Friday, June 17, 2011

Now You Know

I did the same exercise in Ms. Barnes’ class today as I did in Ms. Mazaheri’s class on Tuesday. I ask the kids to tell me things they know and we wonder together about how they know those things. Then, I pass out to them something to eat—a Hershey’s kiss or a strawberry—and have them tell me everything they know about that item and how they know it. Typically, they know what they know because they’ve seen it, or touched is, or heard it from somebody else. But then, we wonder together about times their eyes, or their sense of touch has deceived them or about times when someone has told them something that isn’t true. How come, therefore, we can say that our eyes, our fingers, or our teachers and parents are reliable sources of knowledge? And consequently, how can we ever say we know anything?

The students in both classes mainly wanted to tell their stories of times they thought they saw something that turned out to be something else. (At least half a dozen kids have, at one time or another, mistaken someone else’s car for their moms’ and most of them actually climbed in and sat down before realizing it.)

In Ms. M.’s class, we sort of stayed there; in Ms. B.’s class the students did a more complete job of connecting the business about unreliable sense information to knowledge claims.

But those kids have had nearly a year of philosophy, not just with me, but with a student from the UW. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was), when I asked the class, “What can you be sure you know?” and one girl responded, with a half-smirk on her face, “Well, I know I exist, because every time I doubt that, it proves that I do.”

(This marks the last entry in Sabblogtical; I’ll probably start posting again more regularly to my personal weblog, 327 Words.)

Friday, June 3, 2011


The kids in Ms. Barnes’ fourth grade class didn’t get quite so exercised over the Red/Green game as did the students in Ms. Mazaheri’s room, but they, too, never really got to cooperation, either.

One difference was that, by and large, they recognized that everyone would do better if no one tried to beat the other team; oddly enough, though, this realization didn’t cause them to play the game in the manner that would have had the best outcome for all.

I asked the class why this was, and A. had a very astute, and, I thought, quite hilarious answer: “It’s because we’re human beings,” he said. “And we’ll do whatever it takes to win: lie, cheat, steal, you name it.”

From the mouth of babes, no?

I tried to make the point that this is where ethics comes in. What could we have done during the game to make sure that everybody cooperated?

J. suggested that we could have punishments, like we could pinch people for cheating.

But A. countered that this would make the game incredibly boring; in fact, it wouldn’t be a game at all anymore, since everybody would always do the same thing.

So, does abiding by ethical norms make us boring?

No, continued A., but life would be more interesting if you could do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to.

But would it work if everybody did that?

N. said that it wouldn’t, because his little brother always wants to cheat in Monopoly to win and he, himself, always throws a tantrum when he loses, so there’s going to be conflict there.

At this point, a bunch of the class wanted to share stories about their favorite games and how they react when they lose—or how they, too, cheat to ensure that they don’t.

This led us to wondering whether a game has to have a winner and loser. Can something be a game if no one wins?

Sure, said, P., but it would be a very boring game!

I wonder about that; I don’t think anyone won today’s game, but I sure found it interesting.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The fill-in-the-blank “poem” at the end of today’s philosophy for kids session in Ms. Mazaheri’s 4th grade class was “One way I could be nicer is…” but the way that A. filled it out was to say “if the other team would stop drinking HaterAde on us!”

I laughed and cringed at the same time at how exercised the students got over the game we played, a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma activity I call “The Red/Green Game.” The “point” of the game is to illustrate how, in some cases, the only way to “win” is to refrain from trying to beat the other side. Certain kinds of problems have this shape: if everyone behaves in a stark self-interested way, everyone will do worse than if everyone cooperated.

Usually, students get it after the third or fourth go-round in the game. In today’s class, though, the team that scored more points in the first couple rounds kept lording it over the other side; feelings got hurt, and cooperation became an impossibility.

I introduced the concept of “ad hominem;” lots of the kids picked up on it, but it didn’t stop them from committing them one after another.

Ms. M. was pretty relaxed about how agro the room got; she chalked it up to end-of-year emotions and said that as long as I was okay with the mood, it was fine with her; it would give the class a lot to talk about in days to come when everyone settled down.

It just goes to show you (that is, me) how unpredictable philosophy can be. Things didn’t turn out as expected, but they were fruitful nevertheless.

I felt a little bit like a favorite uncle: you know, the kind who gets the kids all wound up, and then gets while the getting is good.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Doing Philosophy

Sometimes we do exercises that explore philosophical content; other times, we try stuff to get a better sense of how philosophy is done.

In Ms. Barnes 4th grade class on Friday, we were all about the latter; I led the kids through two activities that I think did a pretty good job of encouraging them to engage in the practice of doing philosophy, and we even got to do a bit of philosophizing at the end.

The first exercise was just a simple word-association game. I make the point that, in philosophy, it’s important that we listen to each other and, by drawing upon the ideas of others, come up with new ideas of our own. So, we go around the room, student by student, doing word association. I time the class and we try to increase our speed with each successive iteration of the game.

The first time, E. started with the word “philosophy.” The next student, M., said “falafel.” When I asked her to explain the connection between those two words, she said that the sound of “philosophy” makes her think of the sound of “falafel.” Fair enough. The subsequent student, however, didn’t know what falafel was, so that slowed down the associations. Eventually, though, the class got back on track, and there was a stretch in the middle, where everyone was doing food items; that moved thing along with reasonable alacrity.

Afterwards, we reflected on what could be done to make us go faster; the general consensus was that too much thinking was going on; a person should just say the first thing that came into his or her head. When we tried that, things went faster for a bit, but then, some of the associations were so random that making connections was difficult and the process slowed down again.

The fourth and last time we played the game, I turned it into word disassociation; students had to say a word that had nothing at all to do with the previous one; this proved harder than they thought it would be. Having practiced making connections, now it was more difficult not to. We wondered together why this was so and it seemed like the listening that went on during that discussion had been enhanced by the exercise.

Next, we did the exercise called “blind painter,” where students work in pairs, with one student being the “eyes” and the other the “painter” to copy a drawing I do on the board. This is always a laugh riot especially the second time we do it, when I draw an almost unrecognizable Fred Flintstone on the board. Still, students had a lot of fun and seemed to get the point: the importance of listening actively and communicating clearly when doing philosophy.

We ended things with a brief discussion about whether some art is better than other art. Predictably, most students said that it was all just a matter of taste. I think I’ll poke at that belief next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fair or Equal?

When I brought out the bag of Starburst candies in Ms. Mazaheri’s fourth grade class today and asked the students what would be the fair way to pass them out, they pretty much all agreed that everyone should get the same amount.

M. said that I should give every kid 5 candies. I said that there weren’t enough in the bag for that. T. said that I should just go around giving every student one candy and keep going until they ran out. “But that means some of us won’t get the same amount,” complained A.

“Suppose I start with two each?” I proposed.

“Then, whatever’s left you can see if there’s enough to go around again,” said X.

So, as I was passing out the treats, I wondered aloud if there could ever be a time when it would be fair that people got different amounts. “Well, if you did good on a test or something,” said T.

“Or if you gave a good answer to one of your questions,” said M. eagerly.

I wanted them to think about whether or not fair always means equal, so I got four boys to volunteer to come up to the front of the room. “These gentlemen and going to make us lunch,” I said, which cracked up all the girls in the class. “But they all have different mad skills.” I then passed out little pieces of paper to each boy, each with a different expertise: one was the world’s best soup-maker, another the world’s best sandwich-maker, the third, the world’s best dishwasher (which, when he read it aloud evoked lots of laughter from the class); and the fourth was the world’s best dessert-maker.

After exploring why it was so funny that X. was the world’s best dishwasher, we talked about whether all the young men should do the same work in preparing our lunch and whether they all ought to be paid the same amount for doing so. What was great was when students distinguished between jobs that are fun and jobs that are hard; generally, they said that you ought to be paid more for a job that is hard, but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. (For that matter, one student added, a job can be easy and NOT fun, too.)

I was a little worried that the exercise might come off as pedantic, since I DID want the students to at least entertain the idea that what’s fair and what’s equal can be pulled apart, but since they arrived at that conclusion without my help—and since they generally agreed that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t—I thought things stayed reasonably philosophical.

We ended by going around the room having each student say what he or she was best at; (the answers included stuff like drawing, playing video games, and baby-sitting) and I asked students to reflect on how they might bring these different skills into play in the classroom.

As I was wrapping up, A. raised her hand and waived it around wildly. “One more question?” I asked, thrilled that she was still engaged with the lesson.

“Yeah,” she said, “can we have another Starburst?”

Seemed fair to me.

Friday, May 13, 2011


A couple of students presented their lesson on the philosophy of color in the philosophy for kids seminar at the UW yesterday. They read a book called The Great Blueness about a wizard who introduces color into a black and white world only to have it first turn into an all blue planet, then one that’s all yellow, then all red before finally learning to mix color and create the multi-hued universe in which we live; although the students were somewhat that the story would generate many questions, we did get into an interesting, albeit somewhat abbreviated discussion about the nature of color and whether or not you could have a name for a color you couldn’t see, or vice-versa.

