Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Philosophy and Education

Upon request, I have compiled my series of posts on Sam Rocha's A Primer for Philosophy & Education into one post.

Without Classification in the Pigeonhole Age (original post 9 December 2013)

Ours is the age of the specialist, and long gone is the day of the educated amateur, the person of letters who who could paint, write, and serve in elected office, who could lead in battle and yet publish in science and compose sonnets.  The vapid dating line, "What's your sign?" has given way to the even more insulting, because it is so limiting, "What's your major?"

For this and other reasons, Samuel Rocha's A Primer for Philosophy & Education will be a challenging read in the current age.  It does not fit nicely within the pigeonhole of an accepted educational theory.  It does not even fit in that most elite and revered of pigeonholes, the one that says we should break free from pigeonholes.  Instead, it weaves its way through a variety of thoughts, poetically meditating on a concept so rich and deep that some may mistake it for something trite and commonplace, but more on that in another post.

This comes as no surprise after his acknowledgment in the preface of his debt to William James.  He observes that James "didn't always write to or for an exclusive field of peers, due in large measure to the fact that he never belonged to a single field in the first place -- he began in anatomy and physiology, moved to psychology, and ended in philosophy with major interests in religion and metaphysics.  Perhaps a better way to think about him is this:  James belonged to a field of study coincidentally, classified by whatever he was working on at the moment, but never limited by or to that classification."  (preface, ii)

This is what the world needs and in fact has always needed.  Fortunately, there do seem to be a few in any given age capable of answering this need.  These are the broadly learned, those driven not by the party line, but by insatiable curiosity and interest in the mysteries of creation.  They are the deep readers who will move from Pope's epitaph for Newton to Newton's scientific writings.  They engage meaningfully in casual conversations on everything from politics to art to literature to theology to sports to finances with reference not just to unconsidered opinion, but to carefully processed articles and books.

Such a person is not interested in jargon for an academic elite.  Such a person is interested most in that shared journey of discovery taken with interlocutors, friends, and students.  Rocha notes of James, "James published mostly works of popular philosophy that began as lectures he presented to audiences of all kinds of people.  He also frequently wrote essays, reviews, and letters to periodicals and popular journals....  [H]e had a deep sensitivity to what I call 'pastoral philosophy' -- an ordinary sense of philosophy that is thoroughly and principally educational."  (preface, ii-iii)

St. Augustine wrote some of the greatest works of Christian theology while engaged in the work of a bishop.  Indeed, it was in response to pressing issues of his day that had practical relevance for his flock that he did his thinking and writing.  In his 1984 speech "Advice to Christian Philosophers," which has since become a famous and foundational text, Alvin Plantinga proposed that Christian philosophers need not be bound by the limits of what their non-Christian peers set for philosophical discussion.  Their work, inasmuch as it was conducted in and for the particular community of those confessing Christ, had a duty to respond to the matters most relevant to that community.

Clearly standing in such a tradition, Rocha has written his slender book with a particular audience in mind, his students.  It is first and foremost a love letter, a paternal (yet never paternalistic) love letter from a paidagogos to his pupils.  Because, like James, Rocha will not be limited to a particular classification and because his approach is one of "pastoral philosophy," fully appreciating what he has to say will require the setting aside of often pet classifications.  Having made it through to the end of his book, I can assure you that it will be worth the effort to do so.

Mastering the Craft (original post 10 December 2013)

There is a sense in the popular imagination that if it is a science, then anyone can do it.  If it is an art or a craft, then it is something only for those so gifted.  This is not entirely a bad way to look at things.  Broadly understood, science is about breaking things down and understanding how their components work, and this understanding applies fairly well from everything like baking a cake to repairing a car engine to launching a rocket into space.  If you lay out the steps along with a parts or ingredients list, I should be able to do the thing.

Of course we know that even in a scientific endeavor, some are simply better at it than others.  When it comes to the truly creative side of the equation, the side that details with intuitive leaps and connections, few of us are Einsteins.  Even Einstein acknowledged that there is a beauty to certain equations, so there is unquestionably an artistic aspect to science.  Similarly, the science of breaking something down so others can do it can be applied in the graphic arts.  Do you remember the paint-by-numbers books as a child?

