Monday, June 21, 2010

Philosophy in Middle School

This summer I've volunteered to do a few lectures for a summer scholar program (in its third year) at my university. The program basically invites to campus a number of local middle school students (7th and 8th grade) who (a) come from disadvantaged backgrounds and (b) have been identified as having solid academic promise. This is the first time I've worked with the program, so I'm starting from the ground up on how to approach the lectures and discussions. I've never worked with students of this age, so I'm looking for any suggestions any of you might have on a few key questions (I list two specific ones below the fold).

The first question concerns the advance reading. I'm slated to give lectures on the topic of authenticity from a philosophical perspective. A cool topic, no doubt, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a suitable short advance reading for students of this age to tackle. Does anyone have any ideas? Really anything will do - it will be pretty easy to construct a good discussion about the key themes on this topic starting from pretty much any advance reading source. I just can't think of any good sources! It doesn't have to be straight philosophy - could be anything, an editorial, a comic book, a short story, it doesn't matter. As long as it sets up the basic issue.

The second question concerns approach. These are 7th and 8th grade students. I've never worked with this age group. How would you approach a philosophical discussion with 7th and 8th graders? I have a 90 minute time slot to play with (I'll be giving the same talk/discussion four times, once with each boy/girl group from the two age groups), so time really isn't an issue (if anything, I might have too much of it!).

Of course, I'd be happy to hear any suggestions or thoughts you might have on those two specific questions, or anything else on the general topic.


  1. The allegory of the cave seems like an obvious choice because you can focus on the narrative.

    When I teach it in high school I stop after the first paragraph (Behold.... a strange sight indeed.) and have them draw the way they imagine the cave on paper with markers. I've never seen 2 illustrations even close to each other (or Plato), and laughing together is a good way to break the ice.

  2. My wife is a middle school counselor, and I once gave a talk to eighth graders at Career Day (what is a professor? what does a philosopher do? and, they're biggest question, how much do you get paid?).

    I gave them a run-down of the classic Ship of Theseus problem and raised questions about what this means for personal identity. I found the students (from a rural school, mix of social and economic classes) to be very engaged and very willing to work through these questions. So I wouldn't be too concerned about whether they'll want to discuss. At least some of them should find the opportunity thrilling, if unfamiliar.

    As for sources, I assume you're aware of Charles Taylor's *The Ethics of Authenticity* but are looking for something pitched in a more familiar format. If they've read *The Catcher in the Rye* that would obviously be a good place to start, with its discussions of phonies. Also, I can't find the article right now but the music critic and essayist Chuck Klosterman has written some very good stuff (if I remember properly) on the idea of musicians "selling out" and whether this is a bad thing. Sorry I can't be more specific, other than to say I remember it being quite good.

  3. Chris,

    First off, congratulations. This sounds like a terrific thing to do. I've thought about exploring such opportunities myself.

    On authenticity: Nothing comes immediately to mind, though I wonder if some of the literary classics to which the students might already have been exposed could be of use. Does Pip have a crisis of authenticity in "Great Expectations"? Bennett's article on Huck Finn can be read in terms of Huck's being torn by questions of authenticity.

    Otherwise, I think a lot of the classic thought experiments go a long way in motivating young people to think philosophically: brains in vats, trolley problem, the experience machine, etc. You might make available to the students or their teacher "The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten" and ask them which of the scenarios in that book strike their fancy.

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  5. I think I'm going to go with M Skinner's suggestion this time around. I'm not sure the Allegory is a perfect fit, but it will do with a little discussion nudging here and there. I like the drawing idea -- I may use it!

    @Tim - I thought a bit about the Ship of Theseus idea, actually. It's a great idea. My only worry was that it's so theoretically minded that it might prove difficult, and perhaps hard to swing back to the topic of authenticity. I'm going to keep this idea in the toolbox, though - I may try it next year (I can switch topics year to year).

    I do know of Taylor's work, but it's too hard as a reading assignment for this age.

    Do you know of any specific sources for Klosterman on selling out? I tried to find something, but didn't have any luck.


    It's a great opportunity to 'give back' a bit to the community, which I think academics should strive to do on occasion. As well, spreading the word about the relevance of philosophy to the general public is never a bad idea!

    I like the Huck Finn idea, actually (I've always found the idea of incontinence leading to right action interesting), but I think I'll save it again for a future lecture in the program. It would require building in an ethics spin, and I was hoping this time to keep it steered away from that (just to keep things simple).

    Of course, if anyone has any ideas how to go about talking to 13 year old kids about philosophy, I'm all ears!

  6. This might be trying a bit hard to be trendy, but going with recent hits is possible.
    In Harry Potter one of the main themes running through the series is the distinction between "full-blooded" wizards, and those of non-wizard background. Obviously that leads into any number of race issues, which I understand to be pretty potent in the USA!
    This might be slightly too old and too girly to have universal appeal, but the Twilight saga has some similar themes, about what it means to be a real vampire/human.
    TV shows can be equally mined. I remember that the Miley Cyrus (?) show involves a teeny popstar pretending not to be a teenie popstar.

    Not sure exactly what take on authenticity you want, nor if you want to risk cultural references that some might not know/you might not know well enough, but pop culture can be a help.

  7. Notes from the Underground and Fear and Trembling are great introductions.

  8. Holy crap, anonymous! In middle school?!


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