Monthly Archives: September 2006

Re-opening the Discussion (part 5 of ?)

Alterego said…Luís,I compare Philosophy with History because I think that both are equally important components of a “liberal education.” I have never seen anyone debate whether History should be mandatory in High School. I do not see why things should be different with Philosophy.

High School in Brazil is not like in other countries where the student gets to choose which subjects to take. Every component is mandatory for everyone. Of course the discussion between mandatory vs. electives is a good one. So what I’m celebrating is not so much that Philosophy has become mandatory, but that it has been admitted into the High School curriculum, with the same status as History or Math. It’s simply the joy of going from sleeping on a mattress in someone’s basement to having a place of one’s own.

Not that this all of a sudden solves all the problems of the world, or of Brazil. But it is a small victory, an accomplishment. What’s the harm in celebrating? Even though this isn’t much, getting excited about it gives me energy to work on what is still lacking, which is quite a lot. Maybe I’m the only person who thinks this is cool, and I really understand those who do not share my optimism. Even the paralysis of the pessimists I can understand. Now to spend energy preaching active anti-optimism is something I really can’t see the use of.

Necessary vs. “helps a lot”

If instead of History or Philosophy I had said that literacy is necessary for the active exercise of one’s citizenship, perhaps my argument would have been clearer.

Of course someone could still say that “many illiterate people exercise their citizenship well, that they change reality, that they make History.”

If this is a proof that literacy is not necessary for active participation in society, the fact still remains that not knowing how to read or write makes such participation much harder. One could thus say that literacy is, if not necessary, then at least extremely useful for exercising one’s citizenship. But I still prefer to round it up and say that it is necessary, period. It gives it a more dramatic rhetorical flourish.

But what is this “active exercise of one’s citizenship” business, and what does philosophy, literacy or education have to do with it?

In the preface to “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Hume uses the Aristotelian definition of “human being” as “rational social animal” to say that if one of these three aspects (animal, rational, social) gets too much or too little attention, then the person is not fully living his/her potential. For instance, if the social aspect is so dominating that one has no time to philosophise, one to eat or sleep properly, then there is an imbalance. On the other hand, if philosophy ties us to the armchair and we forget the animal or the social side, then we also have an imbalance. Likewise, if we only eat and sleep, and neither study or have relationships, another imbalance.

Maybe Aristotle was wrong when he said that man is a political animal. Or Plato, when he said that the difference between the individual and the state are merely one of scale. But these questions are in themselves philosophical.

That’s not all. To decide to become apolitical is in itself a political decision. Any discussion of this nature is a political discussion, and also a philosophical one. And I think it is just the kind of discussion a high school student can and should engage in. And why not encourage them, give them some theoretical tools? I don’t think it’s only philosophy teachers who gain. Everyone gains. It’s a win-win situation.

End for now. But it doesn’t end here. What do you think about all this?

What do you think: does philosophy have anything to do with citizenship, or not?

Is it necessary, sufficient, useful at all, not at all?

Teaching being the way it is, are we better off without it?

Your opinion is super important!


Re-opening the discussion (Part 4 of 5)

LM disse…

Ester, thank you for a prompt reply.I still disagree with you in some points, and have difficulties understanding others.

First of all, I’m not sure your analogy helps – I’ll go back to it at the end. I’ll start with the points you hightlighted, saying what I think of each of them, which of them worried me in my original post.

1) Is History that is necessary, or the knowledge of History?
I have no doubts that, if any of these is necessary, it is the knowledge of History. You are right to say that without History there is no knowledge of History. But you are wrong in saying that without knowledge of History there is no History.
We obviously do not know all the details of the History – I don’t know – of the Mayans, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The broader point is obvious: the knowledge of X implies (or presupposes) the existence of X, but the existence of X does not imply (or presupposes) the knowledge of X (unless you defend some radical kind of idealism, according to which everything exists exists as ideas in the mind of God).

2) All of History, or just a part? And if just a part, which?
You say that every knowledge of History contributes, and that every part contributes a bit. Why do you think that? I do not see any evidence to support this causal relation, and a lot of what you say in answer to (3) seems to create difficulties.

3) Necessity vs. sufficiency of the teaching of History
Yes, it is good to establish the discussion on these terms. But I was not mixing the two when I said what I said – what I wanted was precisely to show the abyss between necessity and sufficiency.

