I teach philosophy to teenagers. It started years ago at my first school when the principal wanted to offer electives. I filled out a proposal to teach a philosophy class despite the fact I only took one course of it in college. Most of what I learned of it was on my own. The principal approved the class and it became my job to teach 25 inner-city teenagers the wonders of Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein. I have taught philosophy most semesters since then, albeit on a scaled down, once-a-week basis. It has become one of the most instructive parts of my career.
Thinking is a messy process. It involves a lot of fleeting imagery, uncertainty and frustration. Philosophy was the only subject that came to mind that could help students think explicitly about thinking itself (thinking qua thinking, in philomosophical lingo). If my goal as a teacher was to get students to think, what better way was there than to have them dive the depths of the thought process? It is an exciting prospect that still motivates me to teach my weekly philosophy class.
The only problem is, it is difficult. There is no example or curriculum to follow. Everything I do has been trial and error, based upon using what has worked in the past and discarding what did not. It is my own personal Exhibit A in favor of having experienced teachers in the classroom rather than Teach for America teeny-boppers. There could be no substitute for all of those years of adapting my technique, scrapping methods that do not work and perfecting the ones that do. My class is far from perfect now but it is much better than when I first started. Much like everything else in life, more practice earns better results.
The other thing that makes teaching philosophy difficult is the mind of the teenager. Philosophical ideas are better appreciated after a certain level of life experience the average teenager just does not have. This is one of the things for which I have constantly had to adjust, taking care not to take my own supposedly mature view of things for granted. This is where the art of teaching comes in. Bringing the mind of the teenager up to the level of philosophy involves knowing what types of questions to ask, activities to provide or tone to use, as well as when to do all of these things. Over the years, having to construct a philosophy curriculum from whole cloth has forced me to examine my assumptions about teaching. I would have never gained this awareness without extensive experience, which just happens to be the thing the deformers hate the most in a teacher.
The most instructive part, however, is when my students struggle with a philosophical idea. It is a big change for a student to go from being asked “how do we solve for ‘x’?” to just plain “how do we solve?” There is nothing concrete for their minds to chew on. It requires aiming their thinking at nothing in particular. This is the single most difficult jump for students. Their minds are strung out on a diet of television, music and standardized exams. They are used to having an easy answer expressible in a simple image, whether their favorite pop star or a choice on a test. That means I have to start concrete where my students are in order to take them to the abstract place I want them to go.
It does not escape me that the things that are rotting my kids’ minds are things pushed on them by education deformers. Young minds are eating up every image and sound bite made possible by Bill Gates’ operating systems. They have been trained to look for the one correct answer thanks to the deformers’ obsession with testing that dominates our school system. My philosophy class has been an indictment on everything the reformers stand for, as well as personal proof for me as to the worth of an experienced teacher.
My favorite part of teaching philosophy is when I get my students to examine the world around them. I do not mean the world as taught through an academic subject, like explaining the scientific reasons why the sky is blue. I mean the actual world of the student, the one of school, friends and entertainment. The ultimate goal is for them to turn philosophy inward so they can examine the reasons behind why they do what they do, like what they like and believe what they believe. It is a great moment, usually defined by a pregnant silence. Even if I only I have one of those moments a year, it is worth it.
I want them to shine the light on themselves, since that is what philosophy has done for me. Not only on my teaching methods but on my life in general, philosophy has helped me gain a bit of perspective. Essentially, I want for my students what I have for myself. Perhaps all of the wealthy education deformers who send their kids to elite private schools should make this their guiding principle when playing God with the lives of other people’s children.