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Of Adolescents and The Aristotle

Michael J. Brown finds assumptions challenged in his Philosophy Club.

I had planned on five, perhaps six students showing up – nothing I’d have to prepare too much for; just a few extemporaneous remarks on philosophy and the usual haggling over scheduling a weekly meeting to talk about it. I was surprised, even panicked, when at the bell signaling the beginning of the pre-lunch free period, seventeen students passed through my door. Seventeen in a high school of only one hundred and sixty. Maybe I should have prepared something.

The gathering had been advertised by my announcement in homeroom that morning: I would be holding an informational meeting for all those interested in forming a Philosophy Club. The previous announcer had admonished supporters to begin attending the soccer games; the following one spoke of a missing calculator. As I said, I didn’t expect much. After all, this was an American high school – albeit a rigorous, progressive, independent school – but a high school nonetheless. My audience in homeroom that morning were adolescents ranging from ages fourteen to eighteen. They’re the iPod generation, the MySpace generation, the blogosphere babies, the postmodern, post-9/11, hyper-consumer Starbucks kids hopped up on reality TV, scientific parenting and ADHD medication. Philosophy to them, I thought, would be “like, so 20th century.”

Clearly I was mistaken. The seventeen shuffled in and sat on top of the desks arrayed in a crescent around my classroom. It was a hot September, so I turned off the lights and let the dusty sunshine stand alone. I began to write on a white board, listing various activities I thought a Philosophy Club could undertake: column in the school newspaper, sponsorship of debates, an essay contest. After finishing my list I turned around to see a student’s raised hand. Perhaps she’d like to write the first column in the paper, I thought. I pointed to her. “How do we know what we know?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, digesting her question. In the space created by my silence another voice spoke up: “We can’t know that we really know anything because there’s no way of, like, getting outside ourselves to check.” I had just figured out what I was going to say when a third student chimed in: “What about the scientific method? That’s supposed to be all about, like, verifying what’s going on in the world by testing out our ideas of what’s going on.”

“Proving hypotheses!” said the first girl.

The crowd went silent again, and all eyes eagerly turned towards me, standing near the white board holding an uncapped green marker. I definitely should have prepared something.

In Issue 43 of Philosophy Now, teacher Michael Brett of Lochinvar House School in Potters Bar, England, wrote about overseeing a group of 12-year-old students who had recently completed a paper on Plato. He found them intrigued by Plato’s cosmology. “Children of this age,” he observed, “still seem to have a sense of wonder and their minds are still uncluttered by other things.” Twenty-four pages later in that same volume, Professor Richard Taylor described the origins of the “irrefutable ethics” – the uncompromising unproven beliefs – of his adult students: “…they had derived their ethics from their parents at an early and uncritical age. And now they were confusing their settled, unquestioning conviction with knowledge.” Thus appeared two seemingly divergent views of children and philosophy in the space of two dozen pages. One envisions the child as the true tabula rasa, the Lockean blank slate on which can be drawn all the wonder of Plato’s allegorical cosmology. The other sees the slate as being etched nearly from the start, before the child is critically aware, with the indelible marks of his or her parents’ beliefs. Despite their apparent contradiction, both views seem plausible in relation to commonly held beliefs about children: they are highly susceptible to suggestion, even indoctrination, and yet they also demonstrate a greater sense of wonder and openness to new ideas than adults do. What I came to witness in Philosophy Club pointed the way toward a synthesis of these views.

As the weeks passed, the original clot of seventeen students turned into a dedicated group of eight or nine who showed up regularly. My lofty plans for debates and essays faded in favor of simple philosophical conversation once a week during free period – the very free period when, incidentally, other students were playing floor hockey, forming and breaking tentative romances, or marveling at the lethal killing power of androids in the latest first-person-shooter game.

A curious set of rituals developed around our weekly meetings. The first of these concerned ‘The Aristotle’.

I was once told that the best philosophical questions are those that, due to their seeming simplicity, people are often embarrassed to pose. High school is a time and a place where embarrassment is felt most acutely, perhaps. I needed a way for students to be able to submit philosophical questions anonymously for the club’s discussion. The solution came in the form of Andrew’s slug jar. Freshman Biology conducts a lab where the students house a slug among lettuce and various other roughage in a jar for a week, during which time they carefully observe its behavior. Andrew, perhaps intending to use his jar for a future creature habitat, had left it stored in his locker outside my classroom. After vigorous washings, followed by the scotch-taping of a printed image of Alexander the Great’s famous teacher onto the face of the jar, ‘The Aristotle’ was born. We gave him a home on a table near the door of the classroom, and brandishing him in homeroom, I announced that philosophical questions could be anonymously submitted to ‘Aristotle’ for consideration by the Philosophy Club. Soon the jar was full of impossibly folded scraps of notebook or graph-paper bearing all sorts of questions – “Is the world very big or very small?” “When does a cake become a cake?” “What does it mean to be truly ‘open-minded’?”

