Tag Archives: philosophy

What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life

Background

Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?


Ubuntu

I’ve been doing some research and thinking about Ubuntu. No, not the Linux operating system, but its namesake. I started looking into it a couple weeks ago. While watching the World Cup, I noticed a commercial that included this word and I wanted to know what it meant. As I read more about it, I became intrigued and had to wrap my head around it. This post is the result of that thinking.

Before sharing this, I’ll share my classroom application for this. I have struggled over the last couple years to find balance between enforcing the rules that I want enforced and giving students input into the class rules. I’ve set  my own rules, tried to create a class constitution, but haven’t found something really effective. This year, I’ll be trying something new – a class covenant. I’ll post more about this concept later, but the applicable part for now is that I will provide guiding principles and students will identify the outcomes of those principles in different contexts. After learning about Ubuntu, I have no doubt that this will be one of the guiding principles in my classroom this year.

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What is Ubuntu?

“Ubuntu” is what it means to be human. A Zulu maxim provides perhaps the simplest definition of Ubuntu: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which means “a person is a person through other persons.” It is a philosophical belief that being human means recognizing and respecting the humanity of others. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong.” Tutu goes on to say, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself.” It is, he says, the relationships between us that make us truly human.

It is not an uncommon philosophy. English poet John Donne, in “Meditation XVII,” opined that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” noting, as Tutu does, that being human means you are part of a greater whole. Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork on the Metaphysic of Morals, writes that all persons should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” By treating others not as objects, but as people, we not only respect them, but respect and affirm our own humanity and the ways in which we are bound to one another.

What does Ubuntu look like?

While Ubuntu is a worldview, there are certain outward characteristics that reflect the internal belief that we are all connected, most notably the traits of compassion and justice.

It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)

Tutu points out that respecting the humanity of others and having empathy towards others leads us to be positive and welcoming to other people. When we truly believe in the concept of Ubuntu, we realize that when someone else is degraded, then we ourselves are degraded. This leads us to a point where we are enacting justice on behalf of others

In addition to seeking justice, Ubuntu impels us to be compassionate and hospitable. “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” (Nelson Mandela). Ubuntu, according to Mandela, puts our own personal gains in a larger context – the context of something greater than ourselves, some transcendent cause. Our own personal gains, whether mental gains (such as education) or physical gains (such as money), inevitably benefit the greater community and make it a better place for everyone. Thus, those with Ubuntu are more likely to share their gains of wisdom or wealth with their neighbors.

Of course, this is no different than the Christian ethic, which values respect and justice as the highest human good. In Leviticus 19:18, the scripture says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” commanding us to recognize the inherent humanity in each other. Again in the Gospels, Jesus reminds his followers not only to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” but also that the next greatest commandment is that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). In the scripture, loving God with everything we have leads to what Mandela and Tutu call “Ubuntu” – the respect and compassion that we have for each other within a community.  The end result, however, remains the same – people with Ubuntu are welcoming, compassionate, and affirming towards all people.

How to apply Ubuntu

With a basic understanding of the Ubuntu philosophy, the application of these beliefs should be somewhat obvious. Building meaningful relationships, treating people with respect, affirming people across cultural divides, and enacting justice on behalf of others should seem to be clear outcomes of Ubuntu.

Even so, there are some guiding principles that can help us become more adept at applying Ubuntu in a practical way. Stanlake J.W.T. Samkange emphasizes three maxims that give a sort of practicality to Ubuntu, much as Kant did in his Metaphysic of Morals. First, he said, “To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.” First and foremost, the application of Ubuntu requires us to appreciate not only with our words, but with our actions, the inherent humanity in each other. As a result of this appreciation, we are able to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Samkange’s second principle of Ubuntu is a practical application of the previous maxim: “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life.” This particular statement emphasizes that respecting our humanity and the humanity of others should always be the primary motive for any action. Wealth, while useful for advancing the good of the community, should never be valued above preserving the humanity of another person. For example, even something as simple as an insult degrades the humanity of someone else, and given the opportunity to make money by insulting someone, we should always say no to the money, because that person’s dignity is more valuable to us.

Finally, Samkange provides a third principle: “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.” Those who are in power, he says, are only in power because the people have allowed them to be in power.  This democratic ideal, Samkange says, was a “principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy.” Consequently, the practical application is one directed at those who are in leadership: lead courageously. Those in power must continue to recognize the humanity in the people they lead, and must continually affirm the dignity of others. It is particularly imperative for those in leadership roles to develop Ubuntu because they have an impact not only on the people they lead, but on other whole communities. Thus recognizing that they are “a person only through other persons” allows them to work for a transcendent cause, lead courageously, enact justice on behalf of others.

