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Welcome to P4C

Dear Parents,

Welcome to Philosophy for Children (P4C)! We’ve had our first two classes with Lower El, Upper El,. and Middle School. In each of the classes, we had a brief introduction to Philosophy, talked about what it is and its major branches, the derivation of the word, the meaning and value of good arguments and disagreement, and the importance and benefits of participation.

Parents should especially note that, in all classes, we also discussed that Philosophy, like Karate, has an appropriate time and place to use what you learn, and that when, for instance, your mom is telling you to clean up your room or your dad is telling you to settle down in the back seat of the car, this is not the time to practice challenging assumptions or detecting fallacies.

Lower El: In the first class, after the introduction, we jumped right in to our two-year-long book, Pixie, which introduces many philosophical concepts for discussion. These come in all areas of philosophy and life, but at this level there is a focus on Language and Metaphysics. This was seen in the very first paragraph, when Pixie, the narrator, says: “Pixie's not my real name. My real name my father and mother gave me. Pixie's the name I gave myself.” This was puzzling: why would the name given by parents be more real than the one self-chosen. This introduces two pretty big concepts: what do we mean when we use the word “real,” and what is the importance of names?

To begin clarifying their thoughts about the concept of “real,” in the second class we set up four areas of the rug: “looks real and is real,” “looks real but isn’t real,” “doesn’t look real but is real,” and doesn’t look real and isn’t real.” Then each child had a turn to take a randomly selected object from the classroom, put it in one of the areas, explain his/her choice, then hear other students’ thoughts on the placement. The students moved rapidly through increasingly sophisticated ideas. They began with the obvious: if you can touch it, then it’s real. But when they encountered objects such as an artificial flower, a photograph of a person, or a toy car, they quickly realized and stated that “it depends on what aspect of the object you focus on.” For example, the artificial flower is not a real flower, but it is a real artificial flower. When they encountered a model bridge, though, they came up with a new wrinkle: “it depends on your point of view.” That bridge may not be a real bridge to us (though it is a real toy bridge), but to an ant it is a real bridge.

Upper El: At this level, the book is called Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery. Some of you may be able to guess where that name came from. Again, while the book introduces concepts in many areas, the primary focus here is on Logic. There will be two sides of this study this year: learning to reason well and logically, and learning to recognize faulty reasoning, both in ourselves and others. After the introduction, we looked at our first example of a fallacy: ad hominem, which is when you attack a person rather than their argument. After looking at several examples of this, we heard an interview with Cameron Kasky, who survived the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting and was one of the organizers of the "March for Our Lives." When asked about some of the personal attacks he’d received, he said, “When people can't attack your argument because it's too tight, they start attacking you personally. And that's sort of how you know you've won. So when they want to call us crisis actors, that means they looked at our rhetoric and said, oh, no. They're right. What do we do? Let's make something up.” You don’t get a much better explanation of the ad hominem fallacy than that. You'll be hearing more about fallacies and propaganda techniques in the coming weeks.

In the second week we began to look at the other side — how to reason well — by beginning the book, which starts with Harry discovering that categorical statements can’t be reversed (All kittens are cats, but not all cats are kittens.). This is just the beginning, though, and he will soon discover that it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the meantime, we looked at the form of a categorical statement (All A are B.) and practiced making and reversing categorical statements.

Middle School: In the first week, after the intro to Philosophy, we read the first part of the book for that level, Lisa, which deals primarily with ethics. On the first page though, the main character, Lisa, is given a vanity for her birthday, which she hates though she feels compelled to act happy about it, as she interprets it as her parents telling her to make herself beautiful and she doesn’t think she is, introducing some questions of aesthetics. The students were very energized by that topic, so we changed plans and spent the whole second session discussing cultural notions of beauty, how they’ve changed over time, and the pressure the students feel to conform to cultural norms, which led into a discussion of conformity, and how it is often enforced through embarrassment and humiliation.

Most of the students said they would rather be hurt physically than be humiliated, which led to an interesting tangent in which many said that they wouldn’t worry about being humiliated in front of their classmates, as they trusted them to support them and not participate in the humiliation, a pretty wonderful statement about their feelings about the group.

As this was my first (and second) time working with DGS students, I have to say how pleased and excited I was to see their high level of active engagement at all levels, their excitement over ideas, and their enthusiasm, kindness, and consideration for each other. This is a remarkable group of students, not only academically (though certainly that) but also socially. Middle school especially can be, in many schools, a time when students disengage intellectually through fear of standing out, and establish social hierarchies that make them all miserable. But these students were so avid, and so easily expressed their trust in their peers, that it was really quite astonishing. I can’t wait for my next sessions with them.


Matt Berman

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