We know that climate and ecological breakdown are eroding the earth’s capacity to support life, imperilling human security more profoundly than anything else in modern times. Systemic environmental collapse is now nothing less than an existential threat. In the words of climatologist Hans Schellnhuber, “We are now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences”.
It seems obvious, in the shadow of the climate and ecological crises, that the environmental, social and political dimensions of climate disruption ought to occupy a central place in primary and secondary school curricula. Yet according to extensive international research, schooling rarely addresses these vital issues with any depth, nuance or rigour. Curricula continue to focus more or less narrowly on employment readiness, even at the cost of neglecting students’ democratic imagination, their competence in public reasoning within local communities, and their capacity to take collective action.
Throughout the recent election campaign, Australians got a close-up view of the caustic effect of marketing and shallow reporting on political communication. Policy articulation was reduced to spin, slogans, and soundbites devoid of complexity and nuance. Journalists outcompeted each other with trivial ‘gotcha’ questions and an obsession with minor gaffes, edging out serious and impartial analysis of policy differences. All sure-fire signs of a political malaise.
“I get the same charge from the juxtaposition of colors as I do from the juxtaposition of chords.”Joni Mitchell
“The creative is always an act of recombination…as making a spark requires two things struck together.” Jane Hirschfield
“…two separate shots … [spliced] together resembles not so much a simple sum of one shot plus another shot as it does a creation.” Sergei Eisenstein
“What we’re trying to do is find two or more shots the juxtaposition of which will give us the idea.” David Mamet
Songwriter, poet, film director, playwright: What they mutually recognise is the creativity inherent in combining disparate elements in novel ways, and the powerful impact this can have on an audience.
My favourite cookbook, Cooking Com Bigode, is both more and less than a standard recipe book. Less, in that it’s low on specificity, with recipes vaguely suggesting “some onions”, “lots of carrots” and “enough water”. But also more, in that you don’t just get recipes: you get patterns. As the author Ankur Shah puts it, “For each recipe the general theory (pattern) is explained and variations are offered.” He calls the process ‘The (culinary) Jazz’. I owe my own cooking skills to this approach: improvising around patterns, learning by trial and error, exercising resourcefulness and creativity with whatever’s in the fridge, rather than shopping for particular ingredients and measuring them precisely.
To activate emotions, to induce perplexity, to challenge intuitions, to ignite controversy, to elicit reasoned argument: these, I’ve argued, are what give a philosophical stimulus its juice. And these are the ambitions that inform my curation of stimuli when I’m designing new workshops. To illustrate, here’s an overview of The Real-Life Truman Show, my high school workshop about therapeutic deception in the context of dementia care.
Throwing a philosophical question out cold to a group of kids in hopes of sparking a lively discussion is as unpromising as igniting a bundle of damp wood. This is where philosophical stimuli come in. Stories and other kinds of stimuli serve as tinder to get things started, and as kindling to keep it all going. A good philosophical stimulus has the virtues, as Peter Worley says, of engaging attention, helping students to grasp otherwise arcane concepts, activating students’ moral agency, and helping them rehearse for life.
Early one summer morning, a young Australian philosophy graduate was awoken by a phone call. It was the eminent professor David Lewis, calling from Princeton University’s philosophy department. “You’ve been admitted to our graduate program,” Lewis said. “Do you have any questions?” Still in the fog of sleep and desperate to think of something to ask, the student blurted out: “How many Australians are in the department?” After an uncomfortably long pause, Lewis replied: ‘Depends how you count Australians.’ This anecdote, recounted by the erstwhile student Alan Hayek, shows that even the most commonplace concepts can turn out to be polyvalent. Especially if you let a philosopher loose on them.
An interview with Violet CoCo . There’s a memorable short video in which philosopher of happiness Dr Caroline West is asked why Western society has become so obsessed with material […]
Ever on the lookout for innovative teaching resources, I jumped at the invitation to preview a sample of The Blob Guide to Children’s Human Rights, a new release in the […]