I love how this group is pretty fearlessly diving into the challenge of leading their own philosophy lessons in the elementary school classrooms in which they’re volunteering; it makes our seminar discussions that much more vibrant and engaging. In general, they’re still getting used to balancing content delivery with authentic inquiry; it’s taken me decades to stop worrying so much about whether I’m teaching philosophy and embrace just doing it, whether we get around to clarifying, say, the scientifically-verifiable experience of color in our brains.

What matters most is taking on questions whose answers beguile us; in the end, I don’t think anyone minded that we didn’t get to where some might have hoped we would; more importantly; we had much to think and talk about along the way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The students in the University of Washington class in which I did a Philosophy for Children demonstration today were all pretty much half-asleep when I arrived. One girl was checking her cell phone messages; the rest of the class, seated in that unfortunate lecture hall configuration were basically just waiting to be bored by whatever I had to lecture them about.

I crossed them up, though, and began by asking them to introduce themselves and tell me what schools they were volunteering at (this being a class of students who all tutor in some local K-12 classrooms.) I then let them know—quite sincerely—how much I admire them for doing so; I think they were pretty surprised to discover that I wasn’t going to make my time with them all about me.

Eventually, I launched into my standard introductory philosophy for kids lesson, in which I interactively present a three-part argument for the conclusion that they are all philosophers. When we got to the part where they have to (get to) work together in groups, the room was lively and energized.

The students were having fun and, I think, learning something. We ended up having a vibrant discussion about personal identity in which nearly everyone participated.

Now, if only we could have gotten out of the lecture hall.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


In Ms. Mazaheri’s 4th grade class today, we wondered together about happiness. After an initial exercise to get students thinking about two important skills in doing philosophy—listening actively and communicating clearly—I asked whether doing the exercise made them happy.

A. said that because the exercise was difficult and confusing that it didn’t make her happy. J. said that for him, because the exercise was challenging, and he overcame that challenge, it did make him happy.

“So what is happiness?” I wondered aloud. “Is it a thing?” J. said that it WAS a thing—a thing you feel. “So, is happiness an emotion?” I asked.

T. said that it was a feeling. So, what’s the difference between a feeling and an emotion? She elaborated: “a feeling is something you feel. An emotion is something that lasts longer. When I’m having fun, that’s a feeling. When I’m happy, that’s an emotion.”

I was fascinated by this distinction. “So what’s the difference between fun and happiness?” A. said that there wasn’t a difference. “Anytime you’re having fun, you’re happy,” she claimed.

X. didn’t buy that. “No way. In school, I can be happy, but if we’re doing something boring, that’s no fun.”

So, you can be happy, but not being having fun; can you be having fun and not be happy? A. had a great example: “My cousin failed in school; it was funny, but it made me unhappy for him.”

So, who’s happy now, I asked. Most of the kids raised their hands. How about fun? Who’s having fun? Almost all of them did.

Me, too.


Everybody is fascinated by his own pain, but hardly anyone has any real interest in anyone else’s.

That’s because, obviously, no one else can really “feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton used to put it. If they could, there would no doubt be a thriving market devoted to paying people to fee your pain for you; masochists might even pay for the privilege of feeling other peoples’ pains.

And who wouldn’t lay down big bucks for the privilege of feeling the pain of some famous person; Lindsay Lohan, for instance, could probably make a fortune selling off the icky way the inside of her nasal passages feel after a night of partying.

But when it comes to your average person’s pain, like the feeling of a hot knitting needle being jabbed into your back when your bend forward, who wants that? (Not I, that’s for sure, and I’m the one who would presumably have it for sale.)

What’s interesting is that what hurts most is the space between the ends. Urdhva Danurasana or Karnipidasana, not so bad; what’s agonizing is getting between the two. Hmmm.

This suggests to me that what’s really going on, as my second favorite doctor (my dearly-departed dad, Dr. Alvin P. Shapiro, MD, may he rest in peace is number one), Dr. John Sarno would surmise is something other than physical injury; he would contend, and I would tend to agree, that my mind is manifesting this tension in my body so as to distract me from something else altogether that for one reason or another, I’m preferring not to deal with.

I spend a lot of time trying to remind myself of this: I’m obviously not injured, I’m just hurting. All I’ve got to do convince myself to stop tensing up when I get to the place where I think I’m going to feel pain, and it will all go away.

Or, alternately, if I could hire Lindsay Lohan to feel it for me.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Same, but Different

I did another Philosophy for Children demonstration lesson in a fourth grade class today; this group, in contrast to Tuesdays, was somewhat less interested in telling stories about themselves and more willing to engage in what I’d tend to consider philosophy. They were particularly interested in wondering about what makes a person who he or she is, and in general, seemed to conclude that it was a combination of mind and body, although one kid maintained eloquently that it was neither, that what made a person who he or she is is the soul. Interestingly enough, when I pursued his definition of that term, he said “personality,” so his position may be a bit circular, something to explore in future classes to be sure.

One of the interesting learning moments for me was when I asked students to contrast their thought of something with their thought of the thought of it, an activity that I often do. The thing they were thinking of was a meatball, and so when I asked them to contrast the meatball with the thought of it, they took me to mean what the meatball is thinking. This led to an interesting discussion of whether meatballs can think and if they do think, what they’d be thinking. One girl suggested that a meatball’s main thought would be “Please don’t eat me.” Seems reasonable.

The prospect of doing essentially the same lesson that I’ve already done three times this week with three other groups of students was a bit off-putting; I was feeling like a kind of wind-up doll, but once I got into the classroom and began to appreciate how every single group of students is different every time you work with them, all was well. I was surprised and charmed by the kids’ responses time and again; shades of Heraclitus: you can never step in the same river twice.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


What is the best way to deal with pain in your yoga practice?

My strategy, generally, is to treat it like a piece of food in between my teeth: I keep poking at it, seeing if it’s still there. I continually push up against it, trying to make it go away, hoping it’s no longer going to be there when I do the same thing that made me wince last time.

Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I ought to only go just as far as I can to not feel feel the hurt; maybe I ought to give my body a complete rest and just let myself heal. I dunno.

No doubt there are different kinds of pain, as well. If you’re really injured, then you probably ought not to keep messing with the injury. I’ve got a little rugburn on my upper back, for instance; it’s probably a good idea to refrain from rolling around in garbha pindasana until the scab is gone; on the other hand, I’m pretty sure the clenching in my lower back is just muscle tightening. It seems to me in this case, that I ought not to coddle myself; I should try to resume my regular range of motion as quickly as possible.

Pain is all in the head, isn’t it? So I want to show my body who’s boss here and convince it to stop hurting. Or maybe it’s the other way around: I want my body to show my mind it can just quit sending those pain signals to itself.

The other day, when I did philosophy with middle-school students, I asked them to wonder whether they’d be willing to have a surgical operation without anesthesia if they were given a pill beforehand that would immediately make them forget the pain after it was over. The class was pretty evenly split on the issue.

I am, too. I think I wouldn’t mind the pain I’m experiencing after every forward bend if I immediately forgot that I had; on the other hand, I’m pretty positive that it would be way better never to have the pain to remember in the first place.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Fourth graders sure are different than seventh graders—at least in today’s class at Muir Elementary School.

What they really wanted to do, more than anything else, was tell their stories; I kept trying to arc them towards the exploration of concepts, but everyone kept coming back to “this time when I did so-and-so or such-and-such.”

Still, we had a pretty good discussion and I do think some real philosophy was done.

Today was my first day back in Ms. Mazaheri’s class since I went to India; I began by asking the kids how they knew that it was me. “You still have the same glasses.” “Your hair is the same.” “Your voice sounds the same.” “You have the same name.” This led to a discussion about whether or not changing your name makes you a different person. We explored personal identity a bit and wondered together whether you’re still the same person in 4th grade as you were when you were a baby. Again, the name thing came up; a couple students wanted to maintain that as long as you had the same name, then you were the same person.

I segued then into a discussion of bravery; “some people said I was brave to go to India;” I said; “but what does that mean?” I asked the class to give me examples of time they felt brave. They gave answers like, “When I rode a roller coaster,” or “When I dove off a diving board,” or “When I jumped really high.”

We then took on the question of whether or not you have to be scared to be brave. I asked the kids to think about their examples and ask themselves whether they were scared in that instant. The class was sort of split; a bunch of the boys said they weren’t scared when they did something brave; most of the girls said that what made it brave was that they were scared, but did it anyway.

I read the Frog and Toad story “Shivers,” at this point, and that led us into wondering about whether something has to exist to be scary. Again, the class was sort of split; some students maintained that unless something really exists, it’s not frightening; others pointed out that you can be scared by movies, for instance, even though you know they aren’t really.