Conclusion

Ubuntu is not a religious belief. Truly, it is not even an all-encompassing worldview. At its most powerful, Ubuntu is scarcely a moral imperative. Rather, Ubuntu is an underlying belief – it provides the “why” for actions that we all know to be good and just. By recognizing that we are all persons only through other persons, that I am human only because of the humanity of others, and that humans are intrinsically interconnected, I have a reason to treat others with respect. I have a reason to be affirming of others. I have a reason to be kind and welcoming and generous. It is this concept of Ubuntu that gives us the motivation to become real human beings and to treat others as such. Ubuntu gives us validation in our mission to accept responsibility, lead courageously, have empathy, enact justice on behalf of others, and work for a transcendent cause. Ubuntu is knowing what it means to be truly human.


Six Great Ideas – Journal 2

“Six Great Ideas,” by Mortimer J. Adler – Chs. 3-4

QUOTES:

  • “Precisely because it can be everybody’s business, it should be part of everyone’s general education…Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy-with an introduction to the great ideas.”
  • “If philosophy is everybody’s business, then not only should everyone be able to use these words correctly in a sentence when the standard of correctness is merely grammatical, but also everyone should be able to engage, to some extent, in intelligent discourse about the object of thought under consideration.”
  • “These three ideas [liberty, equality, and justice] are the ones we live by in society. They represent ideas which a considerable portion of the human race has sought to realize for themselves and for posterity.”
  • “I turn now to the other trio: truth, goodness, and beauty. These three ideas are the ones we judge by. Unlike the ideas we live by (liberty, equality, and justice), these three function for us in our private as well as in our public life.”
  • “A great idea is almost always one about which challenging questions have been raised. The great philosophical questions are, for the most parts, questions about the great ideas.

THOUGHTS:

  • On the first quote: I’m encouraged that Adler seems to agree with me (or is it vice versa?) that philosophy should be a required part of the K-12 curriculum. I learned more Thinking Skills and Habits of Mind in my philosophy courses than in all the rest of my education combined. It is utterly necessary to develop such skills just to read philosophy texts, let alone discuss them or write about them. And there is plenty of precedent for the success of philosophy in high schools – look at the International Baccalaureate program, which offers credit for philosophy.
  • Following a discussion on vocabulary and the observation that the six ideas he will discuss are truly simple words, Adler notes something interesting: that the words are simple grammatically, but very complex and layered as “objects of thought.” This seems to be true of so many different words – easy to learn how to use them, but difficult to truly understand what they mean.
  • As Adler concludes the introductory section of the book, he previews his discussion of the two groups of great ideas: the judging ideas (truth, beauty, goodness) and the acting ideas (liberty, equality, justice). Of these, he says that the greater set is actually the former. Truth, beauty, and goodness, according to Adler, are the dominant trio of ideas because they affect the acting ideas. For example, without a concept of goodness, ideas like liberty and equality and justice are just objects of thought. It is the notion that they are good ideas that makes them so valuable to us. Not surprisingly, this is very similar to Plato’s theory that the Form of the Good is the highest of the forms and illuminates all other ideas.
  • On the last quote above, it reminds me of one of my favorite truths about philosophy: Doubt everything. Doubt leads to questions. Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to truth. Without some sort of honest doubt, no great theory (or idea) would ever have been posited. If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t doubted the goodness of segregation, the world would have been a much different place. This is why I continue to advocate doubt as one of the strongest habits of mind (even if it doesn’t get mentioned as such).

The Great Ideas

I just started reading a book that’s been on my Shelfari “Plan to Read” shelf for about a year. It’s called Six Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler. As I started reading this book, I realized that it touches on both of my academic passions: literature and philosophy (more of the latter, to be sure). I also realized that I would want to respond to it. A lot.

Solution: Online Reader’s Journal. I plan on posting some key quotes and my responses to the text as I read through the book. Hopefully it’s not too tedious to read, especially since I’ll start it now.

o  o  o

Reader’s Journal, Six Great Ideas, chapters 1-2

QUOTES

  1. “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.
    Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why this is so and what philosophy’s business is.
    The answer, in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great ideas – the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live.”
  2. “Ideas, as objects of thought, do exist. The idea of truth or of justice does not cease to exist when I cease to think about it, for others can be thinking about it when I am not. However, unlike the chair I am sitting on or the book you are holding in your hand, which does not cease to exist as a perceptible object when no one is perceiving it, objects of thought do cease to exist as intelligible objects when no one at all is thinking about them…Ideas exist objectively, but not with the reality that belongs to physical things.”

