Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.
On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review. It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her. I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.
The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room. They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students. The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.
My students, of course, stole the show.
As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress. My supervisor laughed nervously. The other reviewers gasped.
I couldn’t be prouder. There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.
Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room. Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire. Student-produced definitions of “civilization.” Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.” Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.
My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk. Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.” I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer. At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”
“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained. “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”
There was no reason to panic. A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc. Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.
This is why I love philosophy. It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.
I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough. I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.
In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.
Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization. It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it. If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.
Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.
P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market. Yet he goes one step further. In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought. He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.
Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all. I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die. Bullshit. I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE. Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.
Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle. We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line. P-Bro nailed it. What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail. In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.
(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)
So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students. They got it immediately. It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.
The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator. Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.
…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.
This Day in History 5/3: Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
If you don’t like today’s post in the Neighborhood, simply fear my wrath. At least, that’s what today’s birthday boy would suggest.
Happy birthday to 16th Century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Among his talents, including a leading politician in the Republic of Florence during the early 1500’s, was the writing of perhaps the first book on modern politics, The Prince. Rare is a college student who did not sit through an introductory philosophy or political science course without reading Machiavelli’s seminal work. It’s a remarkably short read, but is full of ideas that still resonate today–even though most of us are loathe to admit it.
Machiavelli still evokes controversy today. Many perceive him as favoring dictatorships or autocracy, as well as the use of brute force to maintain power. We even have the word “Machiavellian” to describe measures that are cunning and deceitful. Richard III, Cleopatra, Stalin, and even some modern politicians come to mind. If it were this simple, then a lot of pretty rotten people would still enjoy power.
To counter this, a little context is in order. The Prince was written at a time when the Republic of Florence was about to collapse under the weight of war with the Hapsburgs and the Holy See. The republican government, which existed in Florence for at least two centuries prior, was to end once and for all, and republican politicians like Machiavelli would feel the wrath of the incoming rulers, the powerful Medici clan that had ruled Florence from behind the scenes. For Niccolo to avoid being drawn and quartered, it was important for him to play nice with the new leadership. Even the preface of the book is dedicated to the new duke, which shows that even Machiavelli can be Machiavellian. He basically wrote this, in part, to save his own ass.
However, the lessons of the republic were not completely lost. The Prince was prescribed as a manual for the attainment and preservation of power. It was not the basis for a fair and just society, as Plato and Aristotle attempted in their works. Machiavelli did not see it that way. He saw power, and especially morality, as the maintenance of societal norms and functions using necessary, swift and short-term uses of aggressive force. However, he also believed in the patron-client relationship, and viewed prescribed rewards as beneficial in maintaining power. In short, a prince (or a government or a President, for that matter) needed to balance the use of force and authority with the rhythms and needs of elites and the people.
We hate to admit it, but most governments today are pretty much maintained through Machiavelli’s principles. In fact, the use of opinion polls, instant access to current events, and internet communication make today’s politicians even more like Machiavelli’s prince than ever before. Whereas political elites of yore can act on principle every once in a while and get away with it, today’s leaders must at least use a veneer of popular opinion to advance their agenda. If he/she chooses not to–and actually act on principle, heaven forbid–then it is seen as a loss of credibility and legitimacy. How can a person make decisions if he/she refuses to answer to the people that elected that person in the first place?
For high school students, Niccolo Macchiavelli’s work can lead to awesome discussions about power, morality, ethics (or lack thereof) and modern politics. I would not recommend teaching about this to younger children, though. It’s probably better to make sure they have a good set of morals before teaching them they are really subjective to your needs.
Besides, they’ll figure that out in the playground soon enough.
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