Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doing Philosphy With Children 3

Thinking about the World

Listening to our Guide: Glendalough, May 2011
This is the second of three ways that Professor Robert Fisher recommends as good for engaging children in philosophical discussion (See Philosophy Now, May/June 2011, 6-8).  This article can also be read online here: RF Phil Now.  In a sense one can use "thinking about the world" in practically every class from Literature, History, Geography, Languages right across the whole spectrum of subjects, not just in a Philosophy class.  With this heading in mind I am brought back to Socrates' famous saying that "the unexamined or unthinking life is not worth living."  There is also an interesting reversal of this saying which I believe is equally valid, viz., "the unlived life is not worth exploring/examining."  There is truth in both sentiments, indeed.

I am also reminded of T.S. Eliot's oft-quoted lines from The Dry Salvages (Number 3 of "Four Quartets") where we read the memorable words: "but the sudden illumination— We had the experience but missed the meaning."  There is a lot of depth in these words.  That is, it has long been a notable mark of wisdom in anyone that they reflect upon the significance of their experiences.  In such a fashion, they learn from their mistakes.  Hence, if we want the children we teach to be and to feel responsible  for what they think and do, then we must encourage they to take an active interest in the world.  There is much controversy to be found in the news media, both printed and broadcast.  All news stories, even say about soccer and other sports, offer the would-be philosopher (or thinker, if you wish) much grist for his/her mill where can pose hard, sharp and pointed philosophical questions like some of the following:

  1. Is it acceptable that player X or athlete Y behaved the way they did? 
  2. Why should sportsmen and/or sportswomen be paid so much? 
  3. Why should CEOs of major companies be paid such high salaries? 
  4. How should we punish our criminals? 
  5. What should the penalties be for larceny, for flaunting the rules of the road, for drink driving etc? 
  6. Is the prison system really working?  
  7. Does rehabilitation work?  Or is it an airy-fairy notion?
  8. Are addicts really responsible for their behaviour?   
  9. Is it correct to say that "The law is an ass?"   
  10. Is there any truth in the old chestnut that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor?" 
  11. Why is their evil in the world?
  12. Where does free will come in?
  13. Is religion a good or a bad thing?
  14. Why do wars happen?
  15. Why is there terrorism?
  16. Was it right to assassinate Osama Bin Laden?
As you can see, there is a veritable legion of philosophical questions one can ask merely by casting one's eyes over the newspapers or listening to the broadcast media.  Outside of current affairs, children, as well as adults, are faced with a host of challenges about how to conduct themselves?  How we treat others is a central and important ethical and moral question. 

  1. What is justice?
  2. Why is it wrong to be prejudiced or racist? 
  3. Why is it wrong to disrupt a class?
  4. Why is co-operation so important?
  5. Why is it so important to listen?
  6. What are good manners?
  7. What are bad manners?
  8. Why can't I do what I like?
  9. What is wrong with swearing?
  10. Is it right to eat animals?
  11. What's wrong with cheating?
  12. Why is it wrong to shout in class?
  13. Why is it right to behave properly, to show respect? 
  14. Why is it wrong to steal?
  15. Why do we look after school property?
  16. Why do we not deface school books or furniture? 
  17. Why is it wrong to bully? 
  18. Is it possible to be a pacifist at all? 

Books - the love of my Life.  One of my very many bookshelves!
All these questions surface practically on a daily basis in any school.  Now I have tried to ask the positive questions as well as the negative ones above?  From years of practice I have long believed in a balance of both positive and negative questions, because that's the way life is - a mix of the good and the bad!  I have also found it impossible, if not unrealistic, to phrase everything in a positive way all the time!!   In doing all the foregoing, we as teachers encourage children to reflect on their experiences and thereby avoid missing the meaning as T.S. Eliot has implicitly advised us in the above quoted lines.  Also, in this way the more we discuss why things are right or wrong, the more our children will have a chance to think about their choices and indeed be prepared to accept the consequences of those choices.  I have long used that argument with my students over the years, and it will work with the majority of youngsters - the lesson being that we all have to pay the price of our actions.  In this way, through good questions and through good thinking, our young people will be better prepared when they are faced with the inevitable difficulties life throws our way all too often.

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