Over time, The Aristotle became a sort of totemic object. The first student arriving for Philosophy Club would bound into the room and seeing no prior comers, snatch up the jar. The next step was to switch off the lights and ignite the overhead projector, aiming it not at the pull-down screen but at the ceiling of the classroom. If I wanted the lights on or the projector off, the students always overruled me, insisting on these little rites before the meeting could begin. Bouncing the beam off the ceiling, the overhead cast a spotlight down upon a reddish oriental rug in an empty corner of the room. The wall beside us was covered with images of well-known philosophers, notably an alarmingly confused-looking Sartre. It was on that rug that we Club members would gather in a circle, assembled around The Aristotle as though it were a campfire. We sit looking at each other, smiling, sometimes giggling a bit in an excited way. Someone reaches into The Aristotle, unfolds a bundle of paper, and the meeting begins with the reading of the question on it. Members hold The Aristotle while speaking, restoring him to the center of the circle where the next speaker collects him. After roughly thirty minutes of discussion, the meetings end with ‘take-aways’: final words on the topic, tangential thoughts touched off by the topic, or silent nods.

I call the habits that developed around our meetings ‘rituals’ because they function to designate the gatherings as separate, uniquely significant space. What does this say about philosophy? What does this say about the relation of contemporary adolescents to philosophy? It suggests, in the first place, that philosophy is not part of the common experience of the kids. If it were par for the course, then why all the little traditions to differentiate philosophy time from class time, gossip time, homework time? It also suggests that philosophical discussion is something the kids feel the need to protect. Putting philosophical conversation in the darkened corner of a classroom could be a means of hiding it away from the raucousness, the mockery, the anti-intellectualism of the halls. Both of these conclusions – that the rituals of the Philosophy Club recognize the rarity of philosophy in general experience, and that they seek to protect philosophy from a larger non- or anti-philosophical community – resonate with my initial notion that high school would not be fertile ground for philosophical practice.

Yet, while the rituals seemed to confirm the conclusions I had drawn, they undermined the reasons upon which I had drawn them. My initial skepticism regarding the receptivity of teenagers to philosophy had been based upon sweeping generalizations: teens are often distracted, jaded and inattentive. The sustained interest of students in the club revealed that for a significant number of individuals, this was simply not the case. They sought philosophical discussion, and therefore they must have been thinking philosophically on their own. The need to set apart such discussion, to protect or segregate it with rituals, showed not that teens are unphilosophical as people, but rather that they are unphilosophical as a group. The youth are willing, but youth culture is not.

It’s tempting to extend this into a Straussian reading of Philosophy Club: in a society where the wisdom of the philosopher is ridiculed, where the inquisitive spirit of the philosopher is threatening to the accepted order, philosophers must disguise or shelter themselves to avoid the sanctions of that society. In this case, I thought my young philosophers might be dodging the high school version of hemlock – derisive laughter, envious spite, exile from the all-important in-crowd. Yet when I asked the kids what they thought, such a reading turned out to be overdrawn. They didn’t view themselves as philosophical refugees; they simply saw their participation as a sign that they have more inclination to philosophy than others, more susceptibility to its spell.

This leads us back to my initial inference arising from the rituals of the club: that their presence indicates wonderment. Rituals accompany moments of confrontation with the mysterious and powerful things of life: birth, death, marriage, harvest, darkness, light – religious moments. The little constellation of rites surrounding Philosophy Club indicates that, for these kids, philosophy is not only one of the powerful things of life, it is one of the mysterious.

What makes it mysterious is the way in which it is an awakening; the way it opens up new landscapes for the mind to traverse – landscapes inhabited by manifold species of new ideas, new questions. Tim, one of the freshmen in the club, describes himself as a student of human behavior. He likes to understand why people think what they think and do what they do. Discussing philosophical questions enables Tim to create new and evolving frameworks in which to place his own actions and the actions of others. It is nothing less then a new way of seeing in the world. Greg, a sophomore in the club, ardently proclaims that for him, philosophy is a way of being more than “just meat.” (Clearly Greg eschews materialism.) Whereas for Tim philosophy is a project of illuminating the ways the world works, for Greg it is about understanding who, or perhaps what, he is. Philosophy is part of the human endowment that makes him something other than or in addition to vibrating atoms. For Greg, philosophy is not a new way of seeing, but a new way of being.

Philosophy is new to the students: both its methods and their fruits are new to young minds beginning to sense the ground beneath their intellectual feet. And newness is most likely a precondition for wonder. This supports Michael Brett’s view that the uncluttered mind of youth is susceptible to the wonder of philosophy. Yet what of Richard Taylor’s view that the minds of youth are cluttered, all too cluttered, by the received ethical precepts transmitted by parents, teachers, priests? An anecdote regarding the Spartan practice of state-sponsored infanticide may throw the question into greater relief.

