Tuesday, June 08, 2010
The (Elementary) School of Athens; or A Crash Course in Philosophy
School of Athens image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
So I am teaching a mosaics class at an area summer camp this week. Once my second and third grade students were settled in on their projects, the following conversation ensued:
Student 1: “I haven’t been able to listen to my own CDs in a long time. My mom has been making me listen to hers. They’re in French.”
Student 2: “French?”
Student 1: “Yep, my mom is from France.”
Student2: “We’re going to France this summer! My Dad is speaking at a conference.”
Me: “That sounds like fun. What does your dad do?”
Student 2: “He’s a philosophy professor at Renowned Local University. He doesn’t like it at all, though. He says the President needs to get a backbone. He speaks at lots of conferences because what he really wants is a new job.”
Student 1: “What’s philosophy?”
Student 2: “Let me give you an example: your brain gets switched with someone else. So your brain is in somebody else’s body, and their brain is in yours. Which kid does your mom want? The one that looks like you, or the one with your brain?”
Student 1: “The one with my brain, of course. That’s really me. “
Student 3: “OH MY GOODNESS! When did this happen?”
Me: “It has NEVER happened. That’s why it’s philosophy. Philosophers think a lot about “what if” and try decide what is right to do if different things ever happened.
Student 1: “I could sing a song from the French CD. But I’ll tell you about it first. The girl is looking for true love, but she can’t find it anywhere, except on the internet.”
Student 2: (jockeying to regain the attention) “Let me tell you something else about philosophy. We don’t have any beliefs.”
Student 1: (with concern) “No beliefs? What do you mean?
Student 2: (airily) “Oh, you know, we don’t believe in anything silly, like God, or anything like that.”
All Remaining Students: (gasp in unison , cover mouths) “You don’t believe in God?”
Student2: “Of course not. If there were God, we wouldn’t have had nine…umm…nine—When the war started.”
Me: “Nine Eleven. September 11.”
Student 2: “Yes! When was that?”
Student 4: “That’s my birthday. I was one.”
Student 1: (with relief)“Oh, if that’s the only reason you don’t believe in God, I can tell you tell you not to worry. It was just people who did that.”
Student 2: (friendly, yet matter of fact tone) “It was about religion. I don’t believe in religion. I don’t believe in anything. Well, anything but the Big Bang.”
Student 1 “The Big Bang?”
Student 2: “It’s how we got here. We started as chimpanzees, you know.”
Students 1, 3, and 4 (in gasping asides) “Chimpanzees? Chimpanzees! Chimpanzees?
The students continue to murmur thing like, How could this be? Oh my goodness.
Student 1 (brightening): “Oh wait a minute! WAIT A MINUTE! I saw a movie at church about people like you! You probably won’t believe no matter what I say!”
Me: “Weeeell, it sounds like we have some different opinions here today. Student 2, I respect your thoughts. This is America, you know. I can respect your beliefs, even though they are different than mine.”
Student 1: (mouths, with sidelong glance in my direction) “You believe in God, don’t you?”
Me: (conspiratorial nod in her direction)
Student 1: “That’s what I thought.”
I learn that she goes to a church similar to mine, and tell her so. The remaining students continue to grill the philosopher.
Me: (over an undercurrent of questioning) “You know what I think? Too much philosophy this early in the morning can give us all a headache.”
Student 2, clearly loving the attention, continues to be peppered with murmured utterances such as, “You really don’t believe in ANYTHING?” My attention is diverted by the Camp Director’s entrance in the room. Adult pleasantries commence, but are quickly interrupted by a voice, perhaps student 3 or 4, addressing the Camp Director with urgency. “Is Santa real??” she demands, in apparent response to a group inventory about what entities in which one should believe .
The Director doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s debatable,” she said.
Student 4: (looks to me for confirmation)
Me: “Did you ever see Miracle on 34th Street?”
Student 4 (nods , solemnly)
Me: (with an air of finality)“”Then you know how much there is to debate about that.”
The students, having already decided where they stood on spiritual matters, turned back to piecing together their mosaics and began assembling their personal philosophies about the “what ifs” of Santa’s existence. The French song was never sung.