So we agree (provisionally): the knowledge of History is necessary, but not sufficient to the active exercise of one’s citizenship.

The first anti-optimism point is precisely that what the law proposes to do is, once again, to give us a knowledge that is necessary, but not sufficient. This seems to go back to the situation you criticise all the time on your blog: a theory that does not generate any practice. You could even say that we will have a lot of students who know how to exercise their citizenship, but with no motivation for doing so. In this case, what’s the gain?

I had understood your brother’s cynical remark this way: life outside of school teaches us more practice (and sometimes theory) than school. If things are so, why celebrate?

But the bigger point, which is my complaint in question (2) above, is precisely about whether the knowledge of History is in fact necessary for the active exercise of one’s citizenship. And precisely on this point you vacillate: you agree that many people who know nothing of History exercise their citizenship well. Well then, is History necessary for citizenship or is it not?

You conclude saying, much more modestly, that “it helps a lot”, and that seems to me too little. Would “helping a lot” be good enough reason to make it a mandatory subject? I mean, if the main argument for passing the policy was that Philosophy (or a part of it) was necessary for actively exercising one’s citizenship, it seems that your current acknowledgement that it only “helps a lot” (and maybe less than a bus ride) undermines any credibility for the new policy. And any grounds for optimism.

4) Why be optimistic?
In the end, you defend very shallow ground for your optimism: you say that there are two benefits in including History in the elementary curriculum: to make this knowledge more accessible and to bring more value to the profession.

I understand well your second reason, and find it a virtuous type of selfishness. More than that, I agree with you: it is good to bring value to my profession.

But I see two problems here. The first has to do with what you yourself acknowledge after – the lack of qualified teachers. Philosophy being taught the way it is, I would prefer it if it were not taught at all. The textbooks are bad, the teachers also seem to be. In this case, I think this measure is a disservice to the profession (see comment above which refers to philosophy as “nap class”). In short, I agree with you goal (we should value our profession), but I’m very suspicious of the means to achieve it (make it mandatory in high school).

The second problem has to do with how provincial your defence is. It is good for History teachers that History should become mandatory, but what about the students?
As for your other reason for optimism, to make knowledge more accessible, I agree that this is good. But this is miles away from the initial policy proposal, and of your initial optimism. To make certain types of knowledge more accessible is good, but not because the knowledge itself is good, but simply because it is good for students to have access to a greater variety of knowledge, so that they can choose one to which dedicate themselves. According to this line of argument, the greater the diversity of types of knowledge we offer, the better – but this is compatible with philosophy (and other subjects like Russian Literature and Calculus) being electives, not mandatory subjects. If it were for me to defend any thesis, I would defend this one.

5) The History/Philosophy analogy
I didn’t get the reason for your analogy. Everything would be clear if you had said Philosophy instead of History. Furthermore, given the widely divergent nature of the two subjects, it would be possible, for instance, that we had very disparate conclusions: for instance, one of these two might be necessary to the active exercise of one’s citizenship, while the other might not.

In my view, it is not clear that any of the two be necessary (or sufficient) to the exercise of one’s citizenship, therefore the analogy was harmless, but also useless.

But a detail caught my attention. In the middle of things somewhere,when talking of the practical advantages of the knowledge of History, you change subjects: instead of saying how the knowledge of History influences the exercise of one’s citizenship, you speak about how it can make someone enter History. This seems interesting – I mean, you seem to take it as History’s natural vocation that of producing historical agents. The natural thing then would be to think that philosophy makes philosophers, not citizens. What then is the connection between philosophy and citizenship? The doubt remains.


End of Part 4

Re-opening the discussion (Part 3 of 5)

Alterego said…


To see if I understood your comments, I’ll replace “Philosophy” with “History” and see what happens.

So, let us say that I was commemmorating a policy that made History mandatory in High School, on the grounds that “History is necessary for actively exercising one’s citizenship”.

Then you could ask:

1) Is History necessary, or knowledge of History?

2) All of History, or just a part? And if only a part, which?

3) If History is this necessary for exercising one’s citizenship, how can one explain cases of people like myself, who have studied History for a long time, and don’t feel that that helped with our exercise of citizenship one bit (to the point of our not even knowing what this is supposed to mean)?

