Confessions of a Philosophy Student

I only took one philosophy class as an undergrad.  I’m sorry to say it wasn’t a positive experience.  Terribly shy, I worked up my courage to tackle a question aloud in class one day.  My professor asked what the basis for my answer was and I responded, “the laws of physics.”  Apparently that wasn’t a valid basis for an argument.  I didn’t speak again in his class that semester.  I wrote letters to my grandmother weekly during the class. But I read, wrote my papers, and got an A. 

Fifteen or so years later, I received the syllabus for Ethics and Education, a course that’s part of the Klingenstein program at Columbia.  I saw Plato and Seneca.  My heart sank.  I was not excited about revisiting philosophy and potentially repeating my undergrad experience.  My attitude was bad and I was frustrated because I didn’t understand the purpose of these readings in relation to my educational and career goals. 

I faithfully read Plato.  Alcibiades. Meno. Crito. the Apology.  At one point I said I felt like someone had replaced my actual brain with one made of yarn.  I think it was after reading Meno and Crito back to back prior to a my evening law class.  Even though I’m no longer really shy, I like my undergrad self.  I was waiting to say something stupid.  I was surrounded by people with history and classics backgrounds who really seemed to get what we were reading.  I didn’t.  I tried, but I didn’t.  I read. I highlighted.  I reread.  I rewrote Socrates’ arguments in my own words.  It got better.  Apology made sense.   I was able to use Sophocles’ Antigone as an allegory for school leadership in a paper.  

Six weeks into school, it finally clicked.  We’d read a long and (for me) challenging book entitled The Present Alone is Our Happiness.  Each class starts with a question and as I looked through my notes, struggling for a question to answer, I finally found it.  Does being a teacher make me a philosopher?  Yikes!

I wasn’t comfortable with being a philosopher, but all the evidence I could find made me realize that teacher’s must be.  I have specific philosophies about what is right in teaching, what teaching is good, and why teaching should be real-world and hands-on whenever possible.   I struggle each day with questions of whether I am doing my best for each child.  I have conversations about ideas with students. I want to live up to my teaching ideals.  Sometimes I show my students that I don’t know how to do everything, but I try to think through it and figure it out.  That’s really what being a philosopher is, I think.  

So, I’ve been able now to read Montaigne’s Essay on the Education of Children and Dewy’s Moral Principles in Education with a good attitude, realizing that I am connecting each thing I read to my learning goals and that it is up to me to do so.  I’m less worried about saying something stupid and even if I do, that’s okay.  I’m just learning.  

So, what do you think my question?  Does being a teacher make you a philosopher?  

 

 

From “inert ideas” to inquiry and argument

This post is a reflection on and response two this week’s readings for my Program Leadership.  The readings outline the history of attempting to develop a general curriculum as well as some views on what a good education should be.

Readings:

  • “The Aims of Education”   from The Aims of Education and Other Essays by Alfred North Whitehead, 1929
  • Selected chapters from Education for Thinking by Deanna Kuhn, 2008
  • Chapter 3 of Curriculum and Aims by D.F. Walker and J.F. Soltis, 2004

From the Walker and Soltis selection, it is clear that our current disagreement about what constitutes a good education is not a new state of affairs but a longstanding one.  The history of curriculum development also shows a progression away from an idea education is solely about subject-area knowledge, but instead is about the more complex development of intellectual skills.  Also from Walker and Soltis, “Curriculum decisions can be viewed as a continuing dialogue uniting us with our ancestors and posterity.”   We constantly consider what we was important as education in the past and what we think that we can do to best prepare our children for an uncertain future.

All three works, but especially Whitehead and Kuhn, seem to agree that a school focusing on general subject knowledge is the antithesis of one that creates students who are poised to appreciate education, make use of their education, and to continue to learn.   Whitehead states that “Education is the acquisition of the art of utilization of knowledge” and Kuhn indicates that the primary outcome of education should be the skills of inquiry and argument.   Both Whitehead and Kuhn advocate that learning activities must combine skill and knowledge in contexts that ensure students see the usefulness and merit of the activity, feeling neither that it is a pointless intellectual exercise or an introduction of useless facts to be memorized for an exam and then forgotten.

