multi-layered and whose ethical code is slowly illuminated as the story unfolds. The novel can inspire young people to think and talk about what makes people who they are, whether we can ever really know another person, and what makes actions right or wrong.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Philosophy Talk and Fourth Grade Philosophers

Recently the fourth grade students at John Muir with whom I've been doing philosophy and I taped a segment for the radio show Philosophy Talk. We talked about personal identity, the mind-body problem, and the nature of happiness.

The students were so impressive! We all had a great time. Here is a recent University of Washington article about the event:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Cricket in Times Square

One of my favorite works of children's literature, The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, first published in 1960, is moving, funny and philosophically suggestive. In particular, the book can inspire discussion about a variety of ethical questions.

The story involves Chester, a cricket, who arrives in Times Square in an accidental way from his country home in Connecticut and is befriended by Mario Bellini, whose family owns a newsstand in the Times Square subway station. Chester's relationship with the Bellini family, his musical talent, his friendships with city-savvy Tucker Mouse and Harry the Cat, and his desire to help others are woven into a story that asks questions about happiness, our obligations to the people in our lives, talent and its cultivation, justice, and fairness.

For example, Chester's musical ability becomes a sensation and brings people to the newsstand, which helps the struggling Bellini family and provides pleasure to all of the people who hear Chester's music around the city. Chester, however, is uncomfortable with his growing fame and misses the rural life he knew in Connecticut. He wants to return there. Tucker Mouse, Harry the Cat and Chester have a conversation about whether this would be the right decision for Chester to make, weighing Chester's happiness and his right to choose the course of his life against the possible negative consequences of this choice (the potentially negative effect on the Bellini newsstand, Mario's sadness when Chester leaves, the loss of the opportunity to listen to Chester's music for thousands of listeners, etc.).

Throughout the story, there are several junctures at which Chester and other characters must make moral decisions -- whether to help someone else, tell the truth, abandon a difficult situation -- and the characters' discussions and reflections can motivate interesting discussions with children about these situations. Charmingly illustrated by Garth Williams, the story, in my experience, is completely engaging for children ages 5 to 12, and captivates older readers and listeners as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Double Trouble

On Friday the 4th graders at John Muir and I had a long conversation about personal identity. We also had some visitors from Nova High School, as well as one of the graduate students at UW working with us this year.

We read Philip Cam's story, "Double Trouble," about a robot, Algernon, who, one by one, has all of his parts replaced until none of his original parts are left. The robot company creates a new robot using all of the original parts, and a puzzle ensues. Which of the two robots is the real Algernon?

The students had lots of questions about which robot constitutes the real Algernon, and about the ethics of the company's actions. They voted to begin our conversation with the question about whether the "real" Algernon is the robot who has gradually had his parts replaced, or the one who was created from all of the original parts. We had a really spirited discussion about this topic for over an hour, with students raising many issues about what makes the robot that particular robot (thoughts? memories? the same body?) and whether any of us really maintains the same identity over time. I told them the famous "Ship of Theseus" puzzle, and the students were quite divided over whether the ship that had had all of its planks replaced was still Theseus' ship. And if it wasn't, at what point did it cease to be Theseus' ship? When one plank was replaced? Ten planks? Half of the planks? Three-quarters?

Eventually we ended up in a long discussion about whether, if I exchanged brains with one of the students, I would still be "Dr. Jana" or the student would have become Dr. Jana. Most of the students seemed to conclude that the student would have become Dr. Jana and I would have become the student, but several wanted to say that I would not be Dr. Jana or the student, but would become some third identity, with Dr. Jana's body (minus the brain) and the student's brain, because, as one student put it, "you would still have some physical instincts and ways of moving that were really Dr. Jana's and not [the student's]." What is it, then, that makes us the people we are? The students recognized that this is a really difficult and complex question.

It was a fascinating and really animated discussion, with many of the students in the class participating. The question about what makes us who we are and whether we remain that person despite significant changes seems always to inspire a meaningful and thoughtful conversation.