Friday, January 27, 2012

Teaching Philosophy

I made this film today as a part of my "e-portfolio" for my teaching certificate. I'll probably revise it later, but thought that it was worthwhile sharing now nonetheless.

Philosophy - What's The Use?

Gary Gutting, who is one of my favorite living philosophers - has a rather curious post at the NY Times' philosophy blog. I kind of think he's missing the point about why so many people tend to be so dismissive of philosophy, but I think his post is worth reading nonetheless.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Philosophy is the Most Important Thing

"A man's maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play." - Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

It was a nice, cold, sunny morning in December when I left my practicum placement at Urbana High School and walked towards the bus stop, where I would catch a bus headed back to the U of I campus. There was another student waiting there, an undergraduate, and she started asking me questions about the Education Department at U of I. She had just come from an observation at Urbana Middle School, and has been considering majoring in education, although not special education in particular, like me, and so she had a lot of questions to ask.

Unfortunately, I'm not the best person to ask these sorts of questions, not because I'm uninformed - although I guess I could educate myself a little better - but because I am a very atypical SPED student. I am a 27-year old graduate student in classes of mostly undergrads. I am a male in a class that is overwhelmingly (more than 90 percent) female. I am the only student in the class with a visible disability. Finally - and I guess this is kind of related to that first difference - I did not major in education as an undergrad. No, as I eventually came around to telling this sophomore as we waited for the No. 5 Green W Bus*, I majored in philosophy.

Upon learning this, my undergraduate bus-waiting compatriot remarked that, oh, he had taken an Intro to Phil. class last year and, um... well, what she remembered most about it is that the professor spent four weeks discussing whether or not anyone could know whether or not the sun would rise tomorrow, and that it was about that point when she decided that she had better things to spend her time doing and worrying about.

It was here where I wished that I could have called a "time out." Because, look, whether or not inductive inferences do or do not count as knowledge is actually really important, and is highly relevant to how the scientific method functions. And I would've loved to have talked to her about it, and about how tragic is was that the lesson that she got out of it was that philosophy was that spending time doing philosophy is a big, fat waste of time.

But I was tired, and anxious about my upcoming meeting with my adviser, and didn't really feel like this was the appropriate venue to get into an epistemological discussion**, so instead, I muttered something like, "Oh, yeah, you gotta know if the sun is gonna rise.." and proceeded to quiz her about what other "Most Boring" "Greatest Hits of Philosophy" that they covered in her Phil 101 class:

"Evil demon?"

- Yup

"Brains in vats?"

- Yes.

"The Matrix?"

- Um, we watched a few scenes. Mostly we talked about robots.

What she got out of the class, of course, was that philosophy was wasting her time and her energies; that she could and should be doing more productive things with her life, like volunteering at the local middle school and pursuing her degree as a math teacher. And it's not like I could blame her. The tragedy, however, is that these are the concepts that everybody ought to know. Understanding them ought to enrich everyone's lives, regardless of profession, and yet they are taught within the "academy" as obscure and esoteric things, and the professors and the T.A.'s - really, in a large university setting, the responsibility here falls on the T.A.'s shoulders - reinforce this attitude that philosophy is not worth the time or the effort of people who are not "serious" about philosophy. So someone like my bus-riding friend gets the message loud and clear that those who aren't prepared to sacrifice the rest of their lives for the sake of brains in vats and evil demons shouldn't even bother.

I caught the Green, with these thoughts in my mind, and went to my weekly meeting with one of my advisers on campus. I walked into her office, and we chatted about my morning, and about how my instructional program with one of my students, Ajax, was going. And then, when we were finished with our order of business, she asked me how I was doing. And I told her about my conversation that morning, and about how it got me thinking about how frustrating it is for me to feel like philosophy is the most relevant thing in the world, that it is relevant to everything, and is useful for everyone in every situation, and yet the way that it is handled, specifically the way that it is taught to young people, ensures that the field and the study of philosophy remains enshrined within a few very specific contexts.

I went on to talk about how happy I would be if I could spend my mornings in a special education class, helping and encouraging students who have been chronically disadvantaged, and then spend my evenings in a college philosophy course, reminding students that they are incredibly privileged in our country.

"Yeah, Joel," said my adviser. "You should make that job." (She's good at being supportive. She used to be a special ed teacher.)

*C-U has a super complicated bus system.

**That's disingenuous of me. It is always a good time to talk epistemology.