I agree with Kuhn’s statement that “our modern society is changing so fast that we cannot envision how our children will live in the future.  We thus do not know how to prepare them for their adult lives and are able to identify education objectives in only the broadest, most abstract of terms.”   For all the talk of 21st century skills, we are still debating what is really in the best interest of our students and how to accomplish it in our general educational system.  What most fascinates me here is that Whitehead’s essay was published in 1929 and Kuhn’s book in 2008; writing nearly 80 years apart and in different countries, they are espousing the same general view.   Inert facts lead us away from a good education by turning students away from buying in to the benefits of education.   The truly important thing is that they gain skills and qualities that will enable them to learn any subject needed later in life.

I agree whole-heartedly.  What have I used from my education?    Not calculus, though I loved it.  Not American history, though I didn’t love it.  Not physics, though I’m not sure I understood it.  I have forgotten the content of most of these classes, but I have used the ability to learn every day.  I have used the ability to find knowledge and to evaluate its content and validity.  I have used the ability to communicate my ideas to others and to hear and evaluate their ideas against my own.  The career that I had prior to graduate school was one that I had never heard of when I was in high school.  How could my school have prepared me for it?

When I taught AP Computer Science, I was not driven by the idea that my students would learned to write programs in Java or that they would make 5’s on their AP exams.   While Whitehead’s idea of “style” is one I appreciate, and I appreciated a stylish program, I wasn’t teaching them long enough for them to develop it.  I hoped that writing programs in my class taught my students how to learn on their own through trial and error.  I hoped that it taught them patience and persistence.  I hoped that it taught them a type of systematical planning and thinking that is applicable to many areas of life.  I hoped it taught them to solve problems and to take intellectual risks.

What can we do?  Is it time for a new Committee of Ten?  Can we legislate our way out of it?  Is the problem as suggested by Bantock in Walker and Soltis that school stands  “for a abstraction and a purely mental life” and not one that was authentic and participatory?   Is it that pop culture and mass media don’t celebrate the intellectual life?   I don’t have answers and may never have them, but for now, I’m extraordinarily thankful to be thinking about it.

Thinking about the dark

For my first Program Leadership class at Columbia on Monday, I was assigned to read two articles.  The first was “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times” by Maxine Greene, which appeared in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Teaching edited by A. Lieberman and published in 2003.  The second was “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable” by  Mark Edmundson which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 14, 2008. First, I must confess that I’ve been back in school for just under a week after a twelve-year absence.  That said, I learned every day of those years, but very much on my own terms and sometimes quite shallowly.   I’ve mostly read email and skimmed for key ideas and bold words.  How quickly can I find a solution to this printer problem?   I need to read this book because everyone else on Twitter already has so I’ll skim it.    So, when I first read the Greene’s article, it went completely over my head, so I decided to come back to it and moved on to Edmundson.

Edmundson’s article was one I had seen before.   It’s the kind of thing that people send you when you’re the director of technology at an independent school that has a one-to-one tablet PC program.   I read it again.  Slowly.   Edmundson is a professor at UVA and describes his current students as turbocharged; moving constantly and never limiting their possibilities until the last possible moment.   On my first reading years ago, I tossed the article to the side and kept up my own constant movement.  In my head, I heard Edmundson’s voice as one that didn’t see any merit in technology and that seemed to judge his students harshly.  Now, I hear it as a mix of pity, concern, and maybe just a little bit of that judgement that seemed overwhelming in my first reading.  He sees his studies striving to reach goals that were set for them, perhaps without their own consideration.  He sees them over-achieve to their own detriment.  He sees them skimming the surface of many experiences and believes that these are thus inferior experiences.   Edmundson believes that his field, and moreover, the college experience itself, requires that students slow down.  That they learn to value the Socratic education and focus on self-knowledge.   Edmundson writes, “To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the  work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom  where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.”   While I can wholeheartedly agreed with this statement, it’s the final statement that always provokes me.  “…starting this year, no more laptops in my classroom.”