“Well then, what about ghosts?” I asked. “Can you be scared by ghosts even if they don’t exist?” Here’s where the need to share their stories rose to the fore: pretty much every kid had to give an example of his or her experience of a ghost. To a student, I think, they all were sure ghosts exist and had first-hand evidence to support their beliefs.

Afterwards, I urged them to think of alternate explanations for their ghost stories; a couple of kids said that maybe it was the wind, or a dog, or something else, but most still were convinced that ghosts do exist. We wondered together whether this is what made ghosts scary; even the students who said that they could be scared by something that doesn’t exist allowed that this made ghosts especially frightening.

I ended up with a fill-in the blank “poem.” Students wrote their ending to the line, “I feel brave when I…”

My favorite answer was “I feel brave when I walk away.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Middle School

I think my favorite age-group of students to do philosophy with is middle-schoolers.

There’s just something about those young people whose minds and bodies are busting out all over that leads to really lively and fascinating discussions. The kids are still young enough to be pretty willing to try out new ideas, but they’re also sophisticated enough to have surprising ways of looking at the world.

I also recall pretty clearly my sixth through eighth grade years which were, in many ways, the most influential in all my years of education; I’m sure, for instance, that my interest in philosophy stems from questions I asked—and usually didn’t get answered—at the time.

So I really enjoyed my couple of hours today with two different groups of sixth to eighth graders in the Alki program at Reeves Middle School in Olympia, WA. I took the bus down in a pouring rain this morning, thinking all the while, “Why am I doing this? I could be home, warm and dry.”

But as soon as I got to the school and the kids showed up after lunch and we started wondering together about what is philosophy and whether they themselves were philosophers, I was delighted I’d made the trek.

We pondered together what it means to think and to think about thinking. I asked the first group to think of the biggest thought they could think of. This led to a discussion about whether thoughts come in different sizes. One girl made an excellent distinction between the thing you’re thinking of and the thought that you’re thinking: “When I think of a star,” she said, “I’m thinking of something big; but that’s different than when I think of something big, like what I’m going to do with my life.”

Somebody mentioned that they “thought to themselves,” and then we started wondering whether it’s possible to think to someone else. Are all our thoughts though to ourselves?

In both classes, we segued into a thought experiment. In the first, we pondered the classic mind/body switch between two people; a consensus sort of emerged that personal identity is a mix between the mind and the body.

In the second, we talked about pain and where it is felt: is it in the head or in the body? I asked students to ask themselves which of these two they would choose: having a tooth removed with anesthesia for $1000 or having it removed for $5.00 if they were given a pill that would make them immediately forget the pain they experienced during the operation. They were pretty split and a couple even said that what they would prefer would be experience the pain AND remember it afterwards.

That’s the kind of answer you only get from middle-school students.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Mysore anymore.

So, what does one’s practice look like back here on this side of the rainbow?

First thing, you’re gonna hurt yourself when you insist on doing everything you once did. And that’s going to remind you, eventually, of what you were supposed to be remembering all along: this isn’t really a physical practice we’re engaged in, even though it often seems to start and end with the body.

Hard to believe: a person might not actually be able to devote him or herself with the same single-minded devotion to the inward journey while simultaneously being a caring and present member of the hometown community as he or she did back when the most complicated question of the day was whether to have the full lunchtime thali or just go a la carte.

So, the question once again, in another form, is: what form does devotion take when one is devoted to more than just the inwardly-focused devotion?

I believe, as do others, that you still put in the mat time, six days a week, even if how you’re spending that time isn’t as impressive to your ego as it was at other times.

It’s a gift, of course, to be forced by your lower back and/or knees and/or wrists and/or neck and/or wherever to examine yourself in a new light, even if—especially if—those new shadows aren’t as flattering to you as the ones cast by the Indian sun.

Unfortunately, we can’t choose which particular impermanence we’d prefer would stick around. If in, let’s say, three or four or (more typically six) weeks from now I’d like to not have my obterator internus muscle clench like a fist every time I do caturanga dandasana after a forward bend then I guess I’ve also got to be sanguine about the current state of affairs as a change from what used to be a mere couple months ago, right?

Friday, April 29, 2011


Oddly enough, it’s probably more stressful to teach one class a week than six.

When you’re prepping for a single period, you’ve got way too much time to think about it and worry over what you ought to do and how it could all go wrong. You over-prepare and create way too many expectations for yourself and your students. You tend to be less flexible and often allow what you think should happen take precedence over what is likely to happen naturally. You forget that what actually happens in the classroom is way more important than what you think is going to happen when you’re putting together your lesson plan.

In short, you (and here, of course, I mean me) all too easily let your plan take precedence over your lesson; that’s when the whole magic just collapses under its own weight.

Fortunately, my students yesterday were just too good to let this happen, as they brought to our class sufficient vibrancy and commitment to overcome my over-prepped set of activities I had in store for them.

We were exploring the topic of epistemology, the part of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge and truth. First, we did a brief exercise where I have students write down something they (claim they) know to be true; then they write down three reasons they have for knowing it. They then go around the room reading our reasons and see if their classmates can figure out the original claim. This worked pretty well and pretty much everyone even saw the point of the exercise, which is to begin thinking about how we justify claims and what counts as a good reason for something.

I then passed out a strawberry to every student and asked them to write down everything they know about their own berry. This led to a really great conversation about whether we really know anything about the berries at all, given that most of the claims involved the use of our senses. We even wondered whether claims about one’s own subjective state, such as “This berry tastes good to me,” we incorrigible. One student pointed out that you could be having brain surgery while eating a strawberry and the neurologist could be stimulating the taste part of your brain to produce a pleasant sensation, so it wouldn’t be the berry that tasted good to you at all. Excellent!

This was the kind of conversation that allowed me to derail from all the “important” material I had hoped to cover and instead, just do philosophy with the class. Had I been teaching six classes this week instead of just one, I might have remembered to do so earlier.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


It occurred to me the other day, as I was thinking about doing philosophy with children, that, while we generally think we’re teaching the kids (and, no doubt we are), there’s at least one significant way in which they’ve got it all over the adults.

It may sound obvious, but here you go:

No matter what else you want to say about children under the age of fourteen or so, none of them are using high-tech weaponry to kill each other in wars and civil conflicts around the glob.

It’s ironic, really: adults all over the world, including lots who probably spend lots of time encouraging their sons and daughters to do a better job of “using their words” and getting along peaceably on the playground and in the classroom, are either directly or indirectly involved in trying to violently do away with each other.

Funny, huh?

Makes you wonder whether we ought not to be teaching philosophy for children to grownups.

And makes me doubly committed to the practice of doing philosophy for children with children.

Friday, April 22, 2011

APA Conference Day 3

If you’re not hungry and you don’t feel like getting drunk, it seems like there’s not much to do in the Gaslamp neighborhood of San Diego.

All I could figure out was to wander around and look at people and I kept feeling sorry for them in spite of myself. I’m sure the shaved-head guys in tight t-shirts and the apparently surgically-augmented girls in tank tops were happier and less desperate than they appeared to me. But try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that very few people were living a life of eudaimonia, and worse, it made me wonder what the hell I’m doing with my own existence, even though most of time—and especially when I’m with my family and/or in a classroom doing philosophy, things do seem mostly worthwhile.

It was interesting to contrast the mood in the mini-conference on Philosophy for Children with that of the overall American Philosophical convention; today I went to two talks in the latter event; in both of them, meat-faced white men with gray hair and scraggly beards ridiculed the views of some other guy who looked more or less like them; it was a far cry from the spirit of shared endeavor and focus on the welfare of children that marked the former experience.

Not that I’m dismissing the value of sitting in a room with a couple of dozen academics intensely concerned with the finer points of technical arguments that allegedly justify a point of philosophy that pretty much only those in attendance really understand and/or care about, but when you’re already ready to head home, it can get sort of surreal to subject yourself to such an experience. I mean, it’s certainly something to do other than eating or getting drunk, but is it only and just that?

Philosophy matters; I know that, but more and more I think it’s the practice of it that’s worthwhile; who cares what the dialogue’s about just so long as real dialogue is taking place?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mind Change

To me, one of the most delightful experiences in philosophy is having your mind changed.

It’s refreshing on any number of levels, none the least of which is that popular culture, at least as I understand it, tends to look down on it. For instance, politicians who change their position on a given issue are called “flip-floppers;” or parents who occasionally give in to their kids are seen as weak and inconsistent.

So, there’s something charmingly rebellious about being willing to admit that you were mistaken—or at least, to allow your views on some issue to evolve. This is just what’s happened to me over the last 24 hours, although it only took about thirty minutes in a single presentation by a former principal of school in Australia to effect the change.

