If there is one good thing Covid-19 has taught philosophers, it is that the philosophy lecture course is dead. It was hard enough to engage undergraduate attention for an hour when I was physically in front of them, jumping up and down, singing and dancing, standing on my head. On a computer screen? When they can watch an animated YouTube video on the very same topic instead? Forget it.
We have all known for a very long time that what students of philosophy need to be doing is discussing philosophy, not listening to someone else go on about it with the occasional token audience participation question. The problem is that an ideal discussion is four to eight people, not a classroom-full. But if you divide undergraduates into small groups, their discussions have an uncanny way of veering off into sports, fashion, and weekend plans.
UNLESS, they are running a philosophy discussion for kids.
This was more or less an accidental discovery I made when transitioning from the traditional lecture course to “experiential learning.” I had middle school kids looking for college-student mentors and college students looking for a reason to care about their philosophy class.
Philosophy for Kids, “P4K,” was born. Through the philosophy department at John Carroll University, we run three versions of this program. One version is an experiential learning course in which a class of around twenty-five undergraduates is assigned in pairs to around a hundred high school freshmen, running discussions in small groups for an hour one day per week. In another version of the P4K program, we pay undergraduate interns to visit gifted middle school classes in pairs for one hour per week. A third version is a summer camp in which paid undergraduate interns run philosophical activities (theatre/magazine/debate) three hours per day, five days per week, for one to three weeks per session.
The goal in each version of P4K is to have some authentically inspired philosophy discussions. How do we train our undergraduates for this weighty responsibility? We don’t. Come on – Socrates would have been the first to inform you that you can’t train someone to teach philosophy.
Either you love philosophy or you don’t. Most do love philosophy, because it concerns each of us in such an intimate and intriguing way. If you love it, you have all you need to teach it – or rather, lead a discussion about it. What I tell my undergraduates: just be yourself.
So, if you happen to have a pack of undergraduate philosophy students at your disposal, then what are you waiting for? Call your local middle school (or upper elementary or lower high school) and offer your services. Everybody wins.
Furthermore, P4K is so much fun, you shouldn’t leave it to the undergraduates of the world. If they can get a bunch of adolescents excited about Hegel on three hours of sleep and a pop tart, then so can you.
So grab a handful of kids – relatives, neighbours, or an afterschool club. Then grab a book. If you cannot count on the kids to read between sessions, you’ll want a textbook that gives a variety of philosophical perspectives on a series of topics, such as my Big Thinkers book, mentioned above. You can read the chapters in advance and share snippets with the kids during class. If you have reliable home-readers, you can go with a junior novel and dig out the philosophical themes as you progress through the chapters each week. My junior novels come with guidebooks and discussion questions to get the ball rolling. (See www.rfwp.com/series/royal-fireworks-philosophy-curriculum-by-sharon-kaye).
You will be nervous the first time – over-preparing, writing out a veritable lecture to deliver. I can’t stop you from doing this, so just do it and get it over with. Hopefully, you will realize half-way through your first session that you need to chuck your “lesson plan” and start paying attention. These kids have a whole lot to teach you.
Sure, you will need to get them back on track from time to time. Next discussion question please! Sometimes the kids are shy at first. In that case, you may try a gimmick, such as puppets, play-dough, or word art. You can also expect days that just don’t click. But for the most part, you will be off and running, lighting up with insight and affection, before you know what happened. I don’t really understand it myself. All I know is that I see it happening year after year in P4K. Setting aside the inevitable handful who aren’t prepared for any kind of college learning, much less experiential, our undergraduates learn just as much, if not more, from P4K than do their charges. Our undergraduates regularly tell us that P4K was the highlight of their semester, their year, or their degree.
Enough by way of advertisement. There is absolutely nothing I can say that you can’t find out for yourself. In fact, for me to say any more about the wonders that await you would be to contradict my own experiential methodology! So, instead, let me just give you a story for a stand-alone session that you could use as a one-shot deal next time you are stuck with a bunch of kids who need a break from playing video games. (Mixed ages are fine—often even better than same age.) The story is based on an extraordinary thought experiment by the great twentieth-century British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (“Causality and Determination,” 1971).
The Random Candyizer
The yearly science fair is approaching. You’ve come up with the best idea ever for it. You constructed a box out of clear acrylic sheets. The box is full to the brim with tiny spherical cupcake sprinkles, all the colours of the rainbow, along with two hundred Tootsie Rolls. You attached the box to motorized rotisserie spit that slowly rotates the box. As the box goes around, the candies shift and mix.
Your goal is to demonstrate statistical law. You are fascinated with statistical law because it shows that random events aren’t really random. Apparently random events becomes predictable when measured enough times in a big enough group.
For example, no one knows when or where the next fatal car accident will happen. (If we did, it would never happen because we would prevent it!) Fatal car accidents seem like such random events. Yet we can predict with shocking accuracy how many fatal car accidents there will be in a given country in a given year. The bigger the region, the longer the time, the easier it is to see the pattern.