THOUGHTS

  • Adler’s comments in the first lines of his book (Quote 1) line up very well with what I continue to believe – that everyone should “do” philosophy. Philosophy covers the most elemental aspects of what it means to be human, and requires developing strong thinking skills and good habits of mind – exactly why I’m trying to put together a course curriculum for a Philosophy class.
  • The 6 great ideas, which he mentions in the first chapter, are truth, goodness, and beauty (the ideas we judge by) and liberty, equality, and justice (those ideas we act on). These strike me as being very elemental ideas and very much worth studying/discussing in school
  • While I found Adler’s discussion of the nature of “ideas” and the two types of ideas (subjective ideas and objective ideas) interesting, I’m not sure a lot of people would feel the same way. The writing is definitely slanted towards those with a predisposition to philosophical thinking and reading
  • The final idea, though (Quote 2) is fascinating to me. What is an “idea”? Is it a “real” thing, or just something that doesn’t really exist? Adler makes an interesting argument – that there are two distinct kinds of ideas. The first, subjective ideas, are those thoughts that only I can have. The second, objective ideas, are those “big ideas” that everyone can think about (like truth, justice, etc.). I like this distinction, though again, it might seem boring and meaningless to the average reader.

So far, pretty interesting book.


Teachers of Philosophy

One of my lesser-known passions is the study of philosophy. Along with English, I double majored in Philosophy in college. I student-taught in an International Baccalaureate Philosophy class made up of 11th and 12th graders. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on methods for developing critical thinking skills in high school students, and one of the key methods I discussed was the study of philosophy. I work in a district that values thinking skills and habits of mind above nearly everything else.

I’m still a young, novice teacher, but one of my longer-term goals (alongside the goals mentioned in the last post) that I will begin to work toward this year is to find a place in our curriculum (currently, at the 8/9 levels) for some sort of philosophy course. I believe deeply that there needs to be a place for students to read about and discuss huge issues like knowledge, ethics, and humanity. I believe that the lack of this sort of study in K-12 education is at least in part responsible for the lack of knowledge, morality, and empathy that we see in our society. Needless to say, I value the study of philosophy a little more than most.

Obviously, there are some complications in getting a course like this approved, not limited to dealing with graduation requirements and credits, curriculum development, and how to categorize the course (social studies? language arts? elective?). However, it’s still a bit early to be worrying about these things.

What I am wondering at this point of my process is simple. I have two questions:

1. What is “philosophy” to you? Is that worth studying alongside literature, mathematics, history, and science?

2. If you teach philosophy in a K-12 school, how is your class structured? How are the credits arranged? What was the process of getting the course approved?


OpposingViews

Courtesy of @edu and Webware, I’ve seen two posts recently about an impressive site called OpposingViews and I just had to add my two bits.

This past year, one of the most successful activities we did in my English class was a unit on rhetoric and argument, complete with a class debate, a devil’s advocate debate, and an argumentative essay. Each piece of this unit went over well. Students loved debating each other, they loved debating the character I portrayed (who argued in favor of a flat Earth), and they actually really enjoyed writing the essay. The most important piece of this, I felt, was that the essay and debate topics were not focused on them – they were big issues that concerned a lot of, if not all, people. Issues like abortion and capital punishment were popular, as were several other big, hot-button issues.

In looking at OpposingViews, I cannot help but shake with excitement at the possibilities that arise for our rhetoric unit. To begin with, imagine the modeling that can be done using this site: students can see exactly what experts on different sides of an argument say and, more importantly, how they say it. So many lessons in word choice, tone, and voice! Another possibility: examining logic and logical fallacies in different arguments. As a wannabe philosopher, I want so badly to teach logic and fallacies, but just can’t find the time. Argument is about the closest I get to that, and this seems like a great opportunity to critique arguments for fallacies. Add to all of this the credibility of this site as a source for their papers – they’d be quoting experts on both sides of the argument – and we’ve got ourselves an amazing site on our hands. (Can you tell I’m excited yet?)

I am eagerly looking forward to sharing this site with students and using it in class next year.  And feel free to suggest other ideas for its use…I’m sure there are many!


Guilt By Omission

Let no one when young delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old, grow weary of his study. For no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul. And the man who says that the age for philosophy has either not yet come or has gone by is like the man who says that the age for happiness is not yet come to him…

– Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus

 As I mentioned in the last post, I’m reading a really cool book called Little Big Minds, which talks about doing philosophy with children. The chapter I just finished was especially good because it was on happiness – a subject I’ve written about before. One of the philosophers the author cites is Epicurus, an Athenian thinker. The above quote by him sums up one of my strong feelings about K-12 education right now – where’s the philosophy?

  I would (and did, in fact, in my Master’s thesis) argue that philosophy is one of the most important subjects students can study, yet is glaringly absent from schools. While we demand that students be great thinkers and intelligent citizens, we omit the field of study that would most profoundly affect those changes. In a sense, we in the education system, are largely culpable for students’ lack of thinking and empathy skills because we are omitting the subject that teaches them.

  Moreover, Epicurus argues that philosophizing – “doing” philosophy – is the key to a happy life. Many others, including Plato and Cicero, would concur (I have quotes to back that up if you like). Of course, that’s just my own trivial opinion.