Teaching is an honorable profession with a dash of folly. What sane person would take it on, knowing what it entails? Not only does the work often take over one’s evenings, weekends, and vacations, but one can rarely take pride in a job well done. Each lesson has imperfections, some of them painful; a teacher sees the flaws of her presentation as she speaks, or has to stop repeatedly to deal with chattering students. Then there are other tasks, such as database maintenance, phone calls, and data analysis, some of which enhance the work, some of which distract. On top of this, the teaching profession does not enjoy much respect in society, to put it mildly. What, then, beyond a sense of duty and the need for a job, explains a teacher’s decision to persist in the classroom day after day? For me, it is the intense joy of conveying a subject to students and receiving their thoughts and questions. Sometimes, after a discouraging week, I sit down to correct homework and am enlightened, intrigued, and moved by what I read.
For this reason, the opportunity to showcase and discuss my students’ work comes as a great treat. I teach philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. (I have written about these courses here and here.) I have selected three pieces to discuss; each one, in a different way, has enriched my thinking and the courses I teach. They are all first and sole drafts (with minor edits in the latter two cases); in a future article, I might examine a piece as it progresses from first to final draft.
I will begin with a piece that a 10th-grader wrote for the first assignment of the year:
To get a sense of my students’ ideas and writing, I asked them to write about a situation involving an ethical dilemma, either in their own lives or in a work of literature. I rarely give assignments on personal topics, but this proved instructive; I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of the responses. Among all of them, this one stood out for its philosophical thinking and play. It begins:
While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.
This student (who requested anonymity) clearly took the assignment seriously and treated it with respect. His initial thought was not exactly to lie, but to ask me whether he might make something up. Then came the delightful detail of his mother raising her eyebrow, and the question, “Is that ethical?” which the student realized was an ethical dilemma right there. Thus, he ingeniously turns his dilemma about the assignment into the very topic of the assignment.
In the second paragraph, he examines philosophical positions on lying: Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end; and more. He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie. I learned from his piece, first of all, that this was going to be a good year; and second, that real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong.
The latter point has affected the way I plan lessons. Early on in my teaching, I resisted the overemphasis (in many schools) on real-life learning, where students talk and write about their lives without reading much of substance. I was determined to have my students tackle interesting and lasting books. I keep that determination but recognize that we are all finding our way through our lives, and that the books can help, directly or indirectly. So, I explore with my students why these books matter, as well as what they contain.
The second piece was written by Khadijah McCarthy, also a 10th-grader, for a test that the students took in late October:
Students had to choose one of two open-book essay questions (and were allowed to use their books and notes). Khadijah chose to compare the ideas of Immanuel Kant regarding value and dignity with those of Martin Buber regarding “It” and “You.” (The students had read substantial excerpts of Kant’s “” and Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”) This was an especially challenging question, because their ideas appear similar at first glance.
Both Kant and Buber are concerned with human dignity and how it is upheld or demeaned. According to Kant, each of us has value and dignity; our value is that which can be measured and replaced (our job skills, for instance), whereas dignity allows of no measurement or replacement. In Buber’s view, humans have a dual attitude toward the world: an “I-It” attitude, which involves treating others (humans, animals, trees, things) as objects, and an “I-You” attitude, which is a full relation, an acknowledgement of the entirety of the other. Like Kant’s “value,” “It” can be described, experienced, and contained; “You,” like Kant’s “dignity,” has no limits. Khadijah, who has shown exceptional perseverance and keenness in working with complex texts, was able to find a difference between the ideas of Kant and Buber:
Kant offers a solution that is everlasting; as long as you have dignity, then you can never be matched, and because dignity has an intrinsic origin, you will have it for as long as you live. With Buber, you can only remain in the “You” realm for so long; as Buber states, “It [the “You” realm] lacks duration, for it vanishes even when you try to cling to it.” If this “You” realm has the ability to vanish at any given point, and there is nothing that you can do to prevent that, then this may not always be a tangible, realistic alternative or solution.
I was fascinated by Khadijah’s idea that Kant’s solution is more “realistic” than Buber’s (if his can be called a solution). I asked myself: is this so? One might also argue that Buber’s is more realistic, because it acknowledges the extreme rareness of relating to others in their fullness — and the greatness of such relation. Also, alhough Buber’s “You”-encounter vanishes, it can affect the rest of a person’s life, and thus has a kind of eternity. At the same time, Kant’s idea of dignity does seem unshakeable, intrinsic to humans, and thus more practicable than Buber’s “You.” Khadijah’s interpretation of the texts challenged my own thoughts and helped me form questions for future class discussion.
I conclude with an 11th-grader’s parody of Plato:
In the fall, the 11th-graders delved into ancient political philosophy and discussed the benefits and pitfalls of different forms of government. After we finished Book VIII of the “Republic” (where Socrates explains one form of government decays into the next, until tyranny is reached), I asked students to write a continuation in which Socrates and Glaucon explore how tyranny devolves into something else. Through this assignment they could demonstrate their understanding of the reading, their grasp of Plato’s logic, and their political imagination. As I collected the students’ work, I started reading Christian (“Kit”) McArthur’s piece and stifled my cachinnation. I looked over at Kit, who looked back with a mischievous twinkle. The piece begins (with Glaucon speaking first):
Well, I am still unsatisfied. Socrates, could tyranny devolve further into something else?
We’ve already established that an aristocracy devolves into a timocracy, which devolves into an oligarchy, which further devolves into a democracy, which even further devolves into tyranny.
Therefore, according to logic, the tyranny would have to devolve further.
Kit grasped that much of the dialogue in Book VIII isn’t dialogue at all; most of the time, Socrates speaks and someone else agrees. (Elsewhere in the “Republic,” there are substantial exceptions to this pattern.) Kit’s piece turns the tables, making Glaucon lead the way, yet it’s clear that Socrates remains in charge (or does he?). The piece becomes increasingly sophisticated as it progresses, with a combination of wit, insight, and parody. Such qualities in combination cannot be conjured at will, but I want to do more to make room for them.
Grading homework does not always bring delight; often, when working through stacks of papers, I realize that I am not offering my students the detailed comments they deserve. (Or the grammatical errors start to endanger my hair.) Everything from the ideas to the spelling needs attention, yet I must work fast in order to get the grading done. Then a piece comes my way that makes me stop and marvel. I sink briefly into thought, then shake myself and move on. Still, the piece doesn’t go away. It finds its way into a lesson or question; it comes back to mind months or years later. Often I am overwhelmed not by all the work I have to do, nor by the distractions and disruptions, but by the gifts.