Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Philosophy in Schools
By Jessica Jean Davis

The manner in which philosophy can be introduced and practiced in K-12 students seems to be largely determined — as may be everything else — by context. Under the jurisdiction of high-stakes testing and assessment, philosophers in U.S. K-12 schools today have no choice but to march under various banners of justification; the brightly waving flags pronounce that “Philosophy Fosters Critical Thinking,” and “Philosophy Nurtures an Appreciation for the Humanities.” Each of these merits of philosophy, our banners boast, “Builds Character and Virtue,” and “Helps Democracy Thrive.” In this parade of reasons to do philosophy in K-12 schools there are students somewhere. One might wonder if in all this movement, and despite the validity of our claims about what’s good for them, the students may have been overlooked.

I agree that critical thinking and the humanities are important for individuals and society at large, but I worry that in this cacophony of educational fix-its and high-stakes assessments, we philosophers are feigning our endorsement of the parades largest banner: “Square Pegs, With the Right Teacher and the Right Pedagogy, Can Fit in Round Holes!” These modes of justification, given the context of our schools, may be contrary to the goal of philosophy. In this entry, I’d like to consider what this said goal of philosophy may be, and what I thus choose to consider when bringing philosophy to K-12 schools.

When asked to write a blog entry for PLATO, in order to share the work I do and to provide a resource for those interested in doing similar work, I gladly agreed. After all, there are a number of things I could write about: my experience at the wonderful 2011 NEH “Epic Questions” Seminar on High School Philosophy, the passion for Community of Inquiry which was ignited in me at the 2013 Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children Retreat, or the arguments for a philosophy-based high school which I put forth in my masters thesis, titled “The Ideal School.” I could discuss the work I’m doing now as Coordinator for the Columbia University Philosophy Outreach Program — and I will, a bit. However, because I have also been researching the new teacher performance assessment called edTPA, I’ve decided to focus on sharing some of my thoughts on assessment and K-12 philosophy.

Assessing the Drive to Assess

Resources for integrating philosophy into our schools are cropping up everywhere, and I am thrilled. After all, every student deserves to be exposed to philosophical thought, and to be encouraged to do their own thinking. Thanks to the work of some pioneering academics, if a teacher in the U.S. has the freedom and desire to integrate philosophy into his or her classroom, there are wonderful resources available (PLATO and IAPC come to mind!).

But I still wonder: Why do we want to bring philosophy into schools? An answer that I’m generally comfortable with, which can easily be given in response, is that we bring philosophy into schools because it gives students the intellectual tools not only to do well in our society, but to question and to change society — to further humanity. It is possible that one does not endorse the current state of education, nor of our country, but still believes that by pushing philosophy inside the problems, there is hope. (Certainly, if given a choice, I would much rather introduce philosophy in this way than do just about any other job!) But in this entry I suggest that we need to qualify what we mean by philosophy, if we are to avoid simply adding to the ‘noise.’ To problematize this impetus of pushing square things into round holes, I will now bring in the words of a nine year old student who I have had the pleasure of working with this semester.

Jessica Davis PLATO Blog Entry 3 December 2013He said one day, while we were walking through Central Park for our weekly philosophy discussion, that “Maybe there’s too much good in the world. We are so safe that we create problems, just so that we have things to worry about.” (This statement was in the context of an ongoing conversation we were having about Star Wars, and it led to a discussion of this same students’ theory of good and evil. See photo below for his own diagramming of this theory, and my annotation of his working definitions. When we meet next week I will be sharing, with the small group of third graders I’ve been working with, a synopsis of some arguments which famous philosophers have made regarding the notions of good and evil — my hope is to present a broad spectrum of positions, ranging from Plato to existentialism, with a focus on Plotinus and Nietzsche.) I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to talk with such young students about these topics, to hear what they have to say about the world which they’re inheriting, and to be forging a professional life out of these moments in which I can reflect on the myriad perspectives I take for granted. But am I doing something good for these students? And is this student correct in asserting that humanity is creating its own problems?

When working with students, I try to give them space to question, and a space to be in conversation with adults who admittedly don’t have all the answers. Assessment — at least of the high-stakes sort which is imposed from without — can wait. Granted, assessment has its place and obviously is crucial in quantitative matters. During their time with me, however, I hope to prioritize the students and their own relationship to knowledge in the present, rather than emphasizing a student’s absorption of knowledge that I pass on to them; rather than predetermining an end they must one day reach. I try to step out of this exercise of individuals having to justify themselves to the world. To be sure, folks ought to be held accountable, but it seems that the more that we put pressure on individual students and teachers to prove that they are good enough, the bigger problems (competition, stress, demoralization, etc.) we create. Can we not start with a basic space of humble respect for the unknown ‘other’, and prioritize this space? Might this not be the goal in philosophy?

A situated epistemology like this may struggle to hold its ground against the very real hegemony of power and knowledge found in traditional schools and in society at large. For those who are not privileged, who arguably have real problems and not ‘self-made problems’, does this kind of philosophy have any value? Schools exist for economic and political reasons, and they have since their inception. The unequal playing field which education is alleged to even out has deep, deep soil which is at the mercy of exploitative undercurrents. Given these material conditions, does the 9 year old boy’s statement have any clout beyond just being an exemplar of a position of privilege? Are we humans, and particularly U.S. educators, really creating problems? If so, can a certain philosophical approach fix them?

Concluding (For Good or For Evil)

Socrates said, in Phaedo, that for all the arguments he offered on the  immortality of the soul, he may very well be wrong. What mattered was that his belief in the soul helped him to live a better life. Philosophy cannot be reduced to the promises of far-off results, boldly stated and proudly waving on the flags we carry, as if we can be certain of the future. Philosophy cannot be reduced to statistical proofs of the benefits of critical thinking, as if we believe that oughts can always be derived from numbers, as if we could know all if we just had the data. Following the Socratic tradition, we must leave a space to examine because we are ignorant. The space left open for examination of our lives, the space in which we are humble and curious, is the space of philosophy. And (I think!) it is good.

We ask to be seen as justified, to be assessed and granted approval, and we sometimes scowl at the resulting data. We race, hoping that the ends will justify the means, and that the evil we create in our wake will be sorted out by our future, ‘educated’ generations. We hope that we can make our students and teachers fit, that we ourselves can fit. All the while, we cover up the possibility that life, our students, teachers, we ourselves, have to prove nothing in order to be ‘good’. When philosophers allow for this space of respect in schools, they are marching to the beat of a different drum. This space of philosophy, I think, exposes the hubris and hoopla of top-down assessments, undermines their hegemonic epistemologies, and consequently challenges their otherwise resultant power disparities. In an examined life, the pegs are never going to fit — and that’s the point.

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 11.48.25 AMJessica Davis earned her BA and MA in Philosophy at San Diego State University, and is currently in her second year of her PhD in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and chihuahua. For more information on her outreach and those of her colleagues, please visit their site.

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[…] with trying to “sell” philosophy to schools, and I did some rambling of that sort in this PLATO blog. But rambling must sometimes give way to clear ideas. Here are […]