Duble_herma_of_Socrates_and_Seneca_Antikensammlung_Berlin_07Every age-group has its genius and the genius of the teenager is their love of speculation.  I don’t think this gets enough play in education circles.  Kids love to wonder:  Why are we here?  Who has authority and why? What the hell am I doing in school?  What are we learning?  And while the adult perspective often frames this as impractical, juvenile rebellion, I see it as a hunger for a better cut of meat: Philosophy.

So, here’s a brief summary of how I bring speculative thought into my classroom.

It must have been my second year of teaching when I decided I was bored as hell.  Teaching from a textbook written in the past twenty years is to like trying to live a week eating only Cheetos.  And for the most part all the really good novels–I mean the ones that rock your world–are wholly inappropriate for public institutions. Pretending the book you’re teaching is good, when really you chose it because it’s part of the approved curriculum, can be soul-crushing.

Then I recalled a passage from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the narrator read to his son from famous texts that were well above the kid’s reading level.  Maybe it was a page.  Maybe only a sentence. He read until his son began asking the litany of questions typical of young children.

The value of this activity was two-fold.  First, the kid was being exposed to great thinkers at an early age.  Second, by departing from the text and entering into the meanderings of questions and associations, the kid was learning how to think creatively.  (And I think this is what is missing in classrooms today. Call it a kind of disorderly thinking.  Call it musing.  In my class, we called it marinating.)

So one day I brought out the two texts that I was really into at the time.  I didn’t have any background in teaching philosophy.  I wasn’t credentialed for god sakes.  But it didn’t matter.  These are the books I found that kids loved to read.

 The Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita.  

In terms of mind-blowing capability–depending on the translation–these two texts are hard to surpass.   You get to talk about Karma (which is idiomatically common and  yet widely misunderstood), reincarnation, being, non-being, leadership, action, inaction, and a diverse theism that have nothing to do with the Judeo/Islamic/Christian paradigm.  These texts are usually tied to their history curriculum, so they at least know a little something about the ideologies.  Another bonus is that they are short. Real short.  But nothing is more pleasing than to see a kid spend forty minutes trying to grok twenty words.  Close reading?  There ain’t nothing but. The texts are deceptively simple, filled with strange paradox, and yet so empowering. Try this little ditty from Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

As for the Bhagavad-Gita, I’d stick with the Norton Anthology of World Literature.  There’s some great introductory material at the front end.  Also, the selections of the Gita are well-chosen.

These two texts are great to carry over to books like Walden by Henry David Thoreau or Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.  They can be used in a comparative religions unit.  Hell, they can even be used as a little warm up just to get those philosophical juices flowing.

Discourse on Method/Meditations on a First Philosophy

Okay, totally different skill set here.  The syntax is a little more difficult. The tone is real stiff.  We;re in the world of 17th century metaphysics. As for the hook, all you have to say is:  “This guy proves the existence of God” and the students come alive.

Reading either of these texts (and I’ll suggest reading Discourse first) will be slow going.  Descartes is nothing if not methodical.  But that’s what he’s invented.  Method.  And really, couldn’t we all use a little more method in our lives?  Another benefit is that students will feel after a reading a single page…well… a kind of mental shift.  I don’t know how to describe it, but even reading a single paragraph makes you feel twenty times smarter.   And let me tell you, all kids want to feel smarter.

Spend sometime on this:

But as for all the rest, including light and colours, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and cold and the other qualities that can be known by touch, I think of these in such a confused and obscure way that I don’t even know whether they are true or false, that is, whether my ideas of them are ideas of real things or of non-things. Strictly speaking, only judgments can be true or false; but we can also speak of an idea as ‘false’ in a certain sense – we call it ‘materially false’ – if it represents a non-thing as a thing. For example, my ideas of heat and cold have so little clarity and distinctness that they don’t enable me to know whether cold is merely the absence of heat, or heat is merely the absence of cold, or heat and cold are both real positive qualities, or neither heat nor cold is a real positive quality.

The Letters of Seneca

This is my latest foray into Stoicism.  I have read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Enchiridion of Epictetus with students before.  Stoicism is a flavor of philosophy which really needs no framing.  The express purpose is self-improvement, and that is a departure from the more speculative branches of philosophy.

Just today we were reading the letters and two students independently and at different times during the text gasped.  The text struck them as so profound and true that they exclaimed in class, pointed their finger, nodded their head and smiled.  They got it.  Seneca spoke to their soul.  And all we were doing was reading aloud.

This, above all, is what I consider a win in the classroom.  When people talk about a “spark” of learning, they are talking about this moment where all the experiences and all the learning pops like a bottle rocket in the sky.  When you’re a teenager, this pop is crucial.  CRUCIAL!  It fulfills the promise that there is  joy in learning–a promise often made, but rarely delivered.

For a little follow-up on Stoicism, take a look at Admiral Stockale.  He was a prisoner during the Vietnam war and used Stoic philosophy as a means of survival during his many years of torture.  Check out:


Just in case I have a few naysayers out there thinking their kids aren’t “ready” for philosophy.  Here I’m going to call bullshit.  You think teenagers aren’t what they used to be?  You think there’s a dumbing down of America?  When these guys were working out their theories the vast majority of the world was illiterate.  You want to know what illiterate looks like?  Ask yourself: how many computer languages can most people today program in, on average.  That’s what illiterate looks like.  So believe me, our students are smart enough.

Additionally, sometimes the worst behaved students are the best for philosophy.  Why?  Badly behaved students are most likely to question the legitimacy of social constructs.  They doubt everything–the value of school, the teacher, the society, family–everything.  Giving them a constructive outlet for this skepticism can be very rewarding for you and them.

Just remember:

1) You don’t have to read a lot to get a lot out of it.  Read sections/selections/little passages.  Slowly build your way to longer texts.

2) Do your best to make sense of the material, but if you don’t understand it, fine.  Make discovery part of the discussion.  Read it again and again until you get it.  Linger on the text.

3) These texts have existed for hundreds of years without  you, your state curriculum standards, your principal’s preferences, or your school budget woes.  They existed before there was a Department of Education and will last long after SO LET THE BOOKS DO THE TALKING.  And if you don’t know how to behave in such a scenario, just behave like a student because that’s all you ever were to begin with.


What didn’t work when I tried to teach it:

Kant, Hegel, Derrida, Aristotle (except the Poetics)

What worked when I taught it:

Plato (Dialogues), Marx, Foucault, Barthes


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