Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Doing Philosophy With Children 2

The Earlier a Child Starts the Better

ASD class trip to Glendalough: May 2011
As an erstwhile teacher of languages (Irish for the most part, and some litle Italian) I have long believed that the earlier one starts to learn a language the better.  A friend of mine who is married to a Parisienne is obviously bringing his little girl up bilingually in English and French.  I have known many parents here in Ireland who have chosen to bring their children up in Irish and English.  All these children learn both languages well and very naturally, and indeed they will proceed to learn futher languages with ease.  I believe the same can be said for any subject, philosophy as well - the earlier you srtart, the better. 

Many scholars and educationists believe that the great philosopher Plato called it wrong when he stated in his great book The Republic that in his ideal state people would not study philosophy until they were at least forty years of age, because by that time they wouuld have enough experience of the world to do philosophy at properly.  That is surely a foolish approach to education in any subject.  Imagine if we had said that to an aspiring poet, musician, mathematician or linguist.  Wait till you are mature enough to handle complexities of metrics, arrangements of orchestral pieces, differential equations or the subjuctive mood.  This certainly shows the stupidity of Plato's argument.  Okay, you say, but surely the ancient Greek philosopher was speaking about lived experience of life which takes years to achieve.  That, too, my friends, is to presume that one learns the wisdom of living in a linear and progressive fashion.  I believe we do not necessarily learn wisdom in a progressive fashion.  Certain people can be gifted with a depth of wisdom and knowledge beyond their years.  We learn from our experiences and by reflecting on them and by living life at a deep level (some choose to live at a surface level only, refusing to tackle their own demons, to use a metaphor.  I know several people who have taught school for over twenty years but basically never learned much about their craft at all as they lived one year's experience multiplied by 20 plus times.  In other words, they chose not to reflect on their approach to teaching, did very little CPD and kept repeating their mistakes.  I'm speaking about people who have long since given up the profession or found another one when the light began to dawn.  Thankfully there are and were few of these wretched souls in the teaching profession but they were there.  Nowadays the inspectorate and CPD offer on-going assistance to such teachers.  I merely offer this as an example to underline the error of Plato's argument.  Mere linearity of living does not give experience or reflection on experience per se. 

Likewise, another argument I can think of versus Plato's view is the fact that most scientists and scholars achieve their greatest discoveries when young rather than when older.  A lot of creative artists also produce the greatest work when younger. 

One of the boys beside a early medieval sink at Glendalough
Still another argument that surfaces in my mind as I type these letters is the comments I have heard over the years at funerals of people who have dies far too young.  I do believe that there is much wisdom in the preacher's or priest's words where it is said that "it is not the amount of years lived that's important.  It's the quality of life that counts, the depth of experience, the sheer living of it." To this extent I was bowled over, transfixed, deeply moved and inspired by the words of an Irish-American father this morning on the life and death of his young son Lieutenant Michael Murphy, U.S. Navy Seal who perished in Afghanistan.  This young man was obviously a most inspiring young man, with high ideals, a keen intellect and, most especially a deep desire to help others.  That this young man might not be able to do philosophy would be a travesty, indeed a lie.  The very depths and heights of humanity - intellect, courage, care, love, loyalty, patriotism in the best sense of the word and wisdom beyond his years - are palpable in this young man's life.  As I say, I was moved by his father's words and then searched out some accounts of his life on the net.  See the YouTube link here and be inspired - Lieut. Mike Murphy.  

The last point may seem like a digression, but to me it is not as it shows philosophy in action, to my mind - a philosophy of life lived with sheer authenticity and self-sacrifice, the absolute opposite to the gung-ho type of silly bravery one sees in Hollywood movies. Now back to some stories that could be used in class:

Another Story: A Fable from Aesop

The Dog and the Wolf

A gaunt Wolf was almost dead with hunger when he happened to meet a House-dog who was passing by.

"Ah, Cousin," said the Dog.  "I knew how it would be; your irregular life will soon be the ruin of you. Why do you not work steadily as I do, and get your food regularly given to you?"

"I would have no objection," said the Wolf, "if I could only get a place."

"I will easily arrange that for you," said the Dog; "come with me to my master and you shall share my work."

So the Wolf and the Dog went towards the town together. On the way there the Wolf noticed that the hair on a certain part of the Dog's neck was very much worn away, so he asked him how that had come about.

"Oh, it is nothing," said the Dog. "That is only the place where the collar is put on at night to keep me chained up; it chafes a bit, but one soon gets used to it."

"Is that all?" said the Wolf. "Then good-bye to you, Master Dog."

The moral of this story is obvious, and it goes something like this:  "It is better starve free than be a fat slave." or "The price of freedom is often a high one."

Some Questions for Class:

  • Why was the wolf gaunt?
  • Describe the House-Dog.
  • What was the attitude/character of the House-Dog?
  • What type of attitude/character did the Wolf portray?
  • Do you think the House-Dog was free?
  • Do you think the Wolf was free?
  • What is freedom?
  • What price did the House-Dog pay?  Was it worth paying that price? 
  • Why was the Wolf not willing to pay the price the House-Dog had to pay? 
  • What eould you say is the moral/lesson of this wee fable? 
  • Are we really free as human beings? 
  • Are there levels of freedom?
Lessons from John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Perhaps then one could go onto sharing the following quotation from the great philosopher John Stuart Mill with the class:  " It is better to be a human being dissatisfied that a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion it is because they only know their own side of the question. " 

  • What lessons can we learn from the quotation from J.S. Mill?
  • Who would you prefer to be - (i) satisfied pig, (ii) human being dissatisfied, (ii) fool satisfied, (ii) Socrates dissatisfied?  Why? 

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