Teaching philosophical thinking skills in high schools
The following paper was originally published in Critical and Creative Thinking: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Education (2007)
A Philosophical Community of Inquiry at Bega High School, NSW
BegaHigh School, NSW, recently provided an opportunity for me to voluntarily facilitate a community of inquiry run in weekly sessions at lunchtime, from 1pm to 1.45pm. The composition of the group of up to fourteen mostly Year 11 students varied from week to week, with a core number of six students in regular attendance. We met in an annex to the school’s library, seating ourselves in a circle of chairs. A stimulus was introduced and a thinking bowl passed around for each member of the group to comment. The bowl is a powerful symbol of inclusivity, a vessel for ideas, a symbolic space for their creative blending, merging, catalysis or synthesis. Once we completed the first round the thinking bowl was passed from student to student depending on who wished to speak. This becomes increasingly challenging as the discussion progresses, many keen to have a say. I encouraged the group to write down their ideas so that they would then be better able to listen to others with a measure of patience. The students were introduced to a philosopher’s toolkit, depicting a basic way of thinking about thinking: exploring meaning, reasons, examples and counter-examples, assumptions, implications, inferences, consequences, and criteria or values. At the end of each session I wrote up a lengthy summary for the students to read in their own time, sacrificing in-class reflective discussion due to time constraints.
The Eagle and the Arrow
We began with an examination of an Aesop fable, ‘The Eagle and the Arrow’, this stimulus providing enough material for three sessions.
An Eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whiz of an Arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the Arrow with which it had been pierced, it found that the shaft of the Arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. “Alas!” it cried, as it died, “We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction.”
The first session was successful in learning to ‘play the game’ and to begin to think about issues that matter in our lives. The ensuing conversation was lively. We seemed able to immediately interpret the statement, identifying its metaphoric meaning, which we interpreted in broadly one direction. We supplied reasons and examples to support our claims. We treated ‘feather’ metaphorically to refer to strength and knowledge. We felt that the fable implied that we should learn to hide our strengths since knowledge can be used against us by our enemies. The notion of ‘enemy’ immediately stimulated a series of statements and assertions concerning the current War in Iraq. We seemed to assume that the Iraqi people constituted ‘the enemy’, the fable containing a warning for us regarding our enemies, since ‘we reap what we sow’.
We ascribed the stimulus truth value almost automatically. We found it easy to supply reasons and examples. I invited the group to think more deeply about the fable by exploring assumptions and identifying further implications, consequences and counter examples. In this way we avoid jumping to conclusions. I informed the group that we had not questioned whether the conclusion in the stimulus logically followed on from the preceding story or whether an alternative conclusion could have been provided. For example, was the eagle correct in assuming that the arrow was that of an enemy?
In this session we explored the assumptions the eagle in the story made about the arrow. We speculated that the arrow may have been from a friend’s bow, or that the arrow had not been intended to kill the eagle. We understood that there were issues concerning intention, such as: was the arrow meant to kill the eagle; and was it, as the eagle claims, shot by an enemy. We also decided that the word ‘give’ in the sentence ‘We often give out enemies the means for our own destruction’ contained a contestable assumption, since the eagle had not actually given away the feather; it was simply a natural process of molting. We were therefore able to see that the eagle had jumped to the conclusion that the feather had come from an enemy’s bow and arrow.
We recognized that the concluding statement, by focusing on enemies, did not include the possibility that our friends can hurt us too. We also began to see ‘enemy’ as highly subjective. We noticed that the word ‘enemy’ cultivated ill will and opposition in our thinking. We also noticed that in society and in politics the notion of enemy can be vicarious. Enemies are constructed on our behalf for us to believe in, in order that some other outcome is attained by, say, a political power.
We began to realize that our subjective sense of ‘enemy’ existed on a continuum, that there were shades of grey involved in our processes of evaluating various ‘enemies’. We realized too, that enemies were people we thought about as much as those closest to us. We know them or we imagine we know them. We also noted that ‘you see what you want to see’.
In this session I chose to build upon the insights for the previous session by inviting the group to explore the question “Is the notion enemy necessary?”