My freshman History class had been studying Sparta and its civic policy of examining male infants for signs of physical weakness, relegating those deemed unfit to death by exposure. Students learned how this was the first in a system of grueling tests aimed at strengthening Spartan males in preparation for the central task of their future citizenship, hoplite warfare. The purpose of their military system, I told my students, was to maintain the delicate order upon which Sparta rested by keeping the internal helot population subdued and fending off external threats. I described phalanx warfare, of which the Spartans were masters, to the freshmen in terms of its extreme physical and psychological demands.

A handful of freshmen in Philosophy Club raised the question of whether the Spartan practice was moral or not. One student, April, was adamant that under no circumstances could infanticide be considered ethical. The Spartan children, she held, were possessors of an inviolable human dignity, not to mention innocence. It’s wrong, she concluded, to destroy an innocent, irreplaceable human life. Here we have a classic case of Taylor’s irrefutable ethics: a thou-shalt-not planted in the mind of a youngster, its roots deep in the cerebral soil. Another student shot back that the infanticide may have been a merciful act. A weak child, if not killed when young, would inevitably be ground down by one brutal piece of Spartan training or another. Why not end the pain sooner rather than later? April replied that there was no sure way of predicting how the child would fare in later life simply by examining it as an infant, especially with the lack of medical know-how back then. The child might turn out to be a great leader or a great general, and Sparta will never reap the benefits if they leave him out to die. “So,” I asked her, “is the question of whether or not infanticide is ethical something that we can answer by thinking about the extent to which it is useful to the society where it takes place?” “That’s totally different from saying that it’s just wrong to take an innocent life,” interjected another student. “What if it’s actually useful to the society to take a life? What about how the Mayans and the Aztecs had human sacrifices? They thought those sacrifices would get the gods off their back for the rainy season or something like that.” April paused for a bit, brow furrowed in contemplation, to consider the debate. At the end of the meeting, during the take-away portion, she smilingly said that she enjoyed the discussion and had been led to think a great deal.

How does this vignette point the way towards a synthesis of Barrett and Taylor? At first, it looked as though Taylor’s view was borne out: April did have an irrefutable ethic, and the discussion began as a case of merely finding the appropriate received principle and applying it. It turned, however, into a consideration and comparison of alternative principles from a critical vantage point. I hearken back to Taylor’s words that children internalize their irrefutable principles at “an uncritical age.” What I see awakening in the kids of Philosophy Club is not wonderment per se, but the specific kind of wonder which emanates from the realization that one can be discriminating; that one has the option not only of accepting ethics but also of rejecting them – the birth of the critic.

When Barrett said that the minds of his students are “uncluttered,” I wondered, uncluttered with what? We’ve seen that there is some clutter there – Taylor’s received ethics. The clutter that isn’t there are their own conclusions: their slates are clean in regard to original thinking, the kind of thinking that accumulates and solidifies over a lifetime into a worldview. The students of Philosophy Club find joy in the headiness of the early stages of erasing bits of their tabulae and authoring portions anew.

In advising Philosophy Club, I too came to erase an important bit of etching on my slate: the notion that teens are predominantly unconcerned with philosophical problems. This may have been a bit of received cultural ‘wisdom’. After all, aren’t teens notoriously portrayed in imbecilic, offensive, destructive caricatures? But it may have included a bit of my own critical worldview which had solidified over time. Perhaps I had seen, first as a student and then as an instructor, enough to make me critical, skeptical, and finally ‘certain’ that kids don’t care. As that certainty eroded, I began to think not of the division between adolescents and adults, but of the ties between those who belong to what I regard as the community of curious, thoughtful people. The kids in Philosophy Club certainly describe such a society.

On the last day of school for the senior class, one more Philosophy Club ritual was born. Sam, a wise old senior with, wonder of wonders, a beard, was the only member of his graduating class in Philosophy Club. His take-aways were often the ones that inspired the most careful attention, for he not only shared the thoughts of a careful thinker, but manifested a self-possessed wisdom in the way he conducted himself. Nik, a spirited, intellectually voracious freshman in the club, asked me if he could organize something in honor of Sam. That afternoon I went and asked Sam to follow me to my classroom. When we entered, Nik bade him stand on a chair in the philosophy corner, illuminated by the blinding glow of the overhead. Nik produced a certificate bearing the face of Aristotle and inscribed to Sam upon the occasion of his graduation. Sam said a few words and was met by warm applause as the bell signaling seventh period rang. The students from my next section filed in, the lights went on, and the kids of Philosophy Club left their cave-like corner to filter into the crowded halls.

© Michael J. Brown 2007

Michael J. Brown, after teaching history and politics at the Harley School for three years, has become a full-time graduate student, pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Rochester.

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