Mere Philosophy “for” Education as an Alternative to the Fickle Flea Market of Ideas and Tools: Part I

"When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all..." 
     --Simon and Garfunkel
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
     --Socrates in Plato’s Apology 
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
     --From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden 

"It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody's business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives."
     --From Mortimer Adler's Six Great Ideas 

Instead of the commonplace exercise of just developing a philosophy “of” education, educators of all ages need to develop effective philosophies “for” education to offset unhelpful institutional, cultural, and personal habits. I find that most philosophies “of” education resemble flea markets of scattered ideas and practices. Adapting a theme from C.S. Lewis for the public high school context, I might call the alternative “mere philosophy.” Here are some initial thoughts about the value of mere philosophy as a guide “for” better learning and teaching.

While thinking about my own journey as a learner and a teacher, I recently noticed this website: Interview Question: “What Is Your Teaching Philosophy?” I think that question has its place in helping grow young, effective educators, but something more is needed philosophically to help educators become more effective and coherent at all stages of their careers. In this sense, I’m focusing on the more important role of philosophy “for” learning and teaching. I see the importance of this theme as a thread through my own life, personally and professionally.

Despite my high school education’s highly dysfunctional context and experiences several decades ago, I’m grateful for those few teachers who took at least some time to engage students philosophically. Such engagement might have saved my life as well as my learning. Without such moments of philosophical engagement, Simon and Garfunkel’s lines from “Kodachrome” might have been my only takeaway from high school.

But from one class, I still remember watching philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler discuss topics of truth, goodness, beauty, and other great ideas with students and adults in an old PBS video series. I especially remember Adler fiercely challenging his interlocutors to think about the dimensions of truth as he asserted and explained that truth in its fullest sense is true for all, so a person can’t ultimately have one’s own definition of truth. I found that annoying yet interesting and eventually helpful.

Later, I would come to understand that Adler was arguing a version of Aristotle’s sense of truth-as-correspondence-to-reality. In simplest terms, Aristotle thought that telling the truth is “saying what is, is” and “saying what is not, is not.” In terms of the basic branches of philosophy, Adler and Aristotle worked especially through the relationship between epistemology (how we know) and metaphysics (what is real). Eventually, I would read more of Adler and various other thoughtful philosophers. Their works helped me develop a hunger for better philosophizing at the service of better learning and living. I often find that inviting students into such philosophical conversations gives them a sense of dignity and respect as young people who can take life seriously.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that such philosophizing is far from esoteric: It’s essential to good learning, living, and teaching. Taking time to consider ways to discern truth (and other philosophical ideas) can help us engage in reality beyond our limited impressions, feelings, and ideas.

Too often, I encounter passing trends in education that remind me of flea markets. When I ask philosophical questions about the usefulness and veracity of the related concepts and practices in various PD settings, I often receive a response along the lines of, “This is just another tool for your tool belt.” If these are tools, what are we trying to build? Such PD seems like it’s just a flea market for assorted tools and ideas.

Beyond tools and bits of conceptual information, our recent year of COVID confusion and political filter bubble conflicts suggest a need for an approach to mere philosophy that will help us grow in becoming more humble, knowledgeable, and wisely effective as learners and teachers.

Also, if you’re tracking with Marvel’s WandaVision series lately, you also might notice how popular culture can sometimes thoughtfully embrace philosophical questions reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Descartes’ Evil Demon Problem thought experiment, and the The Truman Show. Maybe these philosophical moments show us the shortcomings of wrapping our philosophies around ourselves instead of seeking to thoughtfully work our learning outward to other places, times and people. Such reflections make me wonder about the shortcomings of too much student-centered learning.

In my next blog, I’ll follow up on some issues with fickle flea market philosophies and not-so-helpful PD experiences, but I want to end with some notes on what I’m finding helpful as essential to a philosophy “for” education in the context of my high school English classes. First and foremost, the meaning of philosophy is essential “for” education: love of wisdom. In that meaning, there are the two foundation values that we educators need. We need to think, discuss, and explore the manifold notions of love in relation to our subject matter, desires, and patterns of cultures. We also need to have our loves (our desires) well-ordered, and in this we should keep T.S. Eliot’s prophetic and poetic essential questions close to our hearts for daily reflection: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (“The Rock”)

Increasingly, I’m finding mere philosophy as a great aid for my classroom to help students employ essential questions in their writing, reading, and their thinking about long-term flourishing. With teachable moments such as the “So what?” of thesis sentence crafting, the basic branches of philosophy are becoming especially helpful, and likewise for reading complex texts, developing arguments, making synthesis responses, and doing the related analysis work. As I’ve mentioned before, the following basic branches of philosophy and their related questions are becoming exceptionally helpful in my classroom:

  • 1. Metaphysics: What is real? What is the context or angle of focus on reality?
  • 2. Epistemology: What is true? How does one know?
  • 3. Aesthetics: What is beautiful? How does one respond?
  • 4. Ethics: What is good? What should one do?

The questions can be adapted for the opposing concepts of unreality, ignorance, ugliness, bad qualities, and other variations.

Those questions were especially helpful during the past two weeks as I guided students through discussions and lessons connected to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Achebe’s criticisms of Conrad’s work. Along with structured analyses of our texts, I found it helpful to show students how to develop important questions and understand essential issues by using the basic branches of philosophy and the related questions as a sort of heuristics (a.k.a. helpful conceptual tools!).

So, that’s a sampling of some of my current thinking about the essential value of mere philosophy for going the distance as a teacher. More to come!

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