Your candy box is set to pause for one minute every ten minutes. While it is stopped, a computer scanner counts how many tootsie rolls are visible through the front side. It keeps a running record of the “random” numbers, demonstrating that the “Tootsie Roll Showing” is highly predictable after all.
The first time your candy machine pauses for scanning, you notice something very odd in the corner on the back side. Some red sprinkles have collected in one corner, spelling the word “Coca-Cola.” What are the chances of that?! – you exclaim to yourself. But at the same time, you notice there are plenty of other interesting accidental patterns as well. Looking at the box is like looking at a sky full of clouds shaped like dragons and elephants and ice cream cones. So, you shrug it off.
The next time the box pauses, your hair stands on end when you see the word “Coca-Cola” spelled out again. This time it is made of blue sprinkles in a different font, on a different side. You take a picture, swallow, and wait for the next pause.
Sure enough, every time the box pauses you find the word “Coca-Cola” spelled out somewhere, somehow on a side of the box. It is always a different colour and size, but it is always there.
You show your pictures to your science teacher. She accuses you of faking the results – either by altering the pictures or by deliberately arranging the sprinkles. She says particles randomly mixed cannot produce a meaningful pattern. This would defy the law of statistics.
You figure someone must be messing with you. You continue to observe the box and the Coca-Cola patterns continue all day. You keep taking pictures.
You show the pictures to your friend, Paul. He disagrees with your teacher. If the Tootsie Rolls can show through the front side in a predictable manner in accordance with statistical law, then the Coca-Cola pattern can appear in a predictable manner in accordance with statistical law as well. Paul insists that it is not impossible for this to happen all by itself, without a cause.
“This is how it is for us humans,” Paul says. “We’re big boxes of full of shifting molecules that produce words at predicable intervals.”
1. Determinism is the view that all events, including human actions, are caused by prior events so that there is no such thing as free will. Paul is a determinist. Are you a determinist? Why or why not?
2. “Coca-Cola” is a word. Words are supposed to have meaning. But does a word have meaning if it happens all by itself? Give your own example of a time when you saw a word that happened all by itself. What is needed to give a word meaning?
3. Free will is the alleged power to act of your own accord. Do you believe you have free will? How would you prove it? Would doing something unpredictable prove you had free will? How is an act of free will the same or different from a random event?
4. Do you think Paul is making the box spell “Coca-Cola”? Why and how would he do that? If he is, do you think it is morally wrong of him? Why or why not?
5. Do you think God could be making the box spell “Coca-Cola”? Is God able to make random things happen? But if God causes something, then he must have a reason, and then the event is not random after all. Or is it? Defend your view.
6. Do random events need to be caused by nothing or is it enough that they seem to be caused by nothing because we cannot see the cause? What would it mean to be caused by nothing? Give an example of your own.
Objections and replies
The salient objection to P4K, which I hear my own past-self voicing LOUDLY in my ear from time to time is that it is not as rigorous as a lecture course. Well, touché. As someone who used to give lovingly and elaborately constructed lecture courses, I will readily admit that P4K sacrifices academic rigor in three ways.
First of all, there are the inevitable scheduling setbacks, technical difficulties, and “people problems” involved in any group undertaking. We tell our undergraduates up front that P4K is full of surprises which require spontaneous problem-solving skills. This is part of what they are learning, you see. Though there is nothing academic about figuring out how to redirect a middle-schooler who insists on making fart jokes, I believe that it may in the end be more valuable.
The second objection to P4K is that it doesn’t go as deep into philosophy as a lecture could. In the experiential course, I ask the undergraduates to give PowerPoint presentations to each other in small groups on a chosen author. This makes them “expert” on that author when they go into the discussion with the kids that week. I can tell you from grading these PowerPoints that that they do not rival the PowerPoints I so carefully crafted for my brilliant lectures back in the day! My consolation is that, instead of passively absorbing my creative process, they are actively engaged in a creative process themselves. The small-group audience members are required to supply the presenter with objections to the central argument, thereby keeping them active as well.
The third objection to P4K is that undergraduate teachers might actually teach something wrong. Since I do not hover over their discussions (killing their fledgling efforts with my eagle-eyed gaze), I can’t guarantee the content of what they are teaching. It is altogether possible that a well-meaning undergraduate, misreading the book, might inform his discussion group that David Hume was an idealist. (Feel free to shudder in horror here!)
While the thought of such an error once offended my PhDed soul to the core, I got over it. In the age of information, where fantastic resources on philosophy are at everyone’s fingertips 24-7, it won’t hurt anyone to get a name, a date, a label, a definition, or a distinction wrong from time to time. Besides, what they are teaching in the elementary schools these days is really true: we learn from our mistakes. In P4K, we send our undergraduates out in pairs so they can help each other – this means correcting each other when necessary. I challenge the middle-schoolers in my own discussion group to correct me (and they do).
In short, academic rigour is important, but it is not as important as thinking critically, dreaming big, and laughing together about the strangeness of life on this precarious planet, which is still so full of promising possibilities.