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.

The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

Seneca, “idle busyness,” and relevance

How relevant is “relevance” to good curriculum?

Earlier this term, I had my tenth-grade students read Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” (De brevitate vitae). The letter contains the phrase desidiosa occupatio, which could be translated as “idle occupation” or “idle busyness.” The students seized on this phrase and cited it frequently.

In this letter to Paulinus (presumably his father-in-law, who oversaw Rome’s grain supply and was old enough to retire), Seneca argues against trivial occupations and for the study of philosophy. People complain that life is short, says Seneca, but it is actually long. People make it short by wasting it. He gives the example of the man getting a haircut:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

Seneca provides many more examples of “idle busyness”—leaders embroiled in battles and public affairs; men concerned with the ornamentation of their lives rather than the essence; and, worst of all, people who give themselves over to wine and lust. All of these people, in occupying themselves with many things, fail to accomplish anything of importance, as true accomplishment requires dedication and focus.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

What way of life, according to Seneca, allows for dedication to the important things? The immersion in philosophical works, or works of wisdom (sapientia).

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam.

My students said that they could relate it to their lives; they cited Facebook, TV, and other kinds of “idle busyness.” One student told me that this letter inspired her to change her priorities. Now, this sort of “relating,” while in many ways illuminating, has its drawbacks; students might overlook parts of the letter that don’t quite mesh with their understanding. Take this, for instance:

And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

I, for one, take exception to this, and that is part of the point of reading. If Seneca’s points were exactly my own, then I would learn nothing from his letter. What is wrong with snapping your fingers to some tune, I ask, if that is what you love to do? But Seneca is not talking about what you love to do. He is not saying, “do what matters to you.” Though the letter is to one person, and therefore not framed as universal advice, Seneca unequivocally ranks some activities above others. That stumbling point (for many a modern reader) makes the letter more difficult and in some ways more interesting.

What does that say about “relevance?” Many educators insist that a curriculum should reflect the students’ own experience and cultural backgrounds, at least in part. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this, but it isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a limited version of a truth. What’s most important is that students find meaning in subject matter (or lack of meaning, if that is its point). This meaning might not apply to their lives, at least not directly. It may not translate easily or completely into everyday language. It certainly doesn’t have to boil down to a maxim or moral. Meaning is the sense or significance of something.

Now, sometimes the meaning is immediate. You read a story and recognize the situation. You may even recognize the characters right away. The life of the story seems close to your own life. In other cases, the meaning doesn’t come for a while. You struggle a bit with the language and ideas. But eventually something comes clear, and with time, still more.

While students may enjoy “relating” to subject matter, they must learn to grapple with difficult and unfamiliar things. The relating may lead to the grappling but doesn’t do so automatically.  Nor is the former a prerequisite for the latter. The former does not require much education; the latter does. Doesn’t it follow, then, that schools should focus on taking students to meaning, not on making things immediately relevant?

Philosophy in second grade

Second graders at a Massachusetts charter school regularly discuss philosophical questions that arise in classic children’s books with the help of Thomas E. Wartenberg, Mount Holyoke College philosophy professor, and his students.  From the New York Times:

One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.

Only a few children said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.

“Say me and a rock was a friend,” (Isaiah) said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”

This gave his classmates pause.

Personally, I think the boy was a selfish brat, but the tree was an enabler.

Child-development theorist Jean Piaget believed children under 12 aren’t  capable of abstract reasoning. Wartenberg disagrees. He uses “eight picture books to introduce children to the major fields of philosophy, including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.”

With Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad Together,” in which Frog and Toad try to determine whether they can be brave and scared at the same time, the pupils examine the nature of courage — one of Aristotle’s central virtues. With Bernard Wiseman’s “Morris the Moose,” about a moose who mistakenly assumes all his friends are also moose, they consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence. And with Peter Catalanotto’s “Emily’s Art,” about a talented young artist who loses a contest, they debate whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art.

Wartenberg has written a book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature.  He argues that philosophy discussions improve reading comprehension and other skills.

That makes sense to me, though I’m not sure it takes a philosophy professor to get kids talking about stories.

Mickey Muldoon has more thoughts on teaching philosophy on Flypaper.