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Delving Into John Stuart Mill With My Students

This is my second GothamSchools piece about teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. Much has taken place over the past few months; the 11th-graders recently read John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty (1859), in which he argues that “the peculiar evil of silencing of the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.”

At age 20, more than three decades before the publication of On Liberty, Mill, already a contributor to utilitarian thought and writing, found himself in a profound intellectual crisis characterzed by “a dull state of nerves” and loss of interest in subjects that previously had excited him.

It was William Wordsworth’s poetry, among other things, that helped Mill see beyond his despondency. His home education (though remarkably rich) had given meager attention to the inner life and the emotions. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, in which Mill had been steeped, treated emotions as though they could be tallied by means of “felificic calculus” — that is, a method of calculating pains and pleasures. Over the years, Mill sought to synthesize his concern for the common good with his concern for the individual; one can view his treatise On Liberty as such a synthesis.

When I told my 11th-grade students about Mill’s intellectual crisis (before we began reading On Liberty), I sensed unusual interest in the room. They were looking up; some were nodding. When I read them part of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (which Mill mentions in his Autobiography), the room was hushed; later, in discussion, a few students spoke about what had moved them. Yet I walked away unsatisfied with the presentation; I knew that I had made slight errors and left out some subtle points. Still, I thought, this was a start.

The following day, we discussed a long passage in the introductory chapter of On Liberty; students explained the progression of ideas within it. They understood Mill’s argument that political philosophy of past centuries had concerned itself, first, with setting proper limits to a monarch’s authority, and later, with the formation of a representative government — and that people had lately come to see a discrepancy between the ideal of “self-government” and reality. Students understood (at a certain level) why societal oppression was of such concern to Mill; they could explain the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” and give examples of it.

This is my life at school and outside — and despite its high demands, I enjoy it. I have nearly 270 students; I teach three high school philosophy courses, each of which meets twice a week. The 11th-graders are studying political philosophy and have read Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the 10th-graders have begun a unit on virtue and are reading the second book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; and the ninth-graders have been working with syllogisms, logical operators, and truth tables. Outside of class, much of my time goes into planning lessons and correcting homework; other chunks of time go to meetings and paperwork. Beyond this, I spend time with the philosophical works themselves, and find myself needing more time. I must not only know the material but be capable of interpreting it, even if I am “only” leading a discussion.

This aspect of teaching — the immersion in the subject — often gets overlooked. We hear a lot about teacher preparation — and even about “lifelong learning”—but not about the daily mulling and pondering, which often takes place on the fringes of the day, early in the morning or late in the evening. Teachers need time to read and think, even if they have a strong background in their subject. Certain works and concepts reveal their meanings over the years; on the other hand, teaching is one of the best ways to delve into them. Not only that, but such delving will inform the very practice of teaching.

Like Mill, I have felt discouraged when surrounded by proponents of one school of thought, no matter what it might be. I find hope in an intelligent kind of synthesis — not just a balance of everything, but the right combination at the right time.

For example, in my first few years of teaching, I encountered educators and coaches who emphasized anything but the text. I saw lessons devoted to pre-reading activities, turn-and-talk activities, prediction activities, and so forth, with minimal attention to the text itself. Later, I encountered educators who insisted on sticking to the text and the text alone — without introductory presentations, historical background, or any other kind of preface. (These approaches have their analogues in literary criticism.) While I emphasize close reading in almost every lesson, I see no harm in offering an introduction with a story. Mill’s story, in particular, gives students an entry into the text and even into the study of philosophy.

Students, too, find themselves confused about many things, including school. Some avoid doing their schoolwork, even knowing that this will hurt them. Others spend hours on schoolwork without knowing why. Many students yearn for meaning, but meaning does not come on demand. Some go through long periods of doubt and indifference, and then, one day, find something interesting in a lesson. Then comes another such instance, and another — and then a way of looking at things that wasn’t apparent before.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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