Fiddling While Rome Learns
Philosophy As Wonder, Curiosity, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
By Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
Here at Memorial Lutheran School we teach Logic as well as Speech and Debate during the middle school or “logic years.” We inspire our students to love wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth, and beauty. These topics all converge in a subject usually reserved for college students: philosophy. However, philosophy certainly has a place in middle school and high school because of the connections between inquiry and wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth and beauty. Philosophy has traditionally been divided into various academic fields. Let’s explore how each field can find its place in the classroom.
The inquiry of metaphysics and ontology inspires us to be curious about the questions “what is real?” and “what is the nature of reality?” Many of us take this for granted. For example, I assume the laptop on which I am typing this article, right now, is a real entity. I can “feel” it and “see” it. Yet, if I assume it is real merely because my senses notice it, then how am I sure I am not hallucinating? Rene Descartes in particular went so far as to doubt everything but concluded that at least he must exist, since he was thinking. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am” is his popular contribution to thought. Was he right? In exploring questions of being and reality, we can respond to this with a critique as well. Asking our students “why?” gets them to think. I often tell students I am the “why guy.”
The inquiry of epistemology inspires us to wonder about the question “how do we know?” For example, we take for granted that atoms exist. Have you ever seen an atom? We take for granted that Hawaii exists, or that George Washington existed. How do we know that all this is not some grand conspiracy? Of course, that would be pretty over-the-top; but, at the very least it raises the question. Can we have true knowledge simply because someone else has told us? Philosophers ask the question of how knowledge is justified and warranted. Can I have true knowledge if there is a possibility I could be wrong? Or does this knowledge have to be infallible to be real and true? The nature of knowledge is even a topic that some Christian philosophers have sought to address. They usually point to Colossians 2:3, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Yet of course I would ask them if this passage is really talking of Christ in the sense of epistemology. The Bible is sufficient for knowledge of salvation. But is it sufficient for the rules of chess or a flight operator’s manual, etc.? The question of “how do we know” brings students and teacher alike to curiosity and wonder together.
The inquiry of aesthetics asks “what is beautiful?” You have heard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is this really true? Does not God have an ultimate standard of Beauty? The philosopher Plato responded to this question with his theory of the forms. Everything is a lesser copy of an ultimate Form, insofar as there are therefore different degrees of “beauty,” with ultimate “beauty” being the “perfect form of beauty.” For Plato, “ugliness” is therefore not a “thing,” but simply a lack of the “form of beauty” on this “chain of being” or a lower rung of the ladder. When discussing “beauty” then philosophy permits us to move beyond opinion and into a substantial discussion with the ancients.
The inquiry of ethics asks the question “what is good”? It also therefore deals with the inverse, what constitutes evil. What are the virtues? What are the vices? Aristotle believed everything could be thought of in terms of excess or deficiency. The in-between, or the “Golden Mean” is how one can find the “good” or the “virtues.” This branch of ethics is called “virtue ethics.” For example in Aristotle’s system, the virtue of “courage” has an excess of “foolhardiness” and a deficiency of “cowardice.” No one would say a man that rushes into battle without weapons or planning is “courageous.” Nor would one say that a man who runs away from battle is “courageous.” But a man who plans and receives counsel and training and weapons before running into battle would be considered courageous. How philosophy intersects with ethics provides for ample discussion on the question of what is “good.”
The field of logic is the study of proper argumentation and how to apply those arguments. What is an “argument”? A formal argument has premises and a conclusion. An informal argument will not be as “polished” as this, but will be an assertion backed up with evidence. We all make arguments every day. Even something as simple as this assertion, “mom, we need to get gas for the car because the needle is on empty,” is an argument. The mother in this example could respond with a counter-argument by saying “no we don’t because the needle is broken.” The son or daughter could respond in turn with another counter-argument in saying “but daddy had the needle fixed so we really do need gas”, etc., until one side finally concedes. Here at Memorial we enjoy this especially in Logic class and in Speech and Debate. Of course, we teach our students to argue respectfully and logically.
There are other fields of study as well, such as cosmology and cosmogony which have to do with the nature and origin of the universe. Here at Memorial we have what we would call a “Christian cosmology” and even a “Lutheran cosmology” in that we affirm that everything in this universe is ultimately about the Cross of Jesus Christ as the center point of all of history.
Philosophy has a significant place in the classroom at a classical Lutheran school. Here at Memorial, it is taught in ways that inspire love of wisdom, and of wonder and curiosity. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are found in Christ and in His Word and in His creation. He is true Wisdom. Equipped with this Wisdom by faith, our faculty and students stand ready to venture into areas of philosophy inclined to wonder as they think and live in the world.
A good education is one that leaves its student grateful. How many times can you remember having a teacher that brought you to feel nothing other than gratefulness for what you had learned?
I imagine that in the perfect world, every school would consist of only teachers that brought students to be this way. But a good school is a place with more than just a few good teachers. I think that a good school is one that strives to ask and answer, “how do we work systematically to create grateful students?”
I think about teaching for gratefulness from the perspective of teaching History. How would a good school teach History systematically (from kindergarten to high school) so that it leaves its students feeling grateful by the end?
It seems to me as though the system must work in a progressive fashion.
I think the progression goes something like this. There is no one on this earth more prone to wonder than young children. For this reason, young children are most well-equipped to wonder at the wisdom of people like king Solomon and Odysseus, the courage of people like Regulus and George Washington, and the faith of people like Abraham and Perpetua. Despite this natural advantage of young children, many schools today seem to replace rich stories such as these—in the name of practicality—with the immediate and the tangible, with questions like what is a mailman and how is my family different than a family in Asia. If you don’t believe me, go look at a social studies book.
