11 January 2007

Intro to Philosophy help required

Dear readers:

In March & April I'll be teaching a six-week intro to philosophy course to high school students, & I'd love recommendations on popular culture media that would be relevant. We'll look at selections from The Republic & some Aristotle & I don't know what other primary texts, but the idea is to make this appealing & "FUN" for teenagers. What thoughts have you?

I'm planning to use The Matrix when we discuss reality & the problem of perception; The Lord of the Rings for I'm not sure what, but I have a book entitled The Lord of the Rings & Philosophy at home to read; & I'd like to add a couple more movies, some songs, & maybe one or two novels or other media. What suggestions do you have? Anybody have thoughts on Sophie's World? What other books/movies/songs most explicitly deal with the the five foundational fields of philosophy: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, & political philosophy? I'm thinking of My Name is Asher Lev for aesthetics, but it might be too long for such a short course. Any thoughts on the "ideal society" question?

All recommendations welcomed! Thanks very much.


Rosie Perera said...

I think Socrates' Apology would be a good primary source. It is short and accessible. I had never read it before a couple of years ago. I think when I was younger, I had been taught that the Greek philosophers were antithetical to Christianity, so I wasn't supposed to investigate and read them for myself. Balderdash! When I read Plato's dialogue recounting Socrates' self-defense, I remember being quite blown away by how similar his trial sounded to that of Jesus; even some of Socrates' words could well have been spoken by Christ. It would be interesting to discuss with your class the similarities and differences between Jesus and Socrates.

Some other books in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series (of which your LOTR book is part) include The Matrix and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin, and The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer, edited by William Irwin, et al.

I've read Sophie's World and found it too much of a whirlwind intro to philosophy for any of it to stick. I read it simultaneously while taking a full semester history of philosophy course at the graduate level (this book was not on our reading list but I had thought maybe it would be a fun complement to the class). However, even with the course textbook to go alongside, I didn't learn anything memorable about philosophy from Sophie's World. The only impression the book made on me was its gimmicky plot structure. Here are the comments I wrote in my notes about it when I read it: "a novel about the history of philosophy; kind of immature but somewhat gripping through most of it, but then it turns just plain silly in the end; I'd rather read a philosophy text book; don't know what all the hype was about (New York Times bestseller my eyeball)." Maybe high school kids would appreciate it though. But I doubt they'd learn any philosophy from it. The philosophy lessons were just a plot device and not woven well enough into the fabric of the story.

Do a Google search for the following group of terms (all together, as punctuated) to find some more suggestions:
"popular culture" philosophy syllabus

Ched said...

I don't know if you've seen it, but I think the TV series '24' would be a great venue for talking about ethics and political philosophy. There is always situations in which civil liberties of a few are sacrificed for the saftety of the many. Does the fact that millions of people are going to die, make it okay to torture and kill at will. These circumstances happen every few episodes (Espc. in season 5).

Sounds like an interesting course.

gymbrall said...

Another interesting thing to do is to set the class up as a mini-society in and of itself. Have the students take philosophical positions and explore the implications of those positions. Who gets to determine right and wrong? Why is murder wrong? Suicide? (talk about the word inalienable and the implications of such a concept - i.e. who says I can't sell X?) What is the basis of knowledge?

You have to be careful though, because students are often very good at spotting hypocrisy in an argument and the questions that get raised can be quite embarrassing... (for example, if you get on the subject of abortion/eugenics being wrong, be prepared for the question of birth control to come up)

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, everybody! Great suggestions. I don't know if I'll use Apology as well as selections of Republic, just because the class is so short, & I do want to do Gyges' Ring & The Allegory of the Cave. But perhaps we could read the trial out loud in class.

I'll take a look at the other books & resources you recommended, Rosie. & thanks for the advice about Sophie's World. That's what I was afraid of. I've just ordered it, so I'll try to read it myself, but maybe it's not the thing for students. Are there any other novels in the vein, but better?

Ched, thanks for the TV suggestion. & gymbrall, I love your idea. I think for at least 3 out of the 6 weeks I'll set up a situation, such as "Today you have become the rulers of a kingdom. How will you rule it?" Or, "You have just been given unlimited power. How will you use it?" or perhaps some more specific situations, such as the suicide of an acquaintance, or something. These kids are really good at talking about difficult & potentially embarrassing topics. I think they could handle the abortion/birth control/eugenics discussion. They've had debate class before in which they re-tried Roe v. Wade. Perhaps I should use a bit of "Gattaca." I'm still trying to think of other movies & especially of songs.

Iambic Admonit said...

Does anybody know the name of an old movie, black-&-white, in which a guy gets to be God for a day? There's a scene in which he turns all his neighbor's swords & other weapons into plowshares & other farming devices; there are some cheesy scenes of thundery clouds. It would be perfect for discussing the use of absolute power.

Iambic Admonit said...