Yesterday, I was skeptical about the effort to expand the reach of philosophy for children into more schools. I expressed my concern that doing so might water down the curriculum, but even more, might undermine that subversive nature of philosophy. If P4C is institutionalized, I thought, it might mean that students wouldn’t receive one of its primary benefits: the space to question pretty much everything, without the hegemony of the “right answer” beating them down.

But after seeing a presentation by Lynne Hinton of Buranda State School in Queensland, Australia, I now have a different view. She talked about—and gave statistics showing—how the entire culture of her school changed over a six year period as a result of requiring all the grades, one through seven, to do one hour of philosophy a week in every classroom.

It wasn’t just that test scores went up—although they did significantly—it’s more that kids learned how to talk to each other, and as a result, treated each other different; one student’s quote that stuck with me was something like, “If we didn’t have philosophy in our school, there would be bullying.”

Who wouldn’t want something like this at every school in the world; I can hardly believe I ever thought differently.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


At the Philosophy for Children Mini-Conference in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association’s Western Division Convention today, lots of fascinating questions, concepts, ideas, and examples of practices involving philosophy with pre-college students were discussed, but two re-emerging themes resonated particularly strongly within me: first, the broad issue of whether there ought to be more standardization of philosophy for children curriculum and second, the degree to which the program or curriculum of P4C should be delivered more widely in classrooms and school districts around the world.

I take what I hope comes off as a somewhat minority (as opposed to merely cranky) position on both these issues.

Regarding whether or not P4C ought to be “sold” or packaged in a way that might make it easier to “sell” more widely: I resist this. It’s long been my view that philosophy is necessarily subversive and that the degree to which it becomes something that’s fully endorsed by the educational establishment (whatever that is, exactly) is the degree to which it is undermined.

I like, for instance, that when I come into a pre-college classroom, I’m coming in from the outside; I’m not “the man;” I’m a rebel, a corruptor of youth, just like Socrates. I can say and do things that the teachers can’t and hopefully, connect with the kids on a different level, perhaps even encouraging responses from them that they might not be willing to offer in their regular classes. My fear is that some of this might be lost if I were to become more a part of the establishment.

My resistance to greater standardization of the curriculum has a similar source (one again I hope not entirely in my crankiness). Essentially, my concern is that the great flowering of creativity that seems to currently be happening in the field will be squelched if more people start doing the same thing. I think it’s cool that, for instance, today, we heard from a couple P4C practitioners who are doing games for kids based on Wittgenstein, Foucauld, and Hegel, as well as from some others who create exercises drawing on Socrates and Plato. I fear that if there were more of a “right” way to deliver our lessons that we’d lose some of the diversity that makes our field so vital and exciting right now—even if that meant it were somewhat easier and more accessible for people just getting into it.

At the end of the day, we had a large group discussion where about 50 of us, all at once, talked over these (and other) topics. I tried (unsuccessfully) to hold my tongue; I’m just hoping I came off as a thoughtful (and perhaps somewhat subversive) alternative and not just a total crank.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Kid

Often, after I’ve been doing philosophy with a pre-college classroom for a while, the teacher will remark to me about a particular student, something to the effect of, “It’s really great seeing how ‘Johnny’ (let’s say) has taken to this; most of the time, in other subjects, he’s really quiet.”

I love that, in no small part because I WAS that kid, too. (Not that I was especially quiet in ANY of my classes, but I was the student who took to philosophical questioning way more than any other subject.)

There was a student in a 5th grade class I went regularly to some years ago; his name was Jake, and he was the kid who always had his hand up with questions and comments, most of which were even relevant to our discussions. He cracked us all up once with an imitation of Socrates drinking Hemlock and spearheaded the end-of-the-year philosophy poster that the class drew on long pieces of butcher paper that they then posted around the room. It never occurred to me that he wasn’t like this in all of his classes until his teacher told me that he was pretty much failing everything else besides band, in which he played clarinet.

It warms my heart to think that, for some kids, anyway, doing philosophy in school is one of the things that makes it worthwhile for them. I realize, of course, that for many students, that’s not the case: I occasionally see the same blank looks of boredom on 12 year-olds as I do on 20-somethings when we’re getting too far into logical hair-splitting, but I’m also confident that doing philosophy does save a youngster here or there.

I’ve already seen a few kids really come alive in the 5th grade class I’ve started going to this quarter; we’ll see how long they sustain that interest. But if philosophy can engage even that “one kid,” then, I think it’s worthwhile—at least for me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dangerous Minds

When I tell people that I do philosophy with kids in public schools, they often ask me questions like, “Isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t those subjects taboo? Do schools really let students talk about philosophical questions? What happens when religion comes up?”

I love this concern. Philosophy is supposed to be subversive and controversial. The patron saint of our discipline, Socrates, got put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, after all.

Nevertheless, the concern has tended to be, by and large, unfounded. While our discussions do sometimes range over topics that might be construed as somewhat risky, (and even occasionally—especially in high school classes—risqué), it’s rare when we take on a topic that runs afoul of what’s considered acceptable in the classroom—although that may, in part, be a function of self-selection: teachers who are willing to have a philosopher come into their classrooms are probably those whose boundaries for the acceptable are a little looser than those who’d be opposed to such visits.

In fact, in almost 20 years of doing philosophy in the schools, there has been only one time when a teacher took me aside and asked me to put the kibosh on a conversation. This was about a decade ago, in a 6th grade class. We were wrapping up an introductory lesson, during which we were exploring together what philosophy is and how it’s done. A student raised his hand and asked me if we were going to do any yoga.

I thought that was a kind of interesting question, and launched into an answer something to the effect that, well, philosophy is kind of a yoga for the mind; just like in the physical practice of yoga, in philosophy, we often bend ourselves (or our minds) into atypical positions and observe our reactions to those experiences.

Suddenly, I noticed the teacher frantically motioning to me; I came over to her and she said, rather breathlessly, “No yoga! Don’t talk about yoga!”

Umm, okay, but why? She said she’d tell me later.

So, after class, she took me aside and said that a few weeks ago, they’d had a dance instructor in class and as part of their warm-ups, she did some yoga stretches with the students. A couple of fundamentalist Christian parents got wind of this and complained that their children were being indoctrinated in Hinduism in their public school class and that was the end of that.

Oddly enough, nobody seemed to mind a few weeks later, when the students and I spent an entire class period wondering together about what is generally considered the strongest challenge to traditional theism: the so-called “Problem of Evil.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Are You A Philosopher?" Exercise

Lesson Plan: Are You a Philosopher?

Topic/Question: What is Philosophy?

Time: About half an hour

Materials: I usually use a rotary cheese grater, but nearly any item, from a coffee cup to a wipe-board eraser can be employed.


I begin the lesson by asking students a simple question: “When you hear the word ‘philosophy,’ what comes to mind?”

I purposely phrase the question this way so as not to suggest to student that there is an answer that I am looking for; I want to know what comes to their minds, not mine, when they hear the word. I try to record their responses on the blackboard as they offer them. And it can be quite illuminating to hear what students say.

Typically, people will say things like, “ideas,” “arguments,” “the way you think about the world.” Often, a student will have had some sort of introduction to philosophy and will give the standard definition “love of wisdom” (although often, it’s given as “love of knowledge.”) It’s not unusual for students to conflate philosophy and psychology, and so typically, someone might say something like, “philosophy is the study of the way people think.” And especially when I work with high school students, it’s not uncommon for a student to say that what comes to mind when he or she hears the word “philosophy” is “dead white males.”

I stress that I’m not looking for a particular answer, because, as a matter of fact, in philosophy, we want to explore a range of possible responses. I usually take some time to explore in a little more depth some of the suggestions and will try to do something to clear up misconceptions like the conflation of philosophy and psychology, but in general, it’s not my intent at this point to get any sort of working definition of the term; we’re just sharing ideas.

What I do pursue is the following question, “How many of you would consider yourselves philosophers?” I ask for a show of hands, and usually, only a few students raise theirs.

I then make the claim that I am going to present to students a three-part argument in support of the conclusion that they are all philosophers. I may talk a little bit about arguments here, but my main point is that I will offer up a three part argument that I believe can convince them each person in the room that he or she is a philosopher.

I tell students that I will show them that, first, they do what philosophers do; second, that they can do it for the reason that philosophers do it; and that third, they can do it in the somewhat unusual way that philosophers do it. We then launch into what this thing that philosophers do is.

I ask students to think of things that they find difficult to stop doing; what do they find difficult to not do? Typically, students will answer with responses like, “It’s hard to stop eating candy.” “I can’t stop biting my nails.” “No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop watching TV.” After each such response I say, “Well, let’s try.” Pretty obviously, we can stop doing these, even if it’s difficult.”

Sooner or later, some student will usually offer up “breathing,” as a possibility. I say to the class, “Well, let’s see. On the count of three, everyone stop breathing.” It’s amusing to see everyone holding their breath, and the point is made: it’s hard to stop breathing, but we all can do it, at least for a little while.