When it comes to education, the current trend has unquestionably been to see it as a science.  We measure and track growth and use data to make many, if not most, of our decisions.  Workshops present tips and tricks of the trade so that teachers may replicate in their classrooms what others have accomplished.  There is some need of this.  There is a greater need for teachers than can be supplied by the Michelangelos of pedagogy.  We simply must have some people who are trained to draw Tippy the Turtle.

That, however, is not what Samuel Rocha's book A Primer for Philosophy & Education is about.  As he clearly states on page 3,  "[T]he craft of philosophy and education is what we are after."  In other words, he is after the art, not the science.  Because that is what he seeks, he continues, "If the labor and artistry of these intertwined crafts does not interest you, then you should certainly not begin.  Disinterest breeds a lack of seriousness.  Quit for now and go discover something about which you can be serious.  Go paint a house or run a marathon.  Learn and master a different, but equally worthwhile craft."  (p. 4)

This is not harsh, but helpful.  Education is not for those who are uninspired to master the hard work of their craft.  Yes, even masters must train, as Michelangelo did under Ghirlandaio.  There are many reasons to enter the field of education, but not all of them are worthwhile.  Some simply enjoy a subject matter and can think of nothing else to do with a major in it.  Some like to be around children.  There are those who teach until something better comes along.  The increasingly popular balanced calendar has likely weeded out those who wanted a job with three months off in the summer.  Whatever a person's reason for pursuing the craft of education, if it is insufficient to motivate and inspire the necessary work, then it is a poor reason.

Now, this is not so arrogant and high-minded as it may sound.  It is not saying, "If you are found unworthy of us elites, then go forth and do something lesser with your inferior life."  There are many worthwhile crafts.  Be a doctor, a pastor, an attorney.  Pursue business or politics or sports.

This is also not saying that you must be a Michelangelo.  The Tippy-the-Turtle-drawers can be just as committed to mastering their craft.  They may not have the flight of fancy or the stroke of genius that befalls the born artist, but they can be just as diligent in doing the work to develop what talents they do have.  What matters is being inspired and interested enough to do so.

Education -- The Wild and Vast Frontier  (original post 11 December 2013)

Do you remember the 2002 animated film Spirit:  Stallionof the Cimarron?  It did not win best animated film, but it should have.  It tells the story of a mustang who cannot and will not be tamed.  As Roger Ebert rightly observed in his review, the film lacks cutesy animal characters and silly misadventures and therefore is able to tell a compelling tale.  Even adults leaving this film will feel a slight pang as they return to their carefully ordered world, wondering in the depths of their hearts what it would be like to be truly free.

Education has more to do with the wild mustang than the gelding, despite systems that have done everything from whacking students with rulers to moving them along on a conveyor belt every fifty minutes.  Chances are good that is a shocking notion.  If so, be prepared for even more arresting poetry from Samuel Rocha in his book A Primer for Philosophy & Education.

"Education cannot be institutionalized or corralled.  Beautiful teaching requires an explicit, philosophical interest in education -- in the widest sense.  A gifted teacher always sees more to things than the institution or the profession dictates.  Any teacher worthy of the name sees the person.  [E]ducation cannot be domesticated.  [I]t is so wild and vast."  (p. 10)

This is something unlikely to be appreciated on a typical teacher evaluation these days.  There simply is not room for such vision in the spreadsheet columns that track student growth on standardized assessments.  Yet if we can risk the danger of attending to that pang in our hearts, we will know in a way that cannot measured that Rocha is right.

The reason true education is vast and wild and incapable of being corralled (read tied down, measured, and mandated) is that it is about people.  As Rocha observed, the true teacher sees the person.

I made the mistake early in my career of seeing the curriculum first.  A veteran teacher assigned to mentor me at my first school met with me to discuss opening week activities.  I wanted to talk about about how to approach teaching Latin grammar to eighth graders, but she wanted to talk about establishing the classroom environment.  In the brash omniscience of a newly minted undergraduate, I was sure I knew more.  I was wrong, and I discovered that, fortunately, rather quickly.

Because education is a human enterprise (humans leading humans on the journey of discovery), it is not a cut and dried affair.  It requires a great deal of work of an abstract nature, a certain mental gymnastics, if you will.  That will be the focus of the next post in this series, but for now, consider this.  Would you be willing to do the work necessary to become a true teacher if it meant knowing the wild, untamed freedom of true education?