In the first round of comments we noted that enemy was part of a binary opposition, that of friend/enemy, comparable to other binary oppositions such as good/evil or yin/yang. Friend/enemy, therefore, helped us to discriminate between our friends and our enemies. We could compare ourselves to an enemy and look good to ourselves as a result. Enemy we suggested, also challenges us, motivates us and fosters a competitive spirit.
We briefly pondered the political and ideological implications of politically constructed enemies such as ‘the yellow peril’ or ‘reds under the bed’, before focusing on an alternative view that suggested that in an ideal world where everyone was happy and therefore able to accept everyone who is not just like themselves would not need the notion enemy. We could have degrees of good without bad. We could have ‘semi-friends’ and ‘non-friends’, (we might also have considered the word ‘stranger’).
So we had two quite distinctive views expressed within the group, the one supportive of the notion, at least so that we can discriminate between friend and enemy, and the other speculating upon the possibility that we could erase the notion enemy and be the better for it. A lot of discussion ensued concerning how to replace the word enemy in order to describe people, to discriminate and so on. It also occurred to us that we can be our own enemy! We noted that animals do not have enemies, that the word, therefore, is associated with humanity.
It was next suggested that the initial question was flawed since the thing or quality that the notion enemy conveys to us as a word, will always exist regardless of whether we use the word enemy or any other word with a similar meaning. Therefore enemy expressed something fundamental or essential in human nature. However, a counter-argument was also proposed that affirmed that the initial question referred to enemy as a metaphor with consequences for how we think. That we could do away with the term. Especially since the metaphor enemy can be used to justify cruel actions.
We arrived in this third session at a questioning of human nature and what is essential to it. I invited the group to ponder the following. Is it the case that words such as enemy describe actual things or qualities that pre-exist in human nature, or does the word itself actually create the condition or quality in our minds? Even if we decide that both these views more or less accurately describe enemy we have still not answered whether enemy is somehow essential or necessary to our existence. We need to ask ourselves deeper questions, such as “What is Human Nature?” Questions like this lie at the heart of philosophical inquiry. The discussion also led us rapidly into major currents of philosophical thought; the classical or modernist view and the postmodern view. The former is likely to support the essential nature of binary oppositions, the latter emphasizing relative, subjective and metaphoric aspects of our discussion.
The second stimulus was Plato’s Cave. I decided to introduce the students to some key ideas that preceded and now contest the postmodern subjective relativist cultural atmosphere that these students find themselves in. Plato’s ‘Cave’ is the better known of Plato’s similes which outline the relationship between his two orders of reality, that of Reality and that of Appearance, or Truth and Illusion. In “The Cave” Plato depicts the journey the philosopher makes towards the light of objective truth. The students were provided with an account of “The Cave” extracted from Plato’s “Republic”, rather than my own, or another’s summary.
The students thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to philosophical thought. Questions raised included the problem of discernment, or how to distinguish between what we know and what reality is. We realized that it is easy enough to become confused over what is reality and what is illusion. We might affirm that ignorance is bliss, or that we can remain content to look at the shadows only. Truth might be ugly, and therefore, which would we prefer? We realized that the Cave refers to a philosophical journey, and that mental barriers exist that need to be overcome if we are to achieve our goal.
We were reminded of the film ‘The Matrix’. We felt we could be blinded by reality, so that were we to return to the shadows, we would be blinded by them, even while understanding them. This is a challenging position to be in.
We failed for the most part to recognize Plato’s intention that ‘sight’ was a metaphor for ‘know’, slipping therefore into speculations based upon literal interpretations. For example we thought that our perception of reality is always changing. Even being able to turn our heads slightly would mean we would see something different. This we linked directly to a postmodernist view that reality is not absolute, each person having their individual reality. We wondered then, what of mathematical principles, such as 1 + 1 = 2.
