Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Moral Relativism or Mutual Respect?

I had a lively conversation yesterday with a group of fifth graders about how we can understand, respect and evaluate cultures other than our own. The conversation took off when one student asked, "Why do we have so many different cultures in the world?" The students pointed out the ways in which the diversity of cultures gives rise to conflicts, but also observed that a world without a variety of cultures would be pretty uninteresting.

One student then asserted that we aren't really justified in making judgments about cultures other than our own, because we're not understanding them "from the inside" and so are evaluating their practices without really understanding why the people in that culture are doing what they do. This led to a thoughtful dialogue among the students about when, and if ever, people or groups outside of a culture are justified in criticizing, or intervening in, a cultural practice.

We talked about the different standards for disciplining children around the world. Several students articulated a distinction between coming to another country and practicing, for example, a form of corporal punishment unacceptable here, and doing so in your own country. The students tended to claim that it is one thing to insist that someone from another culture change their practice when they enter a different culture (or country), but that it is another thing to criticize the way people are disciplining their children when they are acting on the basis of a different set of rules and standards within that culture.

Still, some students argued, the way the harsh discipline feels to the children is the same. And can't cultures be mistaken? We talked about the fact that in the US, for example, slavery was an acceptable part of the culture for a long period of time, and we would now want to say that this was wrong, that the institutions that supported that practice were in error. And if it's true that cultures can make mistakes in sanctioning acts that ultimately the culture concludes were wrong, how do we decide when intervention is appropriate?

Several students raised the example of the Nazi regime, asserting that there intervention to stop what the German culture was allowing would have been justified. One student suggested that perhaps the standard should be whether human beings were being harmed in serious ways, and we noted that this standard also led to interpretation problems (What constitutes harm? When is it serious? etc.). We discussed the practice of young people marrying at young ages, 12 or 13, in some cultures, a practice that clearly horrified the children. Yet, we pointed out, inside those cultures, that is an accepted and perhaps welcome practice.

How do we know what it feels like from the inside? Can we? And if we can't, does that mean we never are justified in judging or intervening to stop a cultural practice that seems deeply at odds with the ways our culture believes people should be treated? Are there some moral rules that apply to everyone, no matter where and how they live? The students saw clearly what challenging issues these questions raise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Dragon who liked to spit Fire

This delightful picture book by Judy Varga, written in 1961, tells the story of Darius, a little dragon, and the friendship he develops with young prince Frederic. Can Darius be himself, a dragon who likes nothing more than to spit fire (in many colors), and still be friends with Frederic?

Darius decides to move to Frederic's castle with Frederic. Darius makes this choice because he has been lonely and he wants to be close to Frederic, although he is wary that he will not be able to spit fire at the castle. As Darius tells Frederic, "[L]ife without spitting fire wouldn't be much of a life for a dragon." Frederic tells Darius that he will be able to spit fire when they are alone. Darius is made to feel very at home in the castle, but he finds that he can't ever spit fire, because he and Frederic are never alone.

The story, with its marvelous illustrations, makes me think about friendship, and whether compromises are essential to human relationships. If so, are there compromises that demand too much of us? How would we know? Is Darius being asked to give up something that is too important to him for a friendship to require its absence? Is being a dragon essential to Darius' identity, and is spitting fire necessary for his well-being? I am putting this one on my list to try out with my fourth grade students!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Questions and the Philosophical Self

For the past month I've been working on the chapter of my book that examines what I'm calling the "philosophical self." This part of us, that is naturally inclined to ponder the deeper questions raised by the strangeness of finding ourselves alive in the world, fails to develop for many (most?) young people because cultivating the philosophical self is not something that is nurtured and supported by most (or any) of the adults in their lives.

I've been thinking this week about the central role of questions, and in particular the acquisition of confidence and skill in asking questions, in the development of the philosophical self. We are not a society that is particularly comfortable with questions. Many adults have grown up absorbing the idea that asking questions serves to broadcast to the world what they don't know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. But philosophy is all about questions. Questions are the key to recognizing the philosophically puzzling aspects of our lives, and to making it possible to examine these puzzles with others.

Mat Lipman, in his book Thinking in Education, emphasized the importance, when having philosophical discussions with children, of ensuring that the questions being discussed emerge from the children. I've realized over years of working with young people how profound an idea this was.

Ultimately, whether we are parents or teachers or other adults talking with children, this enterprise is not about teaching children philosophy, but about doing philosophy with them by engaging them in questions they are already exploring. We initiate philosophical conversations with children not to bestow our philosophical insights on children, but to facilitate the ability of children to inquire themselves about the peculiarity of human existence and the most ordinary experiences of our lives. It is crucial, then, that the conversations begin by eliciting from young people the questions they are interested in discussing.

When I lead a philosophy session in a classroom, often a good part of the session will be spent listing the children's questions and helping them to decide which question to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. But I've come to understand that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end as valuable as the time spent actually talking about philosophical questions.

Mat Lipman died in December 2010 at the age of 87. He was an inspiration to me when I first began thinking about the possibilities of introducing philosophy to children, and as I've thought about him over the past month I've realized how much his work, and especially his commitment to the authenticity of philosophical discussions with children, has guided and helped me over the years.