Friday, June 30, 2017

Institutional Humility, or What Philosophy Can and Can't Do

This will be my last blog post until the fall, and I wanted to explore further some of the issues I began examining in my last post.  In particular, I have been thinking more and more about the marketing of philosophy and the ways in which those of us in the field talk about philosophy, or "sell" philosophy, as part of outreach and/or development efforts (efforts that, as the humanities are increasingly devalued, are playing growing role in the field). When you market or sell something, you focus on its strengths, i.e. what is beneficial in whatever it is you're selling, to whomever it is you are trying to convince of its value. But part of what is valuable about philosophy, in my view, is that it is challenging, that it pushes us and often makes us uncomfortable. That's a hard sell.

This is especially relevant when we are talking about K-12 philosophy, a relatively new field that most of us involved in want to see grow and be accessible to more young people. And there are many positive aspects of introducing philosophy to young students, some of which I discussed in my last post. But some of philosophy's benefits are not easily marketable, and the effort to sell pre-college philosophy can lead us to both to play down its challenges and to shy away from looking closely at the discipline's shortcomings (its history of sexism and racism, the gatekeeping that is endemic to academic philosophy, the difficulty of doing philosophy well, the obstacles to public philosophy efforts, etc.).

When we facilitate philosophy sessions in classrooms, we try to create what is called a "community of philosophical inquiry." One of the essential elements of such a community is what historically has been referred to as "epistemological modesty," an acknowledgement that all members of the group, including the teacher, are fallible and therefore hold views that could end up being mistaken. It's a kind of humility, an awareness that our knowledge is partial and we often think we understand things that, upon closer examination, we don't.

In thinking about the larger field, I began considering the importance of institutional humility.  I have just begun reflecting about this, so these are very preliminary ideas, but I am thinking that institutional humility for philosophy involves at a minimum an awareness of the limits of what philosophy can do, both as an approach for understanding the world and as a way of life, and the challenges of its propensity to make people uncomfortable (at its best, in a good way), as well as a recognition of the partialness of the field itself and the way that many voices — women, people of color, children, etc. — have been (and are still being) denied entry to its conversations. Shouldn't humility be at the core of a field that emphasizes the partialness of what we know? To adopt this would convey an understanding that philosophy itself still has a lot to learn.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Challenges of Engaging All Students in Philosophy

Philosophy in K-12 classrooms is still a rarity in the United States. My work over the past 20 plus years has involved introducing philosophy into schools and helping educators and policy makers to recognize young people's philosophical proclivities and the benefits of bringing philosophical inquiry into their lives. This involves a lot of "selling" of the strengths of philosophy for young people, of focusing on all of the reasons this effort is important  philosophy's unique advantages as a discipline for teaching critical thinking skills, the ways in which philosophical inquiry helps young people to recognize the multiplicity of perspectives in our world, the confidence in expressing one's own ideas and questions that can come from thinking about philosophical issues with others, and the importance of encouraging young people to continue to wonder about the world.

What we don't talk about very much are the challenges. This is due, mainly, I think, to our status as a still-new field, seeking to gain credibility and visibility. However, I think that at least some of the challenges we face are endemic in schools, and perhaps our experiences as relative newcomers can provide fresh perspectives on some of the issues faced by many or most teachers.

The specific challenge about which I am reflecting today is the goal of engaging all of the students in a class. In philosophy, we often talk about how children and youth are curious about philosophical topics and come to philosophy sessions with philosophical interests of their own. We also point out that the fact that philosophical questions have no final and settled answers creates spaces for students to discuss issues of interest to them without fear of getting it wrong, and that open and student-led philosophy sessions appeal to many students who might not be otherwise engaged in school. I believe that all of this is true. But what we don't, at least in my experience, talk openly about is that despite our efforts, it is often a challenge to involve all of the students in a class, as some or many are disinterested and disengaged.

I routinely facilitate regular weekly or bi-weekly philosophy sessions in classrooms of 28-32 elementary school students. I use a variety of prompts  picture books, activities, games, philosophical puzzles, journals, small groups, "turn and talk," silent discussions, etc. There are many sessions in which the students end up discussing deeply and intently a philosophical question that matters to them, and some continue the conversation with me and/or each other after the session concludes.

However, there are almost always some students who are clearly checked out. Not just not speaking, as I am very aware that there are many ways to participate and not every student is comfortable speaking in a group, and I routinely read student journal entries from students who never speak but are clearly absorbed by philosophical inquiry. But there are also students who just don't seem to be at all interested in philosophical inquiry, who are bored, and to whom almost no philosophical topic seems to appeal. In some sessions, these students are the majority. And I hear the same thing from other K-12 philosophy instructors.

Is philosophy for everyone? I have written elsewhere about my belief that we all engage in philosophical thinking at some point, whenever we consider questions like what is the right thing to do, is someone really a friend, do we really know something, etc., and that philosophy is much broader than the academic discipline as it is practiced in college and universities. But does that mean that regular involvement in philosophical inquiry with others is something that is necessary or even beneficial for all students, even if some of them aren't particularly interested?

Of course, not all students are attracted by math, or reading, or history, or science, yet these subjects are routinely taught because we as a society think they are important for students to learn. Is philosophy like this? We don't tend to speak of philosophy in this way, in part because, at least in elementary school, we are not "teaching" the subject of philosophy, lecturing students about Descartes' dream argument or Kant's metaphysics,  as most young students are not ready for this and would have no interest in it.  Our focus is on creating spaces in which students can discuss topics of interest to them, with the facilitators helping them to listen closely to each other, give good reasons for their views, anticipate objections, ask clear questions, etc. What K-12 philosophy instructors tend to say we are doing is responding to a children's propensities to ask philosophical questions and think about philosophical topics. But is this true of all children? And if not, is it valuable for children not drawn to philosophy to be exposed to it?

If it is important that all students be acquainted with philosophy, what are strategies we can use to engage all or at least most of the students who don't seem inclined to it? If it is not important for all students, where do we go from here?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Other Way to Listen

The Other Way to Listen, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, tells the story of a boy who wants to learn to listen. He knows an old man who can "walk by any cornfield and hear the corn singing," who has heard "wildflower seeds burst open, beginning to grow underground,"and many other sounds that most people do not hear. When the boy wonders why most people don't hear these sounds, the old man responds that "[t]hey just don't take the time you need for something that important." The boy notes that the old man "always asked himself hard questions that take awhile to answer."

The boy asks the old man to teach him how to listen to such things, and the old man explains that he wishes he could, but it is something one has to learn from "the hills and ants and lizards and weeds and things like that." He advises the boy to start with something small. The boy tries, but nothing works, and he only hears the things anyone hears. Then one day, he is walking alone in the hills, and he hears the hills singing. "I never listened so hard in my life," the boy reflects.

When I read this story with children, I ask them, after I've finished reading, to sit in silence for 5 minutes and just listen. What do they hear?

The story raises many interesting philosophical questions, including:

What does it mean to hear something?
Are hearing and listening the same?

Why do some questions take longer to answer than other ones?
Are there advantages of taking more time before answering a question?
Can we learn from the following things? Why or why not?
  • Hills
  • Ants
  • Trees
  • The stars
  • Weeds
Does a teacher always need to be a human? An adult?  Why or why not?
Is it important to spend time alone? Why or why not?
The old man describes how, “[y]ou have to respect that tree,” if you want to hear it and that “if you think you’re better than that thing, you’ll never hear its voice.” What does he mean?
What is silence? Can we experience silence even if there is sound around us?
Can we learn anything from silence?