Tools of the Trade (original post 12 December 2013)

In A Primer for Philosophy & Education, Samuel Rocha links two fields of human endeavor that may, to the contemporary mind, have little to do with each other.  We all know what education is, right?  But philosophy, isn't that something for the uber-nerdy?  Don't you have to be some kind of, well, Plato to engage in philosophy?

As its Greek etymology shows, philosophy is nothing more, and nothing less, than the love of wisdom.  Because of this, Rocha encourages us that "Erudition is not necessary for original philosophy.  [Y]ou will not need encyclopedic stores of authors and titles of books you most likely haven't read.  You will need only a clear, curious mind and a heart that is passionate and wild enough to sustain and feed a lively, probing imagination.  (pp. 14, 15)

Thinking philosophically is the heart of the work required to master the craft ofeducation.  You do not need any tools beyond what Rocha has laid out, but allow me to offer a few additional words of advice.

Nurture your own childlike sense of wonder.  I have been engaged in the study of Latin and Classical Studies for thirty years, but I continue to be amazed at a turn of phrase in Ovid or Vergil.  My students ask questions that I have never considered, and suddenly I want to know, too.  A text I have read countless times takes on a new meaning and relevance because I am reading it this day with this group of people as opposed to yesterday with someone else.  Rocha observes, "The ordinary, when attended to closely and with care, is extraordinary all on its own -- and we are educated by it."  (p.16)

Ask provocative questions of your colleagues.  Ask them off-the-wall things.  Don't merely start discussions, provoke them.  See what happens.  I have been blessed to enjoy some of the most thoughtful colleagues where I teach.  I have had scintillating conversations during passing periods, at the copy machine, and in the hall after school with colleagues in the Social Studies, English, Science, and Math departments.

Don't let the details get you down.  I was a good student growing up, and getting my homework done was just a part of who I was.  I had a revelatory moment, though, as a freshman at Indiana University.  I was sitting in Prof. Betty Rose Nagle's class on Cicero and thinking, "I wish this class would end so I could get back to my room and work on an assignment for this class."  The absurdity hit me with a flash.  The assignment was meant to complement the class.  The class was the thing, not the assignment.  I was letting the details get in the way.  Your grading will get done.  Copies will get made for the quiz.  If there is a good, deep, philosophical discussion going on, jump in with both feet.  This is part of the work you must do to develop your craft.

At the end of the day, ask what it is your students really need from you.  Anyone can make cutouts and handouts and PowerPoint presentations.  What do they need that only you can offer?  You must discover this, and it can only be done through philosophical reflection and exploration, which, fortunately, is open to anyone with a curious mind, a passionate heart, and a probing imagination.

This Is That (original post 13 December 2013)

Years ago I had the opportunity of taking Douglas Hofstadter to dinner before he gave the inaugural lecture in an annual series a colleague and I had developed at our high school.  This Pulitzer-winning author who works in cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, and seemingly everything else, spoke on what may have seemed a strange topic for him.  His talk was titled "Is Modern Poetry Complete Rubbish?," and in it he took issue with poets who write in such confused ways and on such esoteric topics that no one reads their work.  In fact, he found the poetry of "Surrey With a Fringe on Top" to be of more value than much contemporary work, which he considered little more than prose with a ragged right margin.  Even in discussing other more heady topics, he had a particular abhorrence for jargon.  In that he reminded me of the character Margrethe Bohr, who in Daniel Frayn's play Copenhagenpersistently asked her husband, Niels, and Werner Heisenberg to put their theories in plain language.

Samuel Rocha knows that plain-language explanations are at the heart of good education and good philosophy.  He writes, "Description is on grand display in the art of kindergarten teaching.  A great kindergarten teacher can describe things to young children in simple, vivid, lively, and clear -- but perfectly ordinary -- ways.  If philosophers could be half as descriptive as an excellent kindergarten teacher, they would become far better philosophers.  At the very least, people might understand them better."  (A Primer for Philosophy & Education, p. 20)

To be sure, there are times when a fifty-cent word is simply the best word for the job, and no dime store variant will do.  Wordsmiths also like tossing around certain words because they are fun to say or we just like the ring of them.  I remember getting quite excited about the words "anfractuous" and "penthemimeral caesura," and it is likely I included them just now because I still take a nerdy glee in them.  The bottom line, though, is that we like jargon because it makes us sound intelligent, which is perfectly understandable, but not really well suited to education.  Unfortunately, because the profession of education has always been held in little esteem, and the situation is only more grave today, those involved in it look to anything to raise the esteem of their profession and themselves.  This often leads us to the embrace of jargon, and even in our attempts to be clear, we more often than not end up trying to eschew obfuscation.