Finally, someone, prompted or not will say, “thinking.” Again, I suggest, “On the count of three, everyone stop thinking.” You see students doing their best to comply; I usually say, “Whatever do you, don’t think of a pony,” which draws laughter and leads into a discussion of what it was like to try to stop thinking.

Naturally, students allow that they found it very hard to stop thinking; we explore together what was going on in their heads when they tried to do so. Usually, students will talk about how they attempted to think “don’t think” or how they closed their eyes and visualized a black space—which, of course, was a thought they were having. Occasionally, one or more student will claim that they were able to stop thinking; sometimes students will refer to meditative practices that enable a person to suspend thought; all such comments add to the discussion and serve to build upon the main point here: it’s hard to stop thinking. And the point I want to make—that I think usually is made—is that if you, yourself, find it difficult to suspend your thoughts, then that’s step one to being a philosopher, because thinking is what philosophers do a lot of. So, I reiterate: if you find it hard to stop thinking, then, that’s step one to being a philosopher.

I then continue on to the second point of my argument: You can do what philosophers do (think) for the reason philosophers do it. As an example, I tell students the following story.

Some years ago, my sister, who was living in a different town than me, was pregnant. She went into the hospital to have her baby and called me up the next day and said, “Hey Dave, you have a brand-new nephew.” I thought about what she said and could figure something out about that child. What was it?

It takes no time at all for one or more students to answer that the child was a boy. I ask them, quite fascinated, “How did you know that?”

Again, it’s quite simple for students—even students as young as kindergarten—to note that since I used the word “nephew,” that the child had to be a boy. This leads to a discussion about how amazing it is that, as human beings, we can simply think about something—the word “nephew,” for instance—and gain knowledge, just by doing so. I point out that what students have done is construct a little argument in their heads that goes something like, “All nephews are boys. This child is a nephew. Therefore, this child is a boy.” And while that might seem quite mundane, it’s really pretty impressive. I probe to see whether any students were unable to construct such an argument and rarely, if ever, have anyone admit that there were unable to. (Although sometimes we have interesting discussion about whether it’s true that all nephews are boys; often students want to wonder whether if, say, my nephew had a sex-change, he would be my nephew or my niece.)

The point that follows from this is the second prong of my argument: if you can think to figure things out—and you’ve demonstrated that you can—then you have two of the three qualities that make you a philosopher.

The third, then, is to illustrate to students that they can do what philosophers do—that is, think—in the rather unusual way that philosophers go about it. And here I offer up an exercise to illustrate this.

I break students up into groups of three to five. In each group, one person is designated to be the scribe; he or she will write down answers that group members come up with.

I then hold up a common everyday household item. My favorite is to use a rotary cheese grater, but I have used a coffee cup, a wipe-board eraser, an even, in one case, a tennis shoe. I ask students “what is this thing?” Students will typically respond that it is what it’s commonly used for; in the case of the cheese grater, the answer given is, “It’s a cheese grater.”

I agree that it can be a cheese grater, but that’s not all it could be. I tell students that I would like them to look at this thing in different ways, from different perspectives and to come up, in three minutes, with all the different things they could imagine this thing being used for.

I set the groups off to brainstorm their lists. They are given three minutes to come up with all the other functions they could imagine the item performing. As they work together, I have them pass the item around, touching it can help stimulate their creativity. I also encourage them to imagine themselves in different settings, and to view the item from different perspectives. “What if you were an ant, what could you use this for?” “What if you were camping?” “What if you were an ancient Greek philosopher?” “What if you melted it down or crushed it?” I try to encourage students not to censor themselves; they should feel free to come up with as many possibilities as they can without trying to edit their answers.”

At the end of three minutes, I ask the groups to report back. I ask them to look at their lists and see how many possibilities they’ve come up with. (As an aside, I usually mention that when I do this exercise with little kids—kindergarten to about 3rd grade—the groups will usually come up with around 20 to 25 different possibilities; when I do the exercise with middle-school students, groups usually generate about 18 possibilities; with high-school students on the order of 12, and with college students around 10. So, I say, “If you’ve hit around twenty, congratulate yourselves for reaching the kindergarten level.”)

Spokespeople for their groups are asked to share with the class a couple of their favorite uses for the item, which I write on the board as we go around the room. (Some of the typical responses I’ve gotten with the cheese grater include, hamster wheel, paperweight, torture device, pencil sharpener, hair curler, ice crusher, weapon, fashion accessory, and kaleidoscope.)

After all the groups have shared a couple of their favorites, I then ask the question, “So what is this thing?” I point out that I ask this quite sincerely (and I do). I’m really not sure anymore what this contraption is. I authentically wonder what it is and what makes it so. At this point, we usually explore the metaphysical question , “What makes something what it is?” Students typically offers answers such as, “A thing is what it’s used for.” Or “What makes something what it is is what it was originally designed to be.” Or “It is whatever it does best.” Or, perhaps most typically, “It is whatever you want it to be.”

I’ll usually note that in asking this type of question, we are doing philosophy. We are wondering, as philosophers do, about the essences of things; we are trying to achieve some sort of clarity about why something is what it is, and what makes it so. This, I’ll usually note, is what we call in philosophy a metaphysical inquiry.

More importantly, we are wondering about something that only a little while earlier, seemed commonplace. We took this everyday item, this cheese grater, for instance, looked at it in different ways, from different perspectives, and now find ourselves wondering about it in ways we didn’t before.

This is the “punchline,” if you will, to this exercise. As philosophers, we commonly take everyday things—tangible things like a cheese grater, or intangible things, like ideas—look at them from different perspectives and find ourselves wondering about them. (This is always a good point to interject that one of the most famous of all philosophers, Plato, famously said, “Philosophy begins in wonder. And wonder is the attitude of the philosopher.”)

I tell students that if they’ve gotten even a taste of this—that sense of looking in a new way at something they thought they understood and, as a result, beginning to wonder about it—then, they are doing what philosophers do—thinking—in that rather unusual way that philosophers do it.

So, I then return to the original question I asked at the outset of this exercise: Who here is a philosopher?” Routinely, nearly all students raise their hands this time which is, I believe, a core assumption of doing philosophy with children. I take it as a given that practice assumes that all people—children especially—are philosophers and that the goal of doing philosophy with kids is to stimulate that natural philosophical impulse within.

Now this, too, of course, is open to philosophical inquiry. I’ve had some very interesting discussions with students about whether indeed all people are philosophers. And in one instance, we got into a very rich debate about whether doing philosophy makes a person a philosopher. “I do math all time time,” said a student, “But that doesn’t make me a mathematician, does it?”

While honoring the process, I try to set such concerns aside; it seems to me that the impulse to explore such questions is testament to the philosophical impulse in any case and so, may be evidence in support of the claim I’m making.

What’s important, I believe, is that through this three-part exercise, students tend to be, by and large, persuaded that they are all philosophers—or, at least, have had a taste of what it’s like to wonder about things—and this sets the stage for further philosophical inquiry, through additional exercises and activities like those I will describe below.


The first time I go to a new pre-college classroom, I usually begin by simply asking students what comes to their minds when they hear the word “philosophy.” It’s always fascinating to hear what they have to say; case in point: the students today, in Ms. Ward’s Fifth Grade class at Whittier Elementary.

One girl said she thought of “fossils” when she heard the word. Another, perhaps inspired by that comment, said “dinosaurs.” A boy said that what came to mind for him was ideas and controversy. His classmate countered that he couldn’t help thinking of old men.

I try to stress that I’m not looking for any particular answer; I really want to know what comes to their minds. What’s in their heads when they hear the word? This allows us to then begin right away wondering about thoughts, to think about thinking in other words.

I asked the students, drawing upon one of the aforementioned answers, to think of a dinosaur. Then, think of two dinosaurs, then a hundred. “Can you think of a thousand dinosaurs?” I asked. A girl responded, “Well, maybe not exactly a thousand; it’s not like I’m going to count them.”

I thought this was a great answer, and it lead perfectly into the next part of our lesson, which was to begin thinking about thoughts. We wondered together whether a thought of a thousand dinosaurs was bigger than a thought of just one dinosaur; most students said that it was.

I pointed out to the kids at this point that they were doing philosophy; “So,” I wondered aloud, “how many of you would say that you are a philosopher?” As is typical, hardly any students (in fact, I think not a one) raised his or her hand. I then said that I would present an argument to them for the conclusion that all of them are, in fact, philosophers.

“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘argument’” I asked. “Two people fighting,” said one student. “My little sister,” said another. “Screaming and yelling,” said another. I praised them for their answers, but said that there is another sense of the term, one that doesn’t necessarily involve fighting; in this sense, “argument” simply means a way of trying to persuade someone of something. With that in mind, I said I was going to present to them an argument to convince that they were all philosophers.

What followed was an exercise that I have done lots and lots of time with students from third grade all the way through college. I help students see that they do what philosophers do, that they do it for the reason philosophers do it, and they can do it in the unusual way that philosophers typically do it.