So we asked ‘what is the basis of reality?’ ‘What is the truth and how do we know it exists?’ We explored the idea of defining reality, and asked ourselves if we could trust our own senses. The world might not be how we see it. We thought that our senses were not useful for understanding philosophy. We asked whether being shown reality would necessarily be a good thing. It could be horrifying! We then moved to consciousness, and pondered the possibility that if consciousness were created in a void, then there would be nothing that this consciousness could perceive. Without perception of any object, would this consciousness know the Truth, as in absolute reality?
Reflecting upon the previous session led me to invite the group to participate in an imaginary exercise. I suggested that postmodernism has given us permission to reinvent ourselves, to construct any reality we choose. I proposed that we needed to look deeply into the roots of the context we found ourselves in (cultural and historical), and construct a reality that matches (coheres with) this understanding. I suggested that people associate philosophy with highly developed intellectual powers, whereas philosophy has as much to do with imagination.
Upon these bases the group members were invited to imagine all their opinions and beliefs about themselves and their lives pasted onto a screen and then questioned. We tried to imagine how painful this would be. That when we question our beliefs and opinions they become uncertainties and this feels insecure. We may feel reluctant to engage in such a process. It would, as Plato depicted, feel much better to remain chained in a cave able only to look one way, at shadows on a wall or screen. However, as philosophical thinkers, we find ourselves no longer able to sit so comfortably as we have already begun to question, already realized that at least some of what we believe is false or illusory, even if, such beliefs constitute subjective truth. This exercise enabled us to re-explore Plato’s ‘Cave’, treating ‘what we see’ as a metaphor for ‘what we know’.
We asked ourselves if we took the Platonic challenge then what would we have left? We might go crazy trying to find out. What about concrete reality? We know that it is easier to believe in something that is false. Relying on our beliefs might be all we know. Questioning our beliefs may lead us towards also questioning what the point or purpose of anything is. But then, isn’t this kind of exploration a never ending journey – the quest for ultimate truth? Like Buddhism – enlightenment. But then how do we know that there is an ultimate truth? How could we be sure that we have reached ultimate reality? Isn’t it always subjective, even ideas of ultimate reality?
In a process of endless questioning we asked ourselves what we would be left with that could not be taken away. We realized that we would have to question our own questioning! This smacks of infinite regress, but I suggested that it is in essence the philosophical path.
We then took a turn towards religion, and realized (with a measure of secular scorn) the comfort that religious explanations of our existence provide. As an aside we realized that we needed to look at why people hold certain views.
We thought of the idea of degrees of truth – probability. We also confronted the problem of not being able to step outside our own heads, which meant that we were limited. We thought that perhaps the ultimate truth resides not ‘up there’, but rather, ‘right here’, and that in our intelligence we are destroying the ultimate truth, of a higher order than ourselves – Nature. We also thought that the ultimate truth might be our ability to question and question our own questioning. This, I suggested, might mean that truth is embedded in process and change, and is not fixed.
The third stimulus was a potted account (around 800 words) of the core ideas of Epicurus (341 BC 270 BC), who saw the philosophical path as one of emancipation. His ideas not only provided the students with a sense of the history and context of competing ideas emerging from different and broadly contemporaneous schools of thought, Epicurus also presents the students with a third way to view reality, beyond a simple duality of objective and subjective truth. We explored some key ideas of Epicureanism, including: the Epicurean understanding of the pursuit of true pleasure known through the light of reason (prudence); the notion of ‘enough’ and the matter of false (socially constructed) desires; the high value placed upon friendship. The students were then asked to choose one of three quotes of Epicurus:
“If you live by nature, you will never be poor: if by opinion, you will never be rich.”
“You must be a bondman to philosophy, if you wish to gain true freedom.”
“We ought to look around for people to eat and drink with, before we look for something to eat and drink: to feed without a friend is the life of a lion and a wolf.” (Wallace 1880: 167)
In session six we selected the third statement, endeavouring to link our comments to the thinking of Epicurus.
Our initial interpretation of the statement was that if we choose wealth without sharing it then we will have no friends. The lion and the wolf represented the uncooperative pursuit of selfish interests of the rich and the mighty.