Rant Warning:  I, as a teacher, will be the first to admit that many people cannot pay attention easily.  If they have a laptop, they will do other things that listen, take notes, and think.  Just like I used to read my English homework in math class, they will read CNN or any other number of sites that are not related to the subject at hand.  Just like I used to write notes to my friends during English, they will IM and email.  Just like I used to periodically drift off and daydream, they will play some solitaire.  There’s not much difference in the behavior – just the mode.   That said, I disagree that laptops should be banned.  I also feel that somehow Edmundson is lumping me in with party-hopping, IMing, disrepectful students who don’t know themselves and make poor choices.  I’m not.  I’m a highly-organized introvert who just likes to organize using OneNote.

Later, I returned to Greene’s article and seemed to have had a breakthrough in basic reading comprehension.    Perhaps my brain hasn’t turned to mush after all.

Greene’s article articulates, with considerably more poetry than Edmundson’s, many of the same ideas.   Both stress the need for learners to slow down, to think, to see possibility, and to look into themselves to find meaning.   They both indicate that this individual reflection must be balanced with community, that is, the ideas and experiences of others.   Both warn against complacency and trivial acceptance of “what is.”  In Edmundson’s world, this complacency comes from moving too quickly, from accepting the goals set forth by others, and from avoiding choices that remove possibility.  In Greene’s world this complacency may come from social and economic injustice and from an inability to see beyond current circumstances.  Edmundson’s students need only turn off their iPods to broaden their worlds, but Greene’s must be shown possibility as they may not have been exposed to it yet.

Aside: Perhaps what resonated most with me in Greene’s article was the statement, “There is too much of a temptation otherwise to concentrate on training rather than teaching, to focus on skills for the  work place rather than any “possible happiness” or any real consciousness of self.”  This is always what has scared me about No Child Left Behind.  Might we find that a generation of children are only able to demonstrate rote skills rather than truly think, imagine, and make change.  As one who taught computer programming, it was always important to me that my students learn the problem solving and creativity needed for code than that they learned to write predictable programs  and get high AP scores.

Both authors look to the classroom experience to allow their students to envision, and then pursue, a better life and a better world.  Both see that happening in a “democratic” setting that requires them to work in community to share ideas and experience, but also in individual thinking and reflection.  Both present the teacher as a force of change and as an counter-cultural force, working to fight complacently.   That’s something that Edmundson, Greene, and I can agree on.

Preparation

Now that the decision is made, the preparation must begin.   We’re moving from NC to NY so that I can attend graduate school at Columbia.  We’ve applied for student housing.  We know where we’re going to live in the ~6 weeks between needing to move out of our campus housing in NC and up to our campus housing (we hope) in NY.   But the decisions about what moves with us are upon us.   I’m reminded of TLC’s show Clean Sweep with their Keep, Sell, and Toss signs, only ours are Take to NY, Store in NC, Sell, and Toss.   Some of the “Take to NY” is easy; cat, coffeemaker, laptops.  Some of the “Store in NC” is easy: books, CDs, seldom used dishes.   The rest, I imagine will be harder.  Advice from people who live in small NY apartments appreciated!

 

Launching jessicasepke.com

Welcome to JessicaSepke.com.

My project for January was to “spring clean” my online presence.  I’ve created jessicasepke.com from three existing sites

  • jessica.sepke.net (not updated since 2007)
  • jessicasepke.typepad.com (a blog entitled “tech life balance” that I periodically posted two between 2009 and 2011)
  • jessicasepke.wordpress.com (a blog that I actually completely forgot that I had ever started until I went to create a new wordpress account and realized that I already had one)

Posts from the two blogs appear on this site.  Conference presentations and resource listings from jessicasepke.net have been updated here. I’ve also included new information, links to social media, and a resume.  Outside jessicasepke.com, I’ve updated linkedin and tried to generally find broken links and outdated info and get it fixed or updated.

Take a look around the web, you may have a blog that you didn’t remember starting!