September 19, 2012
When I joined the faculty of Columbia Secondary School as a curriculum adviser last year, I had no inkling that I would eventually become the school’s high school philosophy teacher. This is an honor and an intellectual treat. I want to share my thoughts about what it means to teach philosophy at the high school level, what sort of curriculum we have, and what I am doing with it.
Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a selective 6–12 public school (currently 6–11) located in Harlem. The principal, Miriam Nightengale, has worked to build a strong curriculum and a lively school culture. The teachers are immensely dedicated, not only to the classroom, but to the school community; as a part-time teacher, I am humbled by their relentlessness and cheer. The students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness in common. All students take philosophy every year.
I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and will be fleshing it out as the year progresses. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. The philosophical texts range from ancient to modern; the 10th-graders, for instance, are currently reading the Book of Job; later in the unit, they will read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” The 11th-graders began with Sophocles and Plato, will soon read Aristophanes’ “The Clouds,” and will end the year with Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Eugene Ionesco.
I work from the conviction that these texts — and the lessons surrounding them — will give students perspective on their own philosophical questions and lives. The first challenge is to make sense of the texts. Often we have to take time with a single sentence, working through it and figuring out what it means. That can bring out surprising insights.
Philosophy is not all logical by any means. Much philosophical writing is poetic and allegorical. It is important for students to hear the cadences of the language; this often helps them find the meaning (and appreciate the beauty of the work). So I often read passages aloud, for their sound and rhythm and for the insights that these bring. I invite students to read aloud as well.
In the 10th-grade course, the Book of Job has posed some unexpected as well as predictable challenges. Many student are familiar with the story, but few have read Job in its entirety. I placed it first in the curriculum because it raises questions that recur throughout the course: Why must people go through extreme suffering? Within this suffering, do they have choices? Is there a proper response to suffering? Is there ultimate justice?
We read and discussed the first three chapters in class; all went swimmingly. Rapt students, fascinating discussions. Then I assigned them chapters 4 through 11 and asked them to explain in writing what Job’s friends are trying to persuade him to do and how he responds.
The following morning, before 8 a.m., student after student came to see me. “Professor Senechal,” a student said (the students call the teachers “professor” at my school), “I didn’t understand the reading at all.” Others came to me with similar reports. But when I received a stack of homework papers, I realized that they had tried to answer the question anyway.
At the start of class, I asked the students where their difficulty lay. Many had trouble figuring out who was speaking at what time. I explained to them that each new speaker is introduced and that a person’s speech might carry on into the next chapter. That cleared up a great deal of confusion. Most students had difficulty with the metaphorical language. I had anticipated that, so I directed their attention to particular verses — for instance, Eliphaz’s words in Job 5:17: “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth, therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.”
As as we read and discussed these passages together, the students themselves figured out their basic meaning. This allowed them to see the pattern of the dialogues; they understood that Job’s friends assumed he must have sinned, whereas Job could not find any wrongdoing in himself. (There’s much more to it, of course.) From there, we were able to discuss the questions underlying the dialogues: Why do Job’s friends assume that he has done something wrong? Are they correct to assume this? If not, what is the exact nature of their error, and what can we learn from it? Is Job in error as well?
At the end of class, I asked how many students now understood the reading better than they had before. Many hands went up. (Not all students had trouble with it initially.) I asked them how the lesson helped them make sense of the text, and they responded that they had learned how to tell who is speaking, what the overall pattern of the story is, and how to work with perplexing passages. One student told me when class was over, “This is good challenge.” Another said, “I just want to thank you for this lesson.”
I do not pretend that my teaching has been perfect or close. I have much to organize and tighten over the next few days and weeks, and this lesson itself had room for improvement. I bring it up because it suggests that precise work with the text can lead to larger ideas and lively discussion. Also, it reminds me to take the time to point out simple and essential matters, such as how to tell who is speaking when.
Is this philosophy curriculum good? It is too soon to tell. I know that aspects of it are. I am excited about the texts; I see the students and parents taking interest in them as well. A curriculum is much more than texts, though; it includes ideas, skills, questions, problems, assignments, and more. I expect to hone it quite a bit — and work with colleagues to coordinate it with the English, history, and mathematics curriculums. There is much more to say about all of this, but there’s good reason to wait. I look forward to continuing this story.
Note: Some comments have been changed to protect students’ identities.