We felt that in this statement Epicurus was summing up his ideals, notably that friendship is more important and more enduring than food. We noted how highly Epicurus valued sharing. He thought that having enough would give the greatest pleasure. He did not like greed. Epicurus ranked ideas of friendship higher than food. He sought to include others. ‘Looking around for people to eat with’ focuses on the journey rather than the goal.
We felt that friendship is food for the mind, something that sustains us, just as food sustains our bodies. We reflected that, due to our own wealth, we tend not to think of sharing. We considered starving people and pondered upon the implications of the statement. In other words, we began to wonder about how people in different contexts to ours would interpret the statement. We even thought briefly of those suffering from anorexia, in contrast to those who over indulge.
We returned to the Epicurean values of friendship, sharing and having or wanting enough, this time focusing upon another of Epicurus’ statements, ‘If you live by nature you will never be poor, if by opinion, you will never be rich’.
Our first thought was that those who live in and of the natural world are never poor, or rich. That they would have enough, nature providing everything needed. Whereas we thought that opinion could not provide us with what we need. We thought of ‘nature’ in terms of the natural world, and interpreted the statement as ‘going with the flow’. We also noted another interpretation of ‘nature’, as referring to human nature. We immediately saw this juxtaposed with nurture, culture, inheritance, and early childhood conditioning. Immediately we realized that opinion can interfere with an individual’s basic nature.
So then we had to ask ourselves again, ‘what is human nature?’ Is it living by chance, is it going with the flow? What of our pleasures and desires? We thought that the modern world had somehow changed, or reshaped human nature, but then we thought that maybe human nature remains fundamentally the same, and that it is our attitudes that have changed. The way we do things may differ, but we are basically the same deep down.
The conversation took an interesting turn at this point. We recognized we had a problem with meaning and understanding and felt that before we could continue to discuss the statement we needed to define human nature. Yet we were concerned about how we could know we were right, or correct in our definition? Wouldn’t our definition also depend upon human nature? I suggested that we did not necessarily require a definition, rather, we needed to understand the complexity of ideas and interpretations of human nature, and settle on some kind of agreed meaning. The point here is clarity.
At first we thought that human nature might be to do with survival and procreation, but then ‘even carrots do this’! So what else is it about us that distinguishes us from plants and animals? We thought of success, the desire to do well, of power, of art and of creative expression. We then thought that it was our attitudes and opinions that make us human. These ideas were eclipsed by the Cartesian comment paraphrased by one student as ‘we think – therefore we are’. So we began to see that human nature had something to do with our ability to think. Close on the heels of this comment, was the word ‘consciousness’. I suggested that consciousness be understood as self awareness, or an ability to be aware that we are aware. The group concurred enthusiastically, and with some relief, adding that opinion, according to Epicurus, interferes with being aware.
We then considered that it is our opinions that reflect what we believe to be enough. That too many opinions caused confusion, and opinions change. That everyone has different ideas of happiness and different ideas of enough. So then the question becomes ‘what would be enough to make each of us happy?
The discussion of human nature took us directly to seek an essential, or core understanding. We could have considered virtues, or qualities that we might consider human as distinct from animal. Whilst we made a serious effort to reach a consensus of meaning, we looked at the statement purely from the point of view of the individual. That if each of us somehow can find, know and live by our essential (essence) selves, rather than by our opinions, then we will have enough.
Epicureanism led us to consider Utilitarianism, and the greatest happiness principle, juxtaposed with two competing views: Kantian moral duty and good intentions and existentialism’s authenticity, taken as ‘being true to oneself’. This meant that the students were given a stimulus of over one thousand words!
After reading the stimulus we began our discussion by questioning how we can possibly know all the consequences of an action. This places a limitation upon the greatest happiness principle, since we cannot fully know in advance whether an action would inevitably lead to the greater happiness.
We asked ourselves what the greatest happiness is. We thought it impossible to please everyone, and therefore ‘true’ utilitarianism is impossible. We are all different and different things make us happy. This seemed a core belief of the group. We touched upon whether the Epicurean enough would be a basis for deciding the greatest happiness. We did not pursue this line of inquiry. We felt that happiness is probably a good thing to pursue, tending towards ultimate good.