After this initial phase of telling rich stories of the past, it would seem fitting to give students a sense of order for these stories. This would enable them to place the stories in the context of the great and glorious civilizations that rose and fell before the one we live in today. I work to accomplish this mostly in middle school, through a four-year cycle that goes from ancient history to the 20th Century. Students in middle school are ready to begin grappling with the larger picture. Yet the story of western civilization has been replaced by many today with world history and stories of great western oppression—how land was stolen from natives, how masses of people were enslaved by the colonists, how women overcame subjection and earned the right to vote, and how we have all become much better than we ever were through the civil rights movement. While many people who came before us seemed grateful to observe that we stand on the shoulders of giants, this switcheroo in curriculum has been most efficient at bringing us to resent those very shoulders.
Once students have seen the big picture, it becomes fitting—if our goal is to foster gratefulness—to bring students to appreciate the actual words and thoughts of the people who were heroes and villains inside the stories and civilizations they learned about in their youth. Primary sources. This period of study—call it early high school—includes a richer and more challenging body of texts. But it is Pericles' Funeral Oration that comes brings us closer to the experience that was the Peloponnesian War; it is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that brings us closer to the experience that was the American Revolution. After the middle years, students reach a point where they are able to read and understand texts and ideas that are deeper and more complex than the secondary sources they learned from in grade school.
Despite this human development, many places forgo this opportune time to study primary sources with courses like (I know of at least one in our area) “Defining Moments in Political History.” In this, students are tasked with acquiring a more in-depth “philosophical” look at systemic oppression. The end of this is, of course, to become "woke"—to see one’s self as not only better than those in the past but also those in the present who fail to see what one has learned to see. On the other end of the spectrum, there are AP classes that are offered to teach the history 500 years in 2 hours, in order to make students feel like have mastered complicated subjects well enough to skip them in college.
Finally, I have come to believe that a good school goes even one step further than teaching primary sources. It is not enough to let students expect that as English-speaking Americans, everyone and everything must make itself digestible to them. Greek, Latin, German, French… any language that is useful for digging into many of the primary sources that were read at an earlier stage of education. It is an act of humility and respect to take the time to learn the language of another, in order to understand a person in his language. How cool is it to think that you can have the very same thought in the very same language cross your mind as the thought that crossed the mind of an ancient Greek or an ancient Roman 2000 years ago—not to mention the vocabulary that these languages build us up to understand. I cannot put into words how grateful I am that I have a job where I get to read real Latin literature with my 8th graders, where we get to laugh at Roman jokes in the language of the Romans. While all students can grow to to appreciate the past at this level, this is about the time in education when—for many—the main focus becomes getting a job and blaming the educational institutions that one came from as places that taught them nothing practical.
A Principle of Classical Pedagogy: Wonder and Curiosity
By Mr. Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
Folks who are somewhat familiar with the principles of the pedagogy of classical education are probably familiar with concepts such as the Trivium, educating in stages, the Romans and the Greeks and their contributions, a focus on hard copy books, a focus on worldview, and similar ideas. But as classical educators, one of the things we desire to inspire is a sense of wonder and a sense of curiosity. The Romans and the Greeks both desired to know the “why” and the “how” of things. They continued to explore, allowing nothing to hinder them or to stop them. It was in this endeavor that they continued to enjoy the freedom of this unhindered exploration.
As teachers, our desire is to inspire our students. One of the ways a student will become inspired is if he or she sees the enthusiasm of learning in us the teachers. There should never come a time when we think we are finished exploring. There should never come a time when we should think that we have “arrived,” as it were. In fact, even after Christ returns, we will still be exploring. We will be learning constantly and continually about our God, who is infinite. We will never be able to exhaust the fullness of Him, or of His creation, or of the richness of the forgiveness of our sins that He wrought for us on the Cross, which He delivers to us in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and in His Holy Supper.
An excellent example of the importance of never having arrived in our exploration, wonder, and curiosity is discussed in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. The book discusses the concept of “westering.” Westering is the concept of the European explorers always discovering and moving westward. At the end of the book, the main character, a young boy named Jody, enjoys hearing his grandfather tell tales of his own crossing of the Great Plains. However, Jody’s father is cold and dry, and just wants to keep things at a surface level. So, Jody’s father is uninterested in hearing his father-in-law’s stories. Finally, and sadly, the grandfather just “gives up,” admitting that his explorations are over. Yet, he remembers that the whole process of westering was the wonder and the curiosity, and when he found the mountains, the discovery was just as glorious as the westering itself.
But, then he says that when they arrived at the sea, their explorations were just “done.” We are furthermore told that this made Jody sad as well—and rightfully so. The grandfather notes that “ Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn't a hunger any more. It's all done,” (Steinbeck, The Red Pony, 94).
We live in a day and age where wonder and curiosity have died out. It is not often found in people. Our fast-paced, fast-food, microwave, technological society wants us to refuse to slow down and contemplate. It wants everything to be quick. Author Ray Bradbury predicted a time, in his iconic work Fahrenheit 451, when slowing down and thinking and wondering in curiosity would be lost. We have reached that time in technological America. Instead of using technology as a tool, we have become dependent upon it. The joy of reading, contemplating, thinking, and discovering has been lost.
We think we have arrived at the ocean.
But like Jody correctly noted in Steinbeck’s novel, if we have arrived at the ocean, we can grab our boats.
Here at Memorial Lutheran School, we desire to inspire that continued wonder and curiosity of unhindered exploration. There may be an ocean in the way, but as the Stoic philosophers said, “The obstacle is the way.”
Will the ocean stop you?