Yet we must remember what we are about, and Rocha points the way.  "This is what philosophy and education set out to do:  to show things as they are, as best they can.  No more and no less."  (p. 20)  Put another way, ours is the business of saying, "This is that."

Such work forms the core of what I do as a Latin teacher.  We 21st century English speakers are studying in the United States an inflected language and its literature from a culture over two millennia and half a world away.  When we try to understand why different noun declensions produce different forms for the same cases, I bring out the analogy of auto manufacturers.  Chevy, Ford, and Dodge all make cars, trucks, and minivans.  All cars do the same basic things, all trucks have the same basic features, and all minivans are essentially the same, but they look different depending on the company that made them.  In the same way, a direct object from one Latin declension ends with -am, but one from another declension ends with -um.  They are both direct objects, but they look different.  This is that.  The same kind of explanation goes on through all our years of study, whether I am comparing a scene from Caesar's war exploits with the movie Boyz 'n' the Hood or the rights of the Catilinarian conspirators with Americans caught in acts of treason.  This is that.

I still enjoy the good, nerdy, fifty-cent word, but I tend to enjoy it more by myself or with certain colleagues and friends.  When it comes to teaching, I am always looking for the simpler and clearer way of saying something.  This is not dumbing anything down.  It is just communicating.  As students and their culture change, this can be an ever-shifting endeavor.  Indeed, Rocha observes, "This restless philosophical and educational project is always a work of art, striving for harmony, attunement, and balance."  (p. 20)  Then again, such striving is part of the great enjoyment of it all.  As poet and professor Timothy Steele titled one of his books, "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing."

Nothing More Than Happy Accidents (original post 16 December 2013)

"First, let's be clear about what philosophy and education do not (italics original) amount to, what they do not offer in return:  philosophy and education do not amount to grades, diplomas, or the byproducts of schooling."  (A Primer on Philosophy & Education, p. 30)

Stop the presses!  If that sentence does not make you slam on the brakes and realize how subversive Samuel Rocha's book is, I don't know what will.  Ask anybody.  Students will tell you education is precisely about grades and diplomas.  Parents and legislators will say that it is all about the byproduct, namely, a job.

Rocha not only takes aim at this ultra-pragmatic view, but observes that it is pervasive throughout our educational system.  "In many colleges and universities, there are students who care more about being on the list of some person they hardly know (the Dean), based on three numbers and decimal point (their grade point average), than they do about anything else related to their studies.  Sadly, these people have been conditioned to feel and act this way in previous schooling institutions and elsewhere, too.  There has never been an infant who cared about grades, awards, or credentials."  (pp. 30, 31)

Whoa, Nelly, again!  Rocha takes us right back to Plato's cave and the poor prisoners who award prizes for correctly guessing at shadows.  One of the most challenging classes I have had the pleasure to teach is Theory of Knowledge, a course required for the International Baccalaureate diploma.  Students in the IB program are at the top of their academic game, but when they hit TOK, they get jarred from their routine of what works.  They know how to make an A in all their other classes.  They know how the system works and how to work the system.  Suddenly they find themselves in a class that asks them to explore how they know what they know.  Their concrete perception of the world gets a bit fuzzy.  I have watched honor roll students struggle with this class because the boundaries were vague and I could not tell them with the precision of their chemistry teacher how to achieve an A.  As a result, I have watched more than one such student unravel.

This is not to say that we should not care about grades at all, and Rocha concedes this.  No one should try to earn a D.  On the other hand, he suggests that "you should not confuse this institutionalized process of grade-getting, school-going, degree-worshipping, and job-seeking with what philosophy and education have to offer you."  (p. 31)  While he admits that these things are not trivial or unimportant, his point is simply that there is something more to the enterprise than just these things, and he uses a powerful analogy to make his point.

