From Epictetus to road-crossing chickens

Philosophy can engage, inspire and deepen the thinking of high school students, writes Diana Senechal in American Educator. She teaches Philosophy for Thinking at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a selective New York City public middle/high school that draws an ethnically diverse group of students. (Two-thirds are Latino or African-American; 56 percent qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.)

Her students have published the second issue of their erudite and humorous philosophy journal, Contrariwise, which can be ordered here. 

Students write about Epictetus, the Book of Job, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Pascal, Gogol, virtue, kindness, humor, utopia, dystopia, the DMV — and more.

Peerayos Pongsachai uses math and philosophy to analyze the question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The journal includes national and international contest winners. Emma Eder (Georgetown Visitation Prep, Washington, D.C.) won first place for The Very Real Problem of Irrationality in the math/philosophy category. Her classmate Julia Sloniewsky took on the challenge of writing as a knight or samurai during the all of feudalism. She won for Letter in the Desk of Hiraku Kikkawa.

The international contest asked students to imagine their favorite dish is “its own nation.”

Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? . . . Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences — anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as secreatry of state.”

Plate’s Republic by Grace Eder, also a Georgetown student, won first place. Second and third place winners came from Italy, China, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.

Out of step

Via Larry Cuban:



Physics, ethics, zombies

Fighting zombies — and learning ethic?

Video games are used to teach everything from ethics to physics at a Norwegian high school, reports Tina Barseghian on Mind/Shift.

In a religious studies class, students watch a scene from The Walking Dead.

Supplies are running low and only four food items are left to ration, but there are 10 hungry mouths to feed. Who should eat? The grumpy old guy? The injured teen? The children? The leader?

Once the class reaches a consensus, they have to justify their choice with one of the concepts they’ve learned from moral philosophy. Was their decision guided by situational ethics, utilitarianism or consequentialism?

Games should be more than “chocolate-covered broccoli,” says teacher Tobias Staaby. He also uses Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a sword-and-and sorcery action role-playing game, to teach about Norwegian romantic nationalism.

Physics students play Portal 2, which requires solving puzzles to escape a labyrinthine lab complex. Players “manipulate cubes, redirect lasers and tractor beams, time jumps, and teleport through walls . . . ”

“Should we have a large mass and height? Drop 50 kilograms from 50 meters? Oh, the air resistance kicks in – let’s shorten the height,” said (teacher Jørgen) Kristofferson, illustrating how his students toyed with the power of gravity.

“Real world experiments are important and the game can’t replace them,” he said, “but the game gives students a different perspective on the laws of physics, where mechanics are simulated by a computer to create a realistic gaming environment. It can also be a great source of discussion when the laws of physics are broken!” Students think about how the simulation deviates from reality and transform what might be perceived as a game’s shortcoming into a critical thinking opportunity.

An avid gamer, teacher Aleksander Husoy pioneered the idea by using Civilization IV to teach a cross-curricular unit in Norwegian, English and social studies.

On journals and joy

roundtable2This year my students at Columbia Secondary School put together a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. Filled with essays, stories, dialogues, letters, poems, and other pieces on philosophical topics, it received a lovely review and drew enthusiastic responses from readers.

In May we celebrated the release of the first issue. The event featured readings, empirical Shakespearean experiments, philosophical improv, philosophical questions, a cake, a song, and five humorous awards. The readings ranged from Khadijah McCarthy’s reflection on Locke’s views of marriage to Ron Gunczler’s time-leaping “Two Dialogues: One Ancient, One Modern.”

In a Chalkbeat article, I relate the event to Richard Hofstadter’s idea of “piety and play” in intellectual life. Here I will talk briefly about something related: the nature of joy.

Joy is often misunderstood. People equate it with overt displays of cheer: kids jumping up and down, adults laughing as they work together at a table. A “joyous classroom,” according to some, is a place of bubbling conversation, rapid activity, colorful displays, and so on.  Joy can include these things, but there is more to joy than that. It doesn’t always take blatant form, and it has room for solemnity. One kind of joy comes from seeing things take shape, and that means bearing with uncertainty for a while.

For a good part of the five months of production, the editors and contributors—37 students in all—didn’t know whether the journal would truly come together, but they trusted that it would. I will not tell the story of the journal here; some of it appears in the review mentioned above, and some will appear in an interview of the students. Other stories can be saved for future occasions.

But I don’t mind telling about the morning the boxes arrived. It was a quiet Friday morning in February, with sun coming through the windows at the end of the hall. As though nothing unusual were afoot, the custodians wheeled all but one of the boxes into the office where they would be stored.

Not long afterward, the editors-in-chief opened that first box, removed the packing paper, and looked inside.

They took books in their hands. They took them to the principal and others. Word spread that the journals were here. People started coming by to purchase copies. The day began to fill with exclamation.

The books were beautiful at first glance, and second, and third, and onward. But that was only part of it. All the months of planning and uncertainty, of editing and deliberating, of ideas and laughter; all the lunchtime and after-school meetings (with or without huge pizza pies), all the last-minute inspiration–all this was there in the books. (Fortunately the pizza was devoured and left no trace.)

But the reverse is true as well: before the journal existed, it kept hinting at what it might be. The students went after the hints, and I understand why. There’s something thrilling about working on something you can’t yet see. You see it even when you don’t. When you begin a language, you assemble the sounds and sense a puzzle coming together. Or when working on a physics problem that’s eluding you, you might “get it” in a flash–and then you know that you will figure it out.

