Friday, October 28, 2011


I wore a tie today - perhaps the first time all year! But it was a special occasion. It was for a 3rd grade class in the South Slope, and I was their visiting philosopher. (Inspired by a café philosophique book for children, the teacher Mrs. B has been leading exciting discussion of questions like "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" "Is the glass half full or half empty?" "Can you be happy and sad at the same time?" and - my favorite - "Am I here?" My friend J, who has a daughter in the class, told the teacher she could bring a real philosopher to the class, so there I was, just in time for Mrs. B to introduce Socrates.) I didn't wear just any tie:
I had them inspect the tie - several recognized "The Thinker" - and had us all try to sit in that position and see if it made us think deeper thoughts. "This is what many people think of when they think of a philosopher," I said, then asked them to show me what their study had suggested a philosopher looked like. Several offered variations on "The Thinker," with head tilted or hands folded beneath the chin or hands covering the eyes. One pointed diagonally upward like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" - the gesture of "I've got it!" Another put a finger to his temple and smiled brightly: "Lightbulb," he explained. We'd almost choreographed a philosophy dance, so I tried to remember all their gestures in order, then asked "Want to see how I picture Socrates?" I posed with my friend J as if in the midst of an engaged dialogue. "Forget The Thinker: Socrates thinks you can't do philosophy all by yourself."

Mrs. B had offered a brief description of Socrates (taken from here), and then asked if anyone wanted to try to have a Socratic dialogue with me. Many volunteered (mostly girls). What did I think would be a good question to get us started? I chose "What is learning?" and over the next twenty minutes we really truly had Socratic exchange! Several students took their turns, all with perceptive and interesting answers which I bounced back to them with Socratic spin, each giving up at a certain point (Mrs. B: "How do you feel? Frustrated?" Student: "Yes!" Me: "That's great!"), until by the end we'd reached one of those points Socrates most enjoyed. We'd agreed that learning isn't just someone teaching you something, and that you don't learn everything someone tells you or you read in a book but only some things, and that you learn those things rather than others because you're ready to, and that that means that in some sense you already know them ... so, in fact, it seems you don't need to learn them at all! I didn't set out to get to this deliciously Socratic paradox (had they just learned from me that you can't learn from another person?), but there we were! I dare say Socrates, who described himself not as a teacher but as a midwife, would have been proud.

From this height we attained to even higher peaks. One student asked: if I need someone to help me to learn something, surely that person needed someone, and that person needed someone, and that person needed someone ... so who was the first to know something? After praising the question and bouncing it around (Mrs. B: "How do you feel when you ask a question and someone just says it's a good question and doesn't answer it?" Student responses mixed!) I suggested that perhaps the first person was a Thinker type - assuming the Rodin posture - and perhaps what they came up with was not new knowledge but a new question.

After interruption by a long series of announcements over the PA system and snacks, it was time to wind down. Any last questions for me, asked Mrs. B? I punted on "What caused the sun?" and parried on the rather wonderful "How do you know your name?" Then a boy asked, "What is a question?" very pleased with himself but not expecting me, too, to be pleased by his query. (I was of course delighted.) I passed it around. "Something that has an answer," said someone confidently. "Maybe," I said, "maybe not." As our time ran out I thanked Mrs. B for her hospitality and the class for their excellent philosophizing and, making the Socrates-Travolta gesture, took my leave.

What fun! I recalled a visit to a class of 5th graders at Trinity School several years ago; the instructor told me that at about age 10 children's minds open to the pleasures and paradoxes of abstraction, and that this is a great time to do philosophy. His was a religion class and they were discussing Zen Buddhist koans - brilliantly, just like today's kids. And this in turn reminded me of Nel Noddings' book Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, which argues that big questions arise naturally in elementary school curricula if you let them - and if you let them, amazing things will happen. Amazing things happened today!

PS Someone took a picture - notice the Rodin and Eureka-moves!

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