The conversation dwelt upon matters of punishment, which in society is intended to prevent bad actions. We asked ourselves whether it is intentions, or outcomes that motivate people to commit crimes. An interesting example was next proposed: If, while trying to kill a cat I ended up saving a child, this then might provide a basis for future cat killing, since I might believe that each time I tried to kill a cat a child would or might be saved. Clearly the act of saving the child, at the cat’s expense, would lead to the greatest happiness, but it cannot justify cat killing. Furthermore, the intention was not to save the child, but to kill the cat!
We then pondered another example: If lots of people are starving and one is less starving than the others, would you take their food to share amongst the more starving group on the basis that this would lead to the greatest happiness? These thoughts led us to a felt need for balance. How do we balance the immediate happiness and long term happiness, for example, of future generations.
We asked ourselves whether we could have a global solution, one that could please everyone, if we are all different and have different ways of feeling happy. We decided that utilitarianism is a great theory that fails in practice. How do we judge and who gets to judge the greatest happiness were issues raised.
We then turned to Kant and asked ourselves how we could measure whether an intention was good or bad. Can you have a bad intention? We felt that this depended upon individual perspective. We began to ponder upon intention and the greater good in the context of global warming. We asked ourselves, returning to Plato’s Cave, whether we would be better off to live in a false reality and be happy, or to live with the truth and be unhappy. We might be happier burying our heads in the sand. This might be good for us, or lead to our happiness, but it would not be for the greater good.
Based on the previous session the group was presented with four basic ethical criteria, with which to apply to global warming. The group was asked to evaluate these four criteria, in terms of how well each one could contribute to finding solutions. The criteria were: Utilitarianisms ‘greatest happiness principle’; Kant’s ‘good intentions’; Existentialism’s ‘authenticity’ (interpreted as being true to oneself); and Epicureanism’s ‘enough’.
The ensuing discussion drew forth the group’s prevailing belief that we are basically selfish and believe only in our personal happiness. History supports this belief in that we tend to ignore, as we have done in the past, the problem of global warming, decision makers focusing on selfish interests in the short term, and not the long term consequences of their actions. We felt that global warming relates to the idea that ‘enough is enough’. This has a double meaning. It suggests that now is the time to act differently. It also relates to Epicurus’ idea of enough. We felt that we needed to decide what we need more of, including people. The idea that we could decide, for example, that humanity had ‘enough’ children.
The conversation quickly moved on to the problem of oil. Based on utilitarianism we thought that perhaps getting rid of oil (consumption) would be sad in the short term, but would lead to the greatest happiness, as the future happiness for all. However, the concept of enough could lead to us reducing our use of oil, since we are using a lot more than we need to. This would ameliorate current difficulties. We felt we needed to phase out oil, and not be drastic. We need balance.
We then asked ourselves whether ‘good intentions’ could help us. We might do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. This added a complexity that we shied away from exploring. We skipped back to the idea that we do not need oil, we were just as happy before we had it. Again, the notion of enough was raised.
We joked that we need a planet to have an economy. We felt that we should include all of nature, the planet and indeed, the universe, in the greatest happiness principle. In other words, we should not base our decision making upon human needs and wants alone. We understood that in economics you measure units of satisfaction, and that there is a point at which increased wealth or material acquisition no longer increases happiness. This thought again suggests that we were seriously considering the notion of ‘enough’.
Again we felt that we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Yet we also felt that authenticity needed to come into the picture. We thought we might combine the notion of authenticity with ideas of human and planetary betterment, only if ‘being true to oneself’ meant that human and planetary betterment was one’s ‘true calling’. We questioned whether anyone was really ever motivated in that way. Being broadly secular, it was felt that such motivations were false, constructed by religion.
We returned once more to the idea that we are essentially selfish. We thought that since we would all be dead before serious problems would arise, we need not bother doing anything about global warming. Is saving the planet for our children enough of a motivation to do something about global warming? (This is an interesting use of the term ‘enough’!) We then thought that we would still suffer if we chose to do nothing since we would be left with a guilty conscience. Religion and God’s salvation were mentioned, but the group, being secularly polarized, felt that religious beliefs were not helpful. This was in spite of the matter of a guilty conscience being raised. In summary I added that a guilty conscience implies that there is more to us than our being fundamentally selfish.