Does anybody know the name of an old movie, black-&-white, in which a guy gets to be God for a day? There's a scene in which he turns all his neighbor's swords & other weapons into plowshares & other farming devices; there are some cheesy scenes of thundery clouds. It would be perfect for discussing the use of absolute power.

Rosie Perera said...

Admonit asked "Does anybody know the name of an old movie, black-&-white, in which a guy gets to be God for a day?...."

All I could think of was the 2003 movie "Bruce Almighty" with Jim Carrey, but that wasn't what you were thinking of.

So I asked on Askville, a cool new Q&A site that anybody can contribute to, either by asking questions or answering other people's questions (and you all vote on each other's answers). Kind of a community feel to it. Got a reply right away:

It's the British fantasy-comedy film "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (1936), an expanded version of an H.G. Wells story by the same title.

As for songs, I'm sure you could find some good material to discuss in U2's music. Or Bruce Cockburn. Anyone who is seriously engaging in politics, ethics, etc., in their work.

Another suggestion for a work of literature would be the play by Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God. Here's what I wrote about it when I read it [WARNING: SPOILER]: "Powerful. Challenging theologically. A play within a play. Set in a Ukrainian village in the 17th century, after a pogrom has taken place leaving only two Jews -- the innkeeper and his daughter. Some itinerant actors passing through propose to put on a Purim play for the Jewish community, and the innkeeper insists that they can only do it if it is a trial of God. They agree, but nobody can be found to play the defender for the accused, until a stranger, Sam, agrees to do it. He does a marvelous job defending God against the acerbic accusations of the prosecutor, but he turns out to be Satan in the end and to have been fooling them all. We are left wondering "who is really able to defend God against the accusation that he let his people be slaughtered?" Haunting."

Maybe that wouldn't be so appropriate for a course on philosophy. But for one on theology or faith & literature, definitely.

Leopold said...

The movie "I heart huckabees" pops to mind. It's very much about a couple particular philosophies. And very much in the vernacular. Very well done, too. I liked Chet's idea about having them argue specific point in class. There is also "No Exit" by Sartre, which is about three people in Hell, all trying to prove to each other that they don't belong there. Fascinating piece about responsibility.

But my real suggestion is that I think kids really need to learn multiple perspectives on things. For instance, traditional kids have been raised in the paradigm of white male thinkers. When I got to college and I read Carol Gilligan's "in a different voice" for the first time, I was amazed. It talks about the basic ethical differences between women and men, and how they view right and wrong. Incidentally, our legal system is set up around the male ideas of right and wrong. Also, there is the euro-centric focus in terms of the philosophies which we give credence to. I think that focus is increasingly less relevant in a global world. Maybe think about showing something about confucianism, taoism, even hinduism. Especially hinduism for epistemology. Oh, and off the cuff, I think everyone should have to read "Walden" in high school. Okay, now I'm starting to blather on. Hope that was of some use.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thank you again, everyone, for your thoughts.

Thanks, Rosie, for identifying “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” Yup, that’s the one! My family remembered seeing it, but none of us could recall the title. I’ll take a look at U2 lyrics; great suggestion. And the Elie Wiesel play sounds amazing. I just can’t fit everything in a 6-week course!

Thanks, Leopold, for your thoughts too. I don’t know “I heart huckabees,” but it sounds relevant. Yeah, I thought of Sartre, whom I tried to read in French once when I had some big ideas about my language skills (erroneous ideas, it turned out). We’ll see. Now, about your bigger point, that kids really need to learn multiple perspectives on things. Very good point. First of all, however, I do need to just say that I am teaching this class at a Christian school, so while I may make multiple perspectives available for consideration (which I will try to go), & may teach the students to respect & honestly interact with other religions/worldviews/philosophies, I mayn’t teach those perspectives per se in so far as they contradict the Bible (or my school’s interpretation of the Bible!). And we may very well—indeed, I plan to—get into how to “debunk” contradictory worldviews. But these kids get enough of the one worldview in Sunday School, etc., & need to be taught how to listen to, consider, & interact with other paradigms & religions. So we’ll talk about that. But then we’ll come back to the Bible. We’ll always come back around again to the need for an absolute.

I liked what you had to say about how we’ve been raised in the paradigm of white male thinkers. I’ve gotten away from that a bit during my recent years in state universities & private colleges, so that’s good. But it’s nearly impossible to break out of the euro-centric focus. At least we can be aware of it. That’s a start.

I should probably remind my students (& my readers, here) that Christianity is an Eastern Religion.

(Well, Middle-Eastern—which term is, of course, a “Western” construction....)

Rosie Perera said...

