Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Philosophy in High School, part II

Now, from my last post, please don't think that I mean that high schoolers should study philosophy in order to facilitate more vocations to the priesthood. That was only the beginning of my journey (or maybe, you could say that the beginning was my baptism, or maybe even in the mind of God before I was conceived...whatever).  It was only part of the process in realizing I should enter seminary and it's not the reason I stayed. If my vocation were based entirely on Platonism, I'd really be up a creek. There's a seed of the Word there, but still, it's only a seed.

No, I think it's valuable because it opens up young minds to a fuller experience of reality. It helps them begin to think on their own, much more than do "critical thinking" problems from a textbook in any other subject. Though it may not provide a lot of answers, it does teach how to ask good questions. The young mind is by nature more curious about things (well, I just thought of that--it might not be true, but it sounds good), so why not teach it to really think about things as well?

Enter my younger brother who is now a senior at the same high school. Philosophy has become a much larger part of the curriculum than it once was, at least from what he tells me. He approached me earlier this (academic) year about helping him with a research paper, which was to be a comparison of Plato and the Matrix. I don't remember exactly, but I probably shouted at him, "Yes, absolutely!" I was so excited.

I was at home at the time, so we immediately went up to the bookshelf that my parents have granted me temporarily to fill with all my philosophy books until such time as I have a place to put them.  From there I pulled my copy of The Republic, and for secondary literature, Jones' The Classical Mind, a text I had from my first Ancient philosophy course. I even had a copy of The Matrix and Philosophy that I had picked up on an impulse buy (subsequently reading only two of the articles, at most). Then I marked the relevant sections for him to read and sent him on his merry way.

Then, when I was home again over Christmas break I got the chance to answer questions and to explain to him as best I could, the Sun, the Divided Line, and the Cave. I'll admit, since I've been studying theology for almost four years now, and since I did more of my graduate work on Aristotle than Plato, I had to reteach myself a lot of the subtler distinctions as we went along. More than a couple times I started explaining things in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, and had to check myself. Still, he showed genuine interest, and a real capacity to understand. He was "recollecting the forms" quite well.

Watching him think on his own was really cool, and the way some of his questions were able to confound me reminded me very much of what Aristotle says in the Metaphysics (and how far I fell short of it!):  "In general, it is a sign of the man who knows and of the man who does not know, that the former can teach..." and "he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser."

When I finally proofread his paper after Christmas break, I was happy to see that it was so much more than a simple compare and contrast of the plots of the Matrix and the Cave, but showed a depth of understanding of the bigger picture in Plato. He was even able to explain Plato's epistemology in more elegant and concise language than I had explained it to him, and he did so a couple of times in the paper.  He's eighteen, and I hadn't even started seriously reading Plato until sophomore year of college!

Do I think he's going to major in philosophy? No, and I'm not disappointed in that either. Not everyone who studies biology in high school majors in biology. On the other hand, he is quite capable not only of understanding philosophy, but of his own creative philosophical thought. And, while it seems amazing and out of the ordinary, it's really not. He's just being a human being, naturally desirous of knowledge for it's own sake.

Philosophy is something that human beings do naturally, at least when given the opportunity. Why not offer it to them as early as possible? (though not too soon, mind you) The sooner the introduction to philosophy, the less time spent in the utterly pointless and ultimately boring status quo of the world.

unrelated image:
That's right.  I'm a ninja.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Philosophy in High School, part I

I am a big fan of philosophy as part of high school curriculum. I don't know if it is something accessible to students at all levels, but it is definitely something that youth should study insofar as it is possible.  I speak from my own experience, though I don't claim to be absolutely right.

I was introduced to a very small dose of philosophy in my own high school experience. In my junior English class we read the allegory of the cave from Plato's Republic. I remember kind of understanding the concept, but it's pretty vague in my memory. I think we also had to do a paper comparing and contrasting Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Plato's Apology (or some other dialogue), but I don't remember that too well either.

The first time I really philosophized during high school was senior year, and it was very Platonic in nature, so I wonder if that tiny introduction the year before made some kind of impression after all.

I was playing a lot of video games (imagine that - just being true to my generation). At that particular time I found myself totally enmeshed in Final Fantasy VII. When I wasn't playing it, I would still think about it, imagining what I was going to do next in game play, reviewing the things I still needed to collect, pondering the best way of getting more experience points, etc. Too much of my time was wrapped up in the game.

Cool game, and a surprisingly apt title
for it's place in my story...

Then came the moment of grace. I started reflecting on the game playing. I started to see it for what it was: an obsession. I started to realize that every moment spent on that game was a moment of reality of which I was depriving myself. Every ounce of my energy spent on that imaginary reality was energy I wasn't giving to real human relationships or to problems and resolutions that actually matter. The emptiness of the game became apparent to me in the face of the real world around me that I had somehow hidden from view for a long time.

But grace didn't stop there. The crucial step still had to be taken:

I asked myself, "What if?" I suddenly remembered that there was a yet higher reality, something truer than what I was counting as concrete. It occurred to me that just as much as my real life (on the level of high school, friends, and family) was truer than the world of Final Fantasy VII, just so was Life (on the level of faith, the divine, and the spiritual) a truer reality than everything else. It's not exactly Plato, but at the same time, it's not exactly opposed to him either.

And so I started to place emphasis on that which I had (rather suddenly) came to consider was the most important, the most worthy of emphasis. Above all else, God was the most real, and the most worthy of being the center of my life and of all my efforts.

It was in such a climate that I decided to enter the seminary. Imagine that: without philosophy (that is, actual philosophizing, not just learning about philosophy) I never would have joined the seminary. I wouldn't be the deacon I am today, and I wouldn't be approaching ordination in the spring.

Random picture:
Participating in the "bad sweater"
contest at the seminary.  I didn't win, but
I'm not mad, because that's a fine sweater.