"It would be like trying to fall in love and get married in order to pay lower taxes," he writes.  (p. 33)  "[L]ower tax rates simply come as happy accidents.  Likewise, good grades come as happy accidents, too."  (pp. 33-34)

If making the honor roll or landing a job is not the supreme goal of education, what is?  It is that little thing that caused Pontius Pilate to pause in wonder.  Says Rocha, "Read for the truth.  Write and speak to show what seems true.  Ask questions to get at what might be true.  Attend classes to seek the truth.  Do not settle for shallow, impoverished grades and cheap, degrading rewards.  Philosophy and education require courage."  (p. 34)

A Culture of Fear and Distrust (original post 17 December 2013)

Not only is there something much greater in the purpose of education than merely attaining a grade or finding a job, but there is a genuine danger in focusing exclusively on those things.  In his book A Primer for Philosophy & Education, Samuel Rocha points out, "The problem with grades, credentials, and formal schooling in general is that it often generates a culture and mentality of fear, distrust, and paranoia.  Worst of all, it erodes what is truly worthwhile, replacing what is serious with a joke."  (p. 33)

At the 2013 CELLConference, I had the opportunity of hearing Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist from Kansas State University.  After he delivered the keynote talk at lunch, I was eager to attend his breakout session in the afternoon, and it was there that he made a statement similar to that quoted above.  He said, “We don’t live in a culture of trust.  That’s why we’re always assessing and assessing.”

Yes, students do need to be assessed.  It is right that a teacher see what and how well a student has learned.  Yes, teachers and administrators need to be evaluated.  It is fair for an employer to know whether employees are fulfilling the tasks for which they have been hired.

Yet fear and distrust are at the heart of our current obsessive worship at the altar of data.  They both fuel it and are a consequence of it.  We do not trust that people hired to do a job are actually doing it, so we must check up on them.  We fear that someone will blame us because our students have not learned something, so we assess them.  And then we do it again.  And then we report the results to each other and talk about them.  And then we assess again.  And when it is all said and done, we report the final scores to others who can assess whether we have been doing the job for which we were hired, despite that our students have a free will and perform in ways that are influenced by factors beyond our control.  Students walk around with the perfectly reasonable assumption that assessment and grades are the be-all, end-all of education, which leads them to a toxic level of stress equal to that of psychiatric patients of the 1950s.  That toxicity spreads among the faculty who likewise have little choice but to believe that their role in society is actually capable of being measured by instruments better suited in the natural sciences.

But can a teacher or a student truly be evaluated in such ways?  Rocha asks it like this.  “Can one know all the information of a “self” – physical details, family tree, likes and dislikes, and more – and claim to truly know that self?” (p. 37)  This is a central question in philosophy of mind and studies in artificial intelligence.  The classic statement of it is in the form of a thought experiment by Frank Jackson, which runs, in a grossly simplified way, as follows.  Imagine Mary, who has spent her entire life in a black and white room.  She learns everything there is to know about light and how the human eye and brain perceives and interprets light, and therefore color.  There is no aspect of color that she does not know from a physical perspective, but she has never actually seen a color like red.  One day, she is let out of her room and for the first time she sees red.  The question then is whether or not she learns anything new or merely experiences what she already knows in a new way.

There are profound implications for artificial intelligence, and philosophers of mind are lined up on both sides of the answer (Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland would say no, Erwin Schrodinger and David Chalmers would say yes, to name just a few).  It is a question that must be answered within education as well.  If we think that Mary learns no new thing and that she merely experiences old knowledge in a new way, then we are committed to the belief that the physical description of a thing completely defines it.  From this we can confidently assess students and teachers with tools and methods derived from the natural sciences.  If, on the other hand, we believe that Mary does learn something genuinely novel, then we must admit that the complete picture of a thing cannot be had by listing only certain, quantifiable facts.

The fear and distrust that have produced our current obsession with assessment are reasonable given the human condition.  We fear and distrust lots of things.  The fear and distrust that result from our hyper-evaluative culture, however, are the consequence, at least partially, from a conflicted reality.  There is a deep, intuitive sense in us that Mary does learn something genuinely new, but when we are led to believe that this is not so and the complete picture of a person can be had through quantitative assessment, the resultant dissonance becomes a significant contributor to the fear, distrust, and paranoia that grip our culture.