That thing, of course, is thinking. Here’s a description of how the exercise works.

I think it worked well today; the students were really engaged with it, and in the third part of the activity, where they examine an everyday object from different perspectives, the suggestions they came up with were creative and, in some cases, hilarious.

We ended the day with a thought experiment exploring the idea of personal identity. What would happen, we wondered, if Dave’s mind was put into one of the student’s bodies and vice-versa? Where would the Dave-body go home to and why? This led to a lively discussion about what makes us what we are. I finished up by asking students to reflect on the question: “What makes me me?” Some of the answers they floated in conclusion were: “my thoughts,” “my experiences,” “my mind and my body combined,” “the things I like to do,” and “what other people think I am.”

Obviously, these students ARE philosophers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bigger Ones

While Philosophy for Children is generally done with children, I’ve also facilitated lots and lots of sessions with people who probably wouldn’t be categorized that way: college students mainly, but also parents, senior citizens, and even, informally, some of my friends who—chronologically, at least, are decades and decades away from childhood.

What’s sort of amazing is that the same stories, exercises, and activities tend to work just as well with people whose ages are double-digit crooked numbers as they do with folks who have yet to reach puberty. And that seems to support one of the central claims of P4C—that philosophy is something that we all do naturally given the opportunity and that providing such opportunities is meaningful and valuable to our shared experience.

I typically do a simple exercise when I first work with a group of students, no matter what age, that’s intended to explore the question, “Are you a philosopher?” The main part of the activity involves students working together in groups to examine a common, everyday item—usually a rotary cheese grater—and to brainstorm other things it could possibly be used for. (The idea here is to engage in the common philosophical practice of looking at things—whether tangible like cheese graters, or intangible, like ideas—from different perspectives.)

“Children of all ages” find this activity not only fun, but also philosophically compelling. It’s fascinating to see what participants come up with and even more interesting to hear them discuss the metaphysical question that inevitably emerges: what make something what it is?

We wonder together what it is that defines a thing: is it what it was designed for? Is it what it does best? Is it whatever you want it to be?

And then, with almost equal regularity, we segue into discussing what makes us who we are. Is it our history? Our parentage? Is personal identity a matter of choice? Or of destiny? How much freedom do we have to define ourselves? Do we have free will at all?

“Philosophy,” said Plato, “begins in wonder. And wonder is the attitude of a philosopher.” I must say it’s quite wonderful to observe this in people no matter what their ages.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

LIttle Ones

Many people are surprised to hear that philosophy can be done with little kids; I’ve had some of my most rewarding and even intellectually stimulating philosophy sessions with students as young as six or seven. Doing philosophy with kindergarteners can be amazing for all involved—although you’ve got to be careful not to get the kids too wound up, and it can lead to a pretty wild classroom environment if you decide to have them all doing animal imitations at the same time.

One of my favorite books to use with pre-readers is Morris the Moose by Bernard Wiseman. It’s a picture book that tells the story of Morris, a moose who is, let us say, metaphysically challenged. In the course of his day, he meets a number of other animals and is convinced that they, like him, are moose. He comes to this conclusion because they, like him, have four legs and things on their heads.

So, for instance, he meets a deer and concludes that the deer is a moose. Why? Because it too has four legs and things on its head. Same with a cow.

This can lead into a fascinating conversation with young people about what makes something what it is. What makes a cow a cow? What makes a deer a deer?

In one class, a few years ago, we explored the question of whether a moose could be a deer. Students, in general, concluded that of course not, because a deer has deer parents and a moose has moose parents. And besides, they’re different sizes.

Well, I asked, could a sheep be a deer? No, argued one little boy; a sheep can’t be a deer because they don’t spend time together. Okay, I said, well, then what about a sheep and a dog? They often inhabit the same fields, for instance. But no, answered another student; a sheep can’t be a dog because they’re different colors. But, interjected the first student, “there is such a thing as a sheepdog!”

At the end of this reading/exercise, I usually have students do a fill-in-the-blank “poem.” The kids finish the sentence, “The difference between (one thing) and (another) is:…

Here’s what one kindergarten class wrote:

• The difference between...
• The difference between a moose and a deer is difference horns.
• The difference between a cown and a fish is one has antlers and the other has fins.
• The difference between lunch and dinner is that one is like a sandwhich and one is meat and stuff.
• The difference between a deer and a horse is that one has horns and one has none.
• The difference between coyote and a dog is that coyotes come out and night and dogs live at home.
• The difference between banana and a pineapple is that one is yellow and curved.
• The difference between otter and a moose is that otters and tails and swim in the water and moose only drink water.
• The difference between head and a foot is that your head sits on your neck and your foot sits on your legs.
• The difference between Batman and Spiderman is that Batman has horns on his suit and Spiderman spits out webs.
• The difference between shoes and boots is that shoes are smaller.
• The difference between tables and chairs is that they go together.
• The difference between easel and a desk is that you don’t write on a desk.
• The difference between fingers and toes is that your fingers are on your hands and your toes are on your feet.
• The difference between a cow and a deer is that a cow goes “moo.”
• The difference between sitting and standing is that sitting is criss-cross applesauce.
• The difference between a deer and a horse is that a horse goes “neigh.”
• The difference between teeth and lips is that your teeth are on the inside and your lips on the outside.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


At the American Philosophical Association Western Division Convention later this month in San Diego, I’ll be presenting a talk about how teaching philosophy to pre-college students has changed my college teaching. This should be interesting—to me, at least—because in many ways, it hasn’t really changed it at all.

Rather, teaching philosophy to kindergarten through high school students has pretty much DEFINED how I teach philosophy to college students. So it’s not as if the experience has changed what I do so much as it has determined it.

If I were going to identify one aspect of my teaching that pervades what I do with both younger students and older ones it would be to emphasize that philosophy can’t be studied passively; it must be done actively. You’ve got to ask questions—ones that intrigue you—and pursue them, ideally in discussion with others. You’ve got to try out ideas and see where they take you. You’ve got to stake out positions and argue for them, but just as importantly, be willing to let go of a belief you’ve previously held if a better one comes along.

I like to make students do things: build something together, figure out a puzzle in groups, at least get up and move around the room, but I’m also a fan of the traditional “community of inquiry” method where you simply read aloud a text, have the students generate questions about it, and then discuss those questions.

This week, in my UW class, we’ll be exploring topics in Philosophy of Mind. The key puzzles have to do with the nature of consciousness and the relationship between the mind and the brain. We’ll read a selection from Matthew Lipman’s book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery in which the characters in the story ponder what is happening when you get a song stuck in your head that keeps repeating over and over.

Anyone who’s lain awake at 3:00 in the morning staring at the ceiling above their bed knows what this is like: the thoughts and questions just keep bubbling up, no matter how hard you try to make them stop.

That’s doing philosophy, whether you like it or not.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Today officially begins my spring quarter sabbatical, a period when I will be concentrating on my research work in the practice of Philosophy for Children, an activity I’ve been seriously engaged in for about fifteen years, ever since I was a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Washington, deep in pre-dissertation angst, wondering what the hell I was doing spending eight to ten hours a day reading esoteric and often incomprehensible philosophy texts and desperately trying to find any connection between this activity and some sort of meaning and purpose in the real world.

So I began volunteering in a 5th grade class at T.T. Minor Elementary School near my house in Seattle, at first without any particular intention of doing philosophy with the students. Eventually, though, after a few classes, the teacher, Mr. Reed, invited me to begin facilitating philosophical discussions with his class.

The first few times were chaotic and unpredictable; once the kids got so loud that the teacher next door came into the room and asked me to make them quiet down; after a couple of months, though, we began to have quite intense and meaningful discussions about the nature of truth, knowledge, justice, beauty, and a whole array of other issues that have intrigued philosophers from time immemorial.

My graduate student college, Jana Mohr, who founded the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, introduced me to the curriculum of materials for doing P4C developed by the International Association for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, but I also developed dozens of classroom activities and readings on my own—in conjunction, of course, with the students I was working with.

I went regularly to T.T. Minor for a couple of years and have subsequently, worked with scores of schools and hundreds of students all around the Puget Sound. And indeed my experience working with pre-college students was instrumental in my landing a fulltime tenure-track job teaching philosophy at Cascadia Community College, where I’m now based.

This quarter, on my sabbatical, I plan to visit at least one or two pre-college classrooms a week where I hope to try out some new lessons with students in grades three through five.

I’m also presenting papers about doing P4C at a couple of conferences, first, the American Philosophical Association Western Division meeting in April, and then, second, the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) Institute conference at Columbia College in New York in June.

Mostly, though, I hope to deepen and broaden my experience and skill in doing philosophy with kids. There’s nothing quite so exciting about exploring big ideas with little people.