I think we Christians are making a mistake if we teach our students how to interact with other religions, without teaching the basic tenets of those religions (because they contradict the Bible). We come across to adherents of those religions as being arrogant and uninformed. Furthermore, doing this teaches our kids to avoid learning about other perspectives out of fear, which is the wrong motive. First of all, once they get older and discover that something has been hidden from them to protect their impressionable minds, they will be all the more curious to learn about it without the guiding hand of someone who answers every error with biblical truth. Second of all, teaching kids to avoid learning things that contradict the Bible does not develop a strong inquisitive mind able to think well and critique well. It develops adults who are afraid to read anything that might contradict their inherited worldview. (I'm still wrestling with that from my upbringing, and my faith sometimes feels fragile because of it. I've still never read any of the Quran or Bhagavad Gita, because I grew up in a household where such things were burned, for it was thought that even having them in the house could invite evil spirits in. I'll get over it some day and read them with a Christian mind, but until recently I was afraid that if I read them, I'd start believing untruths. What a way to "interact" with other faiths!) In order to develop a strong faith of one's own as an adult, a young Christian needs to be allowed to really look into other religions somewhat (in the context of a biblical response to them, of course). But by avoiding teaching what the non-Christian religions say for themselves, in their own words even, we propagate misunderstandings which can cause cultural and religious clashes in the world.

Sorina, your school might have a policy that doesn't allow you to let kids read any sections of the primary texts from other religions. You have to abide by that, of course. And in such a short class you obviously don't have time to present more than just the bare minimum about other philosophies (if even that). But if you do end up teaching the students to consider other religions, be thoughtful what secondary texts you choose. Some of the books that explain other religions and philosophies from a Christian perspective simply "debunk" the other religions superficially without really understanding them. There tends to be a sort of sensationalism about these kinds of books, an all or nothing outlook, pitting us versus them (akin to the "spiritual warfare" depicted in the Left Behind video games). There are some bits of truth and beauty in other religions, and in all fairness, we have to acknowledge that, even if they are totally misguided about the central figure of our faith and of universal truth, Jesus Christ.

Cato said...

I think some here are losing sight of an important fact: This is a 6-week high school Introduction to Philosophy. I'm sorry if this sounds unkind, but I laughed aloud when I read suggestions on teaching Hindu epistemology and such.

I'm always a proponent of depth over breadth. Granted, there should be some "survey" aspect to an introductory course, but the fact is this is a course taught in the U.S., right? It only makes sense to give your young charges a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Western philosophy which have had so much influence on the culture where they live.

Perhaps a more advanced course in the future could tackle Eastern philosophy. We forget that these children probably have very little exposure to the philosophical classics. I say start there. If you ever teach a Philosophy 201 course, you can build up and out from this foundation.

One other point: the discussion here sometimes confuses religion and philosophy. Granted there is much overlap between the two, but an introductory course in philosophy should focus on philosophy. I assume a Christian school has plenty of other classtime opportunities to discuss religion.

For the record, I agree that it's important to study non-Western philosophies and religions. But I've met too many American students who don't understand the foundations of their own culture. Let's get that down before tackling the entire world.

Oh, one last point and then I'm really done: I heart Huckabees was a mess. It also contained some risque scenes that are probably inappropriate for high school kids. Don't waste your students' time with it.

Iambic Admonit said...

Wow, Cato, thanks! Thanks for the perspective, the reminder, the knocking me back into reality. Even though it's about abstracts, yeah, it's only 6 weeks. I will strive for depth, which is hard when I want to touch on as many aspects of popular media as possible, to show them that the movies & songs they love have depth, too.

I loved this reminder: give them "a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Western philosophy which have had so much influence on the culture where they live." Yup. Will do.

Question for you: How can I really separate philosophy & religion? Yes, they're technically separate fields (and their confusion was one thing that put Louisa off of philosophy!), but philosophy mostly raises questions, which religion answers. Yes? I won't answer their questions -- my students are quite capable of going to their parents & pastors & the Scripture and digging out answers on their own. But answers do exist, even if we aren't sure which ones they are. What do you think?

Cato said...

I'd like to answer Iambic's questions. Sorry for being so tardy in my response. Regarding the difference between religion and philosophy: I think if you look at philosophical works versus religious works, the answer is fairly self-evident. The fairer question, however, is what is the difference between philosophy and theology, since theology is the pedagogical equivalent of religion?

As I said before, I assume your school has other classes that study theology. Why not use the introductory course in philosophy to focus on the Greek, Roman and European philosophical writings that had such a profound effect on Christian theologians from St. Augustine to Jonathan Edwards?

Philosophy is a study of knowledge that doesn't answer questions via an appeal to authority (e.g., the infallibility of the Bible). It behooves well-educated Christians to understand the arguments of those who don't accept the Bible as the Truth. Philosophers endeavor to explain knowledge without resort to ecclesiastics. (Which is why it doesn't make any more sense to teach, say, the Koran than the Bible in a philosophy course -- unless the focus is on the philosophy of either.)

That's why in an introductory philosophy course I would avoid teaching from religious works like the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran, and the like. Those texts should be reserved for a comparative religion course, or a course focused on the religion in question. If nothing else, it would be unfair to give them short shrift in a philosophical survey class. Give your students a grounding in the pre-Christian Greek and Roman classics first and foremost -- all of the great Christian theologicians had such a foundation.