Being an Outreach Fellow

Teaching is difficult. And the difficulty is only made more vivid when one has a specific chunk of content to teach. How does one get this content across? Well learning is rather difficult, too. I have been trying to lodge Ancient Greek into my brain (crudely read: learn), conceiving my head as a receptacle (and perhaps therein lies part of the problem), which rather turns out to be more like a colander.

The topic of teaching and learning is no less difficult when it comes to philosophy. And we ‘volunteers’ (a felicitous title!) at the Philosophy Outreach ponder these questions with the effect of, well, leading to further puzzlement. Recall that Socrates, too, expresses doubt about whether virtue could be taught—though interestingly he does not express a worry about it being learned. The point I’m getting at here is simply that when I’m confronted with the question “What does the Philosophy Outreach do?”, my usual response is: “We try to bring philosophy to schools”. So what do I mean by that?

We began this year’s philosophy club at Elizabeth Irwin high school with the question: Are you free? “No way”, one student Nile immediately replied. “Well, why not?”, I asked. Nile explained that he had to be at school. “Not that I don’t want to”, he assured me, “but even if I wanted to every day, I still think that I’m not free—because I have to”. At this point, another student eagerly suggested that, surely, there are different ways to be free. Then Jacob Pierce, who on behalf of the Outreach gave a talk of why he thought that pre-college philosophy was important for high school students such as himself at the Conference in Honor of John Dewey’s 150th Birthday, looked at Nick and said: “Well, you don’t have to go to school; you could just not go”. While another student Rachard pondered: “How much does freedom depend on choice?” The discussion was vibrant. Other topics that sprang up include, roughly: paradoxes that arise from time travel; what makes a can-opener a can-opener (during which one student became transfixed by the possibility that if he, say, opened a can with a knife, the knife would become a ‘can-opener’)?; beauty and art; whether the universe was ordered or “random”; brains and consciousness; language—and more time travel.

I recall now when I was pleasantly surprised to find a student during the discussion writing down the comments and ideas of his peers, including a thought by Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I had quoted in English—“Man is born free; but everywhere he is in chains”. At a later club meeting two students began writing on the white board; one student drew charts and pictures that represented, in a creative way, some portions of the discussion, while the other student wrote concepts and drew arrows between them. I will say here that I was utterly delighted with the lively ways in which the students initiated and participated in the discussion (silence only showed its head for mere seconds), for it has been an ongoing discussion amongst the volunteers from the Philosophy and Education program here and the Philosophy program across the street about our ‘roles’ in the classroom. (Elizabeth Irwin, where I volunteer as a ‘philosophy club facilitator’, is one of eight high schools in the city, including Brooklyn Free, that we are involved with in different capacities).

What is interesting is that the Outreach did not foresee the variety of ways in which the volunteers would or could become involved—and we ourselves are full of questions. While I’m still puzzled about how teaching and learning figure into philosophy, I am confident that the work of the Outreach is successful in delivering questions to high school students, which I see as a ‘bringing’ of philosophy.