There is a kind of joy that has to do with things forming. But formation is not easy or quick. Nor is the joy all reserved for the end result. There is joy in being able to hold the invisible. Maybe joy has to do with perceiving layers of things: seeing what’s there, and also sensing something else.

(Photo, links, and names included here with permission.)

STEM split: Women choose bio, but not physics

Two-thirds of Princeton’s molecular biology majors are female, but 76.2 percent of physics majors are male, reports The Daily Princetonian.

The most female-dominated majors for the class of ’16 are art and archaeology at 92.9 percent, psychology at 87.3 percent and comparative literature at 81.3 percent.

The most male-dominated majors are mathematics at 86.7 percent, philosophy at 77.8 percent and computer science at 77.3 percent. History, politics, sociology, classics, music — and astrophysics — are roughly even.

Why I teach Plato to plumbers

A philosophy professor at a community college, Scott Samuelson explains Why I teach Plato to plumbers – and  nurses’ aides, veterans, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, etc.

To be employable, study philosophy

Would-be journalists (and others) who want to be employable should avoid journalism programs and study philosophy, advises Shannon Rupp, a Canadian journalist, in Salon. She majored in political science and English, but also took philosophy classes that taught “something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought.”

While “vague, trendy subjects” go out of fashion, philosophy stays relevant, writes Rupp. The University of Windsor is closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, possibly because “no one can actually define ‘social justice’.”

. . .  the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we’re talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Epistemology — the study of what we can know — teaches how to distinguish beliefs from facts, Rupp writes. Many people confuse the two.

The philosophy of science teaches about objectivity, which journalists often confuse with “being fair or denying personal bias.”

As newspapers began introducing advertorial copy and advertiser-driven sections, they retrained their staff to talk about “balance” instead of objectivity. As if printing opposing opinions somehow makes up for running half-truths.

What objectivity really means is to test for accuracy — regardless of what you suspect (or hope) might be true. In science they test knowledge by trying to poke holes in each other’s research. News reporters were taught a variation summed up by the cliché, “If someone tells you it’s raining, look out the window.”

The version I’ve heard is: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Teaching “critical thinking” (as opposed to uncritical thinking?) is all the rage these days. Should K-12 teachers study philosophy?

Learning by teaching

Student work can illuminate teaching, writes Diana Senechal, who presents three students’ philosophy papers on Gotham Schools. She teaches at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in New York City partnered with Columbia University. In the school’s Philosophy for Thinking program, “ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy.”

She asked students to write about an ethical dilemma in their own lives or in a work of literature. A 10th-grade boy began:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

He turned his dilemma about the assignment into the topic of the assignment, Senechal writes. He went on to analyze philosophical positions on lying, such as “Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end” and more.

He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie.

“Real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong,” Senechal decided.

The child philosopher

Socrates (In The Form Of A 9-Year-Old) Shows Up In A Suburban Backyard In Washington, writes NPR’s Robert Krulwich introducing a video that’s gone viral. Videographer Zia Hassan met the boy and his brother, 7, and sister, 2, through their babysitter.

The parents “treat their kids as if they’re intelligent young people, and not children who couldn’t possibly understand how the world (or universe) works,” Zia told Krulwich. “I think there are a lot of kids who think about interesting things,” Zia says. “It’s my guess no one really asks them about it.”

The pull and counter-pull of teaching

Education is filled with opposing principles, where neither is absolutely correct. When you’re learning a musical instrument, you need a lot of technical exercises, but you also need to learn to play actual pieces. When you’re proving a mathematical theorem, you should be precise with your steps, but sometimes, if you have an insight, it’s good to take a leap. (Then you can backtrack and fill in the steps.) And so on. Most teachers have certain leanings, but those leanings are not the whole of their understanding or of the truth. Often I find that when I tip just a little bit against myself, interesting things happen.

For instance, my philosophy courses have focused on reading and discussion of texts—for good reasons. The texts are compelling, and the students approach them thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Yet when I give students a chance to take off with their own ideas, I find that they bring forth some of their best work. The moral is not that I should abandon the texts, but rather that I should vary the type of assignment now and then.

My ninth-grade students are studying rhetoric and logic. Most recently, they read G. K. Chesterton’s essay “The Fallacy of Success.” We examined how Chesterton takes apart the idea of success, and how his reference to the myth of King Midas enhances his argument. They did well with this.

Then I thought: why not have them take apart a concept themselves? I had them choose a word from a list, to which they contributed (the options included happiness, justice, power, friendship, solitude, collaboration, courage, wisdom, and more). They were to (a) explain how the term is commonly understood; (b) explain what’s wrong or incomplete about that understanding; (c) explain why it’s important to come to a better understanding of the term; and (d) offer a more complete definition. This began as classwork, with one sentence for each part; later, they expanded their responses into an essay.

I am reluctant to repeat or paraphrase my students’ responses, since I don’t have their permission. I can say that they were all interesting, and some quite moving. Much came out of this exercise. Yet it was informed by our reading and discussion of “The Fallacy of Success.” There need not be a contradiction between analyzing someone else’s essay and writing your own (with your own ideas). In the best of scenarios, the two support each other. Still, it isn’t just a matter of striking a “balance”; the correct proportion may be an unbalanced one.

Back to the original point: our educational leanings need something to pull against them. Very few opinions or preferences in education contain the whole truth. We may go ahead and lean—the leanings do matter–but allow for a bit of sway now and then, as it may turn out to be the best thing that happened all year.