It’s not, as was my Winter Quarter sabbatical, India, but I guarantee that it’s equally exotic and mind-blowing in its own way.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Letting Go

This is what happens when you devote all your energy to desperately clinging to the memory of Mysore and the quality of yoga practice you managed in a life where nothing else matters: you strain your neck pushing yourself to the limit in headstand so that when you wake up the next morning, you can barely tilt your head but a few inches to the left; it hurts, of course, but not as much as knowing that you’re doing this to yourself in a misguided effort to resist the inevitable re-entry into real life.

It seems to me that one’s yoga practice has to find its way to be integrated fully into one’s quotidian existence; what this little setback is reminds me is to practice in conjunction with where I am.

What that will look like is hard to see, but it’s certain it won’t be the same here in cool and green Seattle as it was in hot and brown India.

That’s fine and good and the way it should be; one simply has to let go of that which is being clung to; release the neck and shoulders, and breathe deep of the rich Northwest air.

And so, with that, this first Winter quarter edition of Sabblogtical comes to a close; after March 28, when Spring quarter starts, it will be back, with discussion more related to the activity of Philosophy for Children, which is my stated focus for April through May.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


If you take this yoga business seriously, then it’s pretty serious business. Here’s how the brilliant 20th century writer Christopher Isherwood puts it in An Approach to Vedanta:

“…Yoga is the process of exploring your own nature; of finding out what it really is. It is the process of becoming aware of your real situation. The day-to-day space-time “reality” (as it is reported to us by our senses and the daily newspapers) is, in fact, no reality at all but a deadly and cunning illusion. The practice of yoga meditation consists in excluding, as far as possible, our consciousness of the illusory world, the surface “reality,” and turning the mind inward in search of its real nature. Our real nature is to be one with life, with consciousness, with everything else in the universe. The fact of oneness is the real situation.”

Huh. You don’t say.

So it’s not just a way to get your abs in shape, or to sweat out the toxins of last night’s partying; it’s not even merely a way to find peace of mind and true happiness—although that may follow indirectly.

If Isherwood is right (and the odds of that are reasonably good; he was a literary genius, a student and co-translator of Sanskrit texts with Swami Prabhavananda, who hung out with folks like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell) then yoga is mainly a way of seeing things as they really are; it’s a tool for discernment and clarity, a means of getting a better picture of reality.

As someone who’s been very myopic ever since about second grade, and is now, as a middle-aged man, increasingly presbyopic, too, I know all about the importance of devices that help you see; eyeglasses are serious business, too, but what's even better about the Ashtanga yoga prescription—“take these poses 6 times a week and don’t call me in the morning”—is that it never requires me to go to the optometrist and have drops put in my eyes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The weather’s different (about 40 degrees cooler and way wetter); the roads are different (no speed bumps on the highway!); the food is different (a WHOLE cup of coffee, BLACK, in a mug, instead of a few drops, milk and sugar, in a glass), but the practice (although solo) is the same.

Surprisingly, it isn’t the “magic feather” of the AYRI shala or even of mother India herself that makes success in asana possible. Rather, here you are, 8000 miles, and a lost day of travel away, but once on the mat, at least at day one, you can still find the poses you discovered or rediscovered while away.

While I was in Mysore, we marveled, my Stateside correspondents and I, that even though nighttime was flipped with daylight, it was still the case that when the moon was visible, it was the same moon both places: a remarkably mundane observation, but somehow comforting.

And this is like that: the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice doesn’t require you (although perhaps it helps) to be in a magical room halfway around the world; you can move through the exact same poses and reap the very same benefits of it just 10 steps away from your very own bed in your very own hometown: a remarkably mundane observation, but somehow comforting.

That said, you can’t help but long for Mysore already.

Ten aspects of being there that will particularly be missed:

1) Yoga: the magic of the shala, the commitment of your fellow practitioners, the heat in the room
2) Classes: in Sanskrit, Chanting, Indian Philosophy, both from Laksmeesh at the shala and from Professors Jayashree and Narasimham at the Anatha Research Foundation
3) Flute Lessons: from Mr. Upadhyaya and from Hindustani flute God, Ravishankar Mishra
4) Cycling: on my Neelam bike, all round Mysore, anyplace you’d go on a scooter, you can get by human-powered two wheeler
5) Ashadayaka Seva Trust Orphanage: three times a week, the pleasure of playing with the kids from the orphanage; among other things, they taught me how to play cricket!
6) Food: less than a buck for your daily thali lunch, pretty much all you need to eat for the day
7) Ashrams: Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Ashrama and Ramakrishna Ashram—oases of wisdom and calm amidst the craziness of city life in India
8) Drinks: Coffee, Chai, and Coconuts
9) People: the spirit and friendliness of the locals I got to know a little in Mysore, from the trickster boys working at the coffee stand to the friendly and welcoming professors at Mysore University
10) Shopping: I don’t go all that crazy, but I did come home with four new custom-made shirts, and a bag full of bike parts, all for well under fifty bucks.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Asmita or “I-am-ness,” I learned today, is the error of mistaking the self that we experience ourselves as being for the real Self.

Apparently, it’s what all of us (well, me anyway) do all day long all the time: suppose that the person we think we are is who we actually are.

So in other words, I’m not actually a middle-aged, married, community college teacher on his last day of sabbatical in India, saddened somewhat at the prospect of leaving, but looking forward with great delight to seeing his home and family again; no, not at all.

Rather, I am Atman, I am Brahman, I am the One Thing in the Universe that IS the Universe and Pure Consciousness at the same time.

I’m not this individual wave on the ocean with its own special curve and dip, spray flying of its top, seagulls wheeling overhead; I’m just the Ocean itself, or maybe, to put it another way, the idea of Ocean where the Ocean is Universal Mind conceiving of the Ocean, dreaming it and itself into existence and out again and in again endlessly.

Or something like that.

All this remains an open question for me, which means, as Dr. Narasimham put it in today’s yoga sutras and chanting class, that I’ll keep coming back to it again and again. It’s like when you have a piece of food in your teeth, he said, the tongue can’t stop poking at it. But when it’s gone, you forget about it completely—until the next trapped bit of rice or whatever, at which point the process starts all over again.

That seemed like an appropriate metaphor for my final day here; I’ve been saying that India has gotten under my skin (in a good way), but maybe the better way to put it is that it’s gotten stuck between my teeth. I’ve got a little piece of Mysore lodged in the distal marginal groove of my maxillary first biscupid (I'm pretty sure that technically, this description doesn't even make sense, but keep in mind that what I experience as my teeth aren't even teeth at all.)

The important this is that now, I just have to keep coming back until it works free.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Treasure Hunt

Reaping the benefits of Ashtanga yoga, (which our fearless leader, Sharath, in today’s conference touted as the only yoga that includes all the angas, and therefore represents the one sure way to purify the mind and body and ultimately attain jnana, that is, knowledge) “is not like making noodles.”

It takes time.

And patience—which apparently, many people don’t have; everyone wants to be a teacher without even being a student. The shala gets many calls, he said, from people asking how they can become teachers; the answer: do your practice.

Paradoxically, though, it’s not about the goal: “We don’t expecting anything, we should do our practice.”

But it’s also, said Sharath, in what was my favorite quote of the day, “a treasure hunt.” He likened the longtime experience of doing Ashtanga to a search for the enduring knowledge and benefits that follow from the practice.

And he pointed out that the person who has found them will, like the discoverer of hidden riches, refrain from shouting, “I’ve found it!” He will be calm and in fact, may not even be aware of his achievement.

The hunt, in any case, is predicated on asana; in spite of being but one of the eight limbs, asana is the foundation, said Sharath; it is how we purify our minds and nervous systems. “Asana, don’t think it is only physical; it is very big tool to purify mind and body.”

Thankfully, though, one only need do what what can, as long as it’s done with a thirst to know what is yoga: “It’s not necessary that everyone should jump back; the people who doesn’t have that can also do Ashtanga.”

Which isn’t to say there won’t be pain; "with each new asana, you get new pain," but “sometimes when you get pain that means it is working.” The good news, however, is that “If you have pain from asanas, asanas will help you get rid of it.”

Sharath said that he has seen the practice heal many people’s physical ailments, from the arthritis of his friend’s aged parents to the hunched back of older student who has subsequently passed away, an inevitability we all face: “Once we take birth, we have to die, otherwise, we shouldn’t take birth.”

New challenges keep emerging, though yoga's effectiveness in meeting them has not changed. “Before television,” said Sharath, which he remembers coming to Mysore when he was fourteen, “people were very happy.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011


My timing was perfect: I showed up outside the Mysore Palace Gates just in time for the last of the 27 sun salutations led by children from the Odanadi Seva Trust.

In other circumstances, I might have played hooky from the yoga shala and attended the entire Yoga Stops Traffick event, but since today was my last opportunity (this trip!) to take part in one of Saraswathi’s led classes, I decided to do the 7:00 practice and then hightail it downtown in hopes of catching the last few surya namaskaras and taking a few photos.