Truth in Love (original post 18 December 2013)

In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encouraged them to speak the truth in love.  We usually, and rightly, see this as a statement on method.  The admonishment to speak the truth in love reminds us that the truth can be spoken in ugliness and hatefulness, but that truth spoken in love is more likely to be received.

There is another sense in which this can be taken, one that recognizes the truth that exists and has its foundation in love, and it is this sense that is operative in the conclusion of Samuel Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy & Education.  After making the distinction between knowing and understanding, Rocha continues by explaining the nature of the difference.  “Understanding is beyond the scope of knowledge because it requires more than knowing, it requires being – being in love.”  (p. 42)

I imagine that for some this will seem a bit of a letdown.  Love is so common, so basic an idea, and we are always on the lookout for the new and exotic.  Coming to the end of the book and finding this may be a little disappointing.  It also does not seem very philosophical.  Isn’t philosophy supposed to be about heady things?  Perhaps he would have done better to have ended the sentence above with “it requires being.”  Ah, yes.  That is suitably abstract.  That has the proper ring of intellectual mystery.

Yet Rocha will have none of that.  His philosophy is no incorporeal, wraithlike proposition.  It is an incarnate thing, and he will not let us off the hook so easily.  He continues, “When we drink from the font of wisdom we are filled with more than wisdom itself:  we acquire understanding. By understanding, we become more than wise philosophers and sage educators.  We become persons; we are personalized.”  (p. 43)

There it is, the heart of this humane enterprise called education.  As I have noted before, the etymology of “education” shows us that it is a work of leading out, presumably, following the illustration of Plato, a leading out of darkness and into light.  “Lead,” however, is a transitive verb, as is ducere in Latin, and it invites us to consider what is its proper direct object.  In the case of education, this can be none other than people, human beings, us.  We are the direct object.  We lead each other on that grand journey of discovery, and what we discover is our humanity.  As Rocha says it, we become persons.  We are personalized.

Whatever else is may be said of us, this much is true.  “Persons fundamentally desire and require love:  to love and be loved.  Without love, there is no understanding.  Without love, there is nothing.”  (p. 43)

This is an idea I have heard before.  When she was inducted into the New Albany High School Hall of Fame, my Latin teacher, Alice Ranck Hettle had this to say.  “It is our responsibility as educators to provide a sound education based on ethical principles.  Innate within every human being is first the desire to be noticed and to be loved, then comes the need to be taught to learn how to learn.  It is the role of the teacher to notice and yes, to love the student so much that he is ready to learn, and in turn develop all of his potential.  What better way for a teen-ager to learn to live honorably and well than to read from the literary masterpieces of Cicero.”

Clearly Rocha and Miss Ranck (the name by which I will always know one of the true inspirations in my professional life) mean more here than kind affection.  This rich, robust love without which nothing exists cannot be described in the few paragraphs of a blog.  Quite likely, it cannot be described with words at all.  It can be glimpsed, and while we cannot embrace so vast and deep an entity, we can be embraced by it and in the true freedom of its limitless space we can come to know, to understand, and finally to be.  For those wrestling with the educational challenges of our day, this should bring profound hope.

“This is where philosophy and education end and life begins:  in love.  This is also where philosophy and education begin anew.”  (p. 44)


  1. "We simply must have some people who are trained to draw Tippy the Turtle." Yes. I remember when I first started teaching, another professor told me to relax- "This first year just stay one class ahead of the students and you'll do fine." I didn't have to be a genius or a virtuoso- I just had to know the material and be able to teach it.

  2. “We don’t live in a culture of trust. That’s why we’re always assessing and assessing.” I have to disagree with this at the margins. I think the US has high levels of trust; but people are very mobile, and our circles of trust go far beyond the traditional physical limits of small communities. So yes, like Marco Polo, to have credentials enhances trust. So to speak.

  3. Very late to this party, but I love Sam Rocha and is one of my earliest "I must follow(s)." This is wonderful. Thanks, Steve.


While I welcome thoughts relevant to discussions of education, comments that are vulgar, insulting, or in any way inappropriate will be deleted.