The group also felt that utilitarianism was limited since everything we do is inherently selfish. We simply would not make the sacrifice to stop global warming. No-one, the group felt, was really altruistic, or motivated by goodwill alone, and would really sacrifice his or her own interests for the good of the whole. We felt that Epicureanism was too romantic, although this remained unexplored, except that it was tied to the idea that Epicureans were not necessarily being true to themselves, any more than other people with other beliefs were being true to themselves. It was felt quite strongly that many people follow things they do not believe in, they simply follow a tradition. In my summary I asked the group whether they thought that secular postmodern culture is or is not another tradition.
We felt that human greed caused too many failures and that utilitarianism was limited by this. The group suggested that none of the four criteria discussed would alone solve the problem of global warming. We might need to put the four criteria together somehow, or we might need to find another principle altogether.
These sessions reveal the open and thirsty minds of participants highly desirous to engage in big questions, gain an understanding of philosophy, philosophers and philosophical thinking. There was certainly no shortage of creative and speculative thinking amongst the group. There were, however, two areas that I found weak. Firstly the group found reflexivity very difficult. Only fleeting glimpses of in the moment reflection were made apparent to me, although much could have taken place introspectively. I might conjecture that this is something that develops with maturity, experience and an inward reflective disposition. It is not easy to slow down enough in a highly stimulating atmosphere and consider the thoughts we have as they arise in the moment. This more meditative kind of exercise changes the group dynamic and may be initially confronting. The second area requiring cultivation is critical thinking. Whilst the group developed an ability to explore implications and consequences as well as clarifying meaning, seeking reasons, examples and counter-examples, recognizing assumptions, and teasing out inferences remained largely undeveloped. Reflexivity and critical thinking may be cultivated through the usual pedagogical devices of reading, essay, report and response writing, devices not at my disposal as a lunchtime volunteer. These sessions, and student feedback do indicate a very strong desire for just such a curriculum.
Finally, at the end of session nine it became apparent that the group was committed to the belief that human beings are fundamentally selfish. In my final summation I indicated to the group that they had settled upon two claims: that we are all inherently selfish; and that we are not all the same, and therefore we do not share the same reality, have the same motivations, or seek the same outcomes. These two claims are contradictory. If we are all inherently selfish then this constitutes sameness. Our reality, motivations and desired outcomes are therefore in essence selfish. This makes any differences between us superficial. The group may have absorbed some key ideas in contemporary western society: firstly the idea that humans are fundamentally selfish emanating from Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution; secondly that we are all unique individuals that have our own subjective reality that shapes how we perceive the world, a social constructionist belief that, in the context of these students, distorts the existentialist notion of authenticity. Selfishness, it seems, is what makes us authentic, so that to be true to oneself is simply to be true to one’s own reality. Altruistic motives were deemed inauthentic. Here we face the danger of a narcissistic ‘ring-pass-not’.
Without religious studies and philosophy to provide counter claims, such as the belief that we are innately good, these young people may be bereft of any deep justification for aspirations of human and planetary betterment beyond their own personal development, in spite of countless examples across the school curriculum that suggest otherwise. Students need to move beyond the notion that human intentions are always and inevitably selfish if they are to grow as moral beings. It is my contention that philosophical questioning in the classroom greatly enhances this process.
With thanks to the following regular attendees: Lewis Powell, Lindsay Blecher, Laurie Wood, Darcy Tranter-Cook, Tim Collins, Matthew Clark, Alice Lafferty and Joe, who was brave enough to challenge my statements, bringing great insight to our discussions).
Graham, G., Eight Theories of Ethics. Routledge, London, 2004.
Plato, The Republic. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1974, (extracts taken from pp. 316-320).
Wallace. W., Epicureanism. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1880.
 I use the pronoun ‘we’ to indicate that I include myself in the discussions. The ideas presented here, however, come from the students, my own voice presented in the first person.