And although I’d only just gotten my mat placed when the 27th downward dog was being counted out, I got to feel a little taste of the great love motivating the event; it was beautiful to see so many folks out on a Saturday morning in the already blazing sun in support of such a worthy cause.

One’s yoga practice here in Mysore is very inward-looking. It’s a remarkable privilege to be able to take time away from everyday life and do something so focused on one’s own personal, emotional, and/or spiritual development. So, it’s especially good to do something that supports a cause beyond the boundaries of oneself.

That the cause, in this case, is one that’s so important and meaningful makes it even better.

And that one can offer that support, (in a small way, anyway), with just a single sun salutation, well, that for me, totally puts a cherry on top.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Detached Attachment

“Nonsense can be spoken about in a sensible way,” said Dr. Narasimhan, and then he proceeded to do the converse of that, speaking about something that made plenty of sense in a manner that was somewhat nonsensical, or at least paradoxical.

I had wondered aloud about the concept of detachment or dispassion in the yoga sutras; Patanjali writes that the yogi should cultivate non-attachment; Sutra 1.15 is translated by Swami Prabhavananda as “Non-attachment is self-mastery; it is freedom from what is seen or heard.”

But I was puzzled because it seems to me that there are many things to which we ought to be passionately attached: the welfare of our families, for instance, or fighting against injustice, or even, for that matter, our own yoga practices.

But Dr. N. explained that Patanjali isn’t saying we ought to not care about things; “Detachment is not to be like a stone," is how the good professor put it.

We should be passionate, it’s just that “passion should be a detached passion so (we) can see the whole action in the field.”

The problem, apparently, is that a single-minded passion for an idea, a person, a cause, the next yoga pose in the series, you name it, “loses your ability to be aware of the nuances.” “Single-mindedness,” said Dr. N., “is not evolutionary.” It doesn’t allow the object of our passion to grow or change, or for our reactions to develop as well.

What we want, in other words, is a “detached attachment” so we can continue to evolve along with the situations in which we find ourselves. I can be as committed to my family, my life projects, social justice, or to dropping back and standing up on my own from urdhva dhanurasana as I want to be just so long as I don’t lose myself (or the object of my passion) in the process.

“Attachment with understanding is detachment,” concluded Dr. N.

With that in mind, then, I think I can safely say that now I’m a little more detached from the concept of attachment than I was before.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Non Non-Contradiction

“There are no false statements in Indian philosophy.”

With that quote in today’s yoga sutras and chanting class, Dr. Narasimhan cleared up something that’s been puzzling me: you’ve got all these various schools and perspectives in the Indian spiritual and philosophical tradition and commentators like Swami Prabhavananda seem to be cool with all of them, even though they stand on different sides of long-standing debates in philosophy, like between idealism and materialism, or dualism and monism, or even theism and atheism.

But, if they’re all true, then I guess there’s really no problem, after all.

Dr. N. explained from the Indian perspective, truth is relative, or at least contextual. The madman is only mad from the perspective of the sane person; as he goes on about space aliens abducting him or whatever, he’s speaking what he takes to be true; and while I would want to say that just because he thinks it’s true doesn’t mean it is, the Indian philosopher is comfortable with accepting multiple versions of the truth, depending on the context.

I suppose that this is in part because our everyday statements of what we take to be true, say, for instance, “I have two arms and two legs” are, metaphysically speaking, false. After all, if the world of our experience is essentially illusion and all that really exists is pure undifferentiated consciousness, then all of my utterances about things are actually mistaken. But if I’m okay with considering them true on pragmatic grounds, then why not allow other statements, even if they contradict with mine, to be true, as well?

But does this mean that anything, anything goes? Apparently not; there is still absolute truth, but, as Dr. N put it, “Absolute truth cannot be expressed absolutely in the relative world.”

Consequently, I guess, we’re stuck with making relative statements which means, apparently, that the so-called “law of non-contradiction” which we take for granted in Western philosophy can be broken at will.

Makes perfect sense. And none at all.

But now, I understand. And don’t.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Finding God

In the Philosophy of Religion class I teach a couple times a year, I usually assign, as a final project, for students to “Go Find God.” Their challenge is to articulate a clear conception of what they mean by a Supreme Being and then undertake some activity to connect with that Being, whatever it may be.

Of course, there’s no requirement that they are successful in their search; what I expect them to do is to take the assignment seriously, do some creative and analytical thinking and writing, and to be able to clearly articulate to their classmates and me what they did and what they learned from the effort.

In years past, students have engaged in any number of different activities, from taking nature walks in the woods, to visiting houses of worship different than their own, to ingesting ecstasy in Las Vegas (this before I included a caveat on the assignment rubric that they couldn’t do anything illegal), to attending a rave (without taking drugs, the student assured me, in keeping with my revised assignment guidelines.)

Each year, in hopes of modeling what I’m looking for, I try to do the assignment myself, and I’ve done a bunch of different things, too, including taking a long bike ride, to attending Sunday service at an evangelical church, to performing 108 sun salutations.

In spite of my own reasonably serious efforts, though, I’ve never succeeded in finding God. I’ve generally had a meaningful experience, but it’s never gone beyond the material world; I’ve never inferred something behind or beyond the Universe as we know it.

This year, as I prepared to come to India, I told my students that my trip here would be my this year’s “Go Find God” project. And although more than a few chuckled, I meant it sincerely.

So far, in spite of serious yoga practice, regular (albeit somewhat disjoined) study of Indian philosophy, and a general immersion in this world where God is everywhere, I haven’t really succeeded in locating the divine.


In today’s Yoga Sutra Chanting and Philosophy of Yoga class at the Anatha Research Foundation, Professor Narasimhan made a point—in response to a student’s question about whether, essentially, one can be a serious student of yoga without buying the underlying Hindu religious dogma—that may be moving me in the direction of something akin to success.

First, he explained that yoga is better understood as psychology than religion. It’s a technology, if you will, that, if followed completely—all 8 limbs—enables anyone who does so to, in time, find God.

God, however, is not to be understood as an external objective, nor as an externally objective Being. Rather, (and here I may be misrepresenting what he actually said, but this is how I understood it), God is the state of being you achieve when you employ the yoga “technology” successfully. To achieve Samadhi, in other words, is to find God.

Nevertheless, God remains indefinable by definition, distinctly beyond distinctions, and unknowable by any of our standard knowledge-acquisition methodologies.

Less esoterically, “God,” said Dr. N., “is a state of equanimity or contentment”; “the innermost sustaining force in your life;” he also suggested that whenever you achieve true satisfaction in your life, you have touched God.

So what does this suggest for finding God?

Well, if I’m satisfied that I haven’t, then have I?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ways of Knowing

As Professor Narasimham explained in today’s Yoga Sutra Chanting and Philosophy of Yoga class at the Anatha Research Foundation (which, to my chagrin, I’ll only be able to attend a handful of times before departing) Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, talks about three ways of acquiring “right knowledge” (essentially, what I have been trained to call “true belief,” knowledge being, by definition, true or “right”).

These three are pratyaksha (perception), anumana (logical inference), and agama (testimony or tradition, including scriptural knowledge.)

One of the students in our class made the insightful observation that the first two are essentially Western philosophy’s empiricism and rationalism, which she also thoughtfully pointed out are often seen from the perspective of our tradition as in conflict with each other since the days of the Ancient Greeks, whether it’s Aristotle vs. Plato or Hume against Descartes, with maybe Kant off to the side trying to mediate things.

Additionally, in my world, testimony or tradition tends not to be seen as a reliable knowledge-generating methodology, at least without further empirical or logical justification. In fact, accepting “received knowledge” at face value is generally seen as an informal fallacy of logic, the so-called “appeal to tradition,” the very same mistake in reasoning that has people believing all sort of wild claims and, as a result, having misguided opposition to same-sex marriage, birth-control, or women’s collegiate athletics.

What I found puzzling, and had to ask about (even though I felt a bit presumptuous posing a question in my very first class—but hey! It’s my last week here!) was whether Patanjali envisioned a hierarchy in the reliability of these various knowledge-generating techniques, as, for instance, we tend to do in the West, depending on whether our intuitions lie with the Rationalists or Empiricists.

But as Dr. N. pointed out, the three techniques work together so that, let’s say, pratyaksha is seen as reliable unless it conflicts with anumana, as in the case, for example, of “seeing” a solid table but knowing via received knowledge from the sciences that, in fact, it’s actually made up of atoms with more space between them than matter. Thus, none of the three gets to hold the epistemological high ground; it's rock-paper-scissors all around.

And what was particularly interesting to me was that, as I understood it, anyway, even scriptural knowledge doesn’t therefore get to be incorrigible; if it’s illogical and/or conflicts with sensory perceptions, then it can be rejected as not providing “right knowledge.”

Too bad for same-sex marriage, birth-control, and women’s collegiate athletics, this isn’t more a more prevalent idea in the West.