4) And given 3), why get optimistic with a possible spreading of the teaching of History?

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

1) Is History necessary, or knowledge of History?
Both, I believe. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg story. Withouth History there is no knowledge of History, but without knowledge of History there is no History.

Furthermore: without a commitment to the teaching of History, History does not get renewed. It is cool to think that one makes History as one learns History.

2) All of History, or just a part? And if only a part, which?
I think all of History contributes, but that it is hard, if not impossible, for a person to master the whole field of History (or Math, or Physics), especially in High School.

So I think that every little bit you learn helps a bit. Only had Brazilian History? Good to know a bit of Brazilian History. Managed to learn a bit of Brazil and a bit of Americas too? Even better. Only managed to cover Ancient and Medieval History? That’s very good, much better than nothing.

3) If History is this necessary for exercising one’s citizenship, how can one explain cases of people like myself, who have studied History for a long time, and don’t feel that that helped with our exercise of citizenship one bit (to the point of our not even knowing what this is supposed to mean)?

Here the distinction between “necessary” and “sufficient” is really helpful.

I find it unlikely that a person could contribute to History without having a tiniest bit of historical awareness.

On the other hand, profound knowledge of the entire field of History is not enough for one to make History. It all depends on how one makes use of one’s theoretical knowledge to help with one’s practice. Therefore knowledge of History is necessary, but not sufficient.

Actually, it’s not even that necessary, for many people made History without much formal knowledge of History. But then informal knowledge kicks in, the knowledge that comes from the environment, from the oral culture of a region, from talking to people, from observing reality. And in this point, a bus ride teaches as much if not more than the classroom.

Therefore: knowledge of History is not sufficient and perhaps not even necessary to make History. But it helps a lot.

3b) What do you mean “knowledge of History helps in the active exercise of one’s citizenship,” if I don’t even know what “active exercise of one’s citizenship” means?

Look, to answer this question we need to use some philosophy. But we’re not talking about philosophy here (actually, who in this country knows at least the basics of philosophy?). So there’s nothing I can do. Let’s go back to History.

4) And given that not everyone who studies History makes it into History (or actively exercises their citizenship), why get optimistic with a possible spreading of the teaching of History?

True, the teaching of History pure and simple does not put anyone’s name in History. It doesn’t even necessarily make one learn History, let alone “actively exercise their citizenship.”

But the presence of the discipline at school makes this knowledge more accessible. In the very least the students get to know of the existence of this field of studies.

Furthermore, the inclusion of History in the High School Curriculum may not only help increase the number of people who will later choose to major in Philosophy, but it also expands the job market for those who have already made this choice. It adds some value to the profession, if you know what I mean. It puts it on the map.

Of course the mere inclusion of History in the curriculum does not guarantee that the teaching given will be of any good quality. But the poor quality of Foreign Language lessons or Arts lessons does not make these subjects useless. It also does not mean that high school students do not have the capacity to master these subjects.

It is more a question of better equipping the teachers. Teachers have a lot to learn too. In a way, this change forces an investment in the professional development of teaching skills in History graduates. And I find all of this very good.

End of part 3.

Re-opening the Discussion (Part 2 of 5)

Chico said…
Philosophy for me at Cor Jesu middle school was to listen to Legião Urbana´s music: “You say your parents don´t undertand you, but you don´t understand your parents…” Isn´t this beautiful? Yeah. Cool, very cool.

Then we had math class, recess, Portuguese, Science, and bus back home. In the half hour I´d spend on the bus I would learn more than in the five classes that day.

LM disse…
Ok, Ester – I accept your invitation to bring the discussion here.

First of all, I read the document you refer to, and what it says is not that philosophy (and sociology, but I don´t care a bit for this one) is necessary for actively exercising one´s citizenship, but that students should have knowledge of philosophy necessary for the active exercise of one´s citizenship.

The policy seems to commit itself to the modest thesis that *a part* of philosophy is necessary for one´s active exercise of their citizenship, while you make it seem (even if you didn´t take it this way) that *the whole* of philosophy would be necessary for the active exercise of one´s citizenship.

The problem is how we find out *which* part they are talking about. The report doesn´t say, and judging by it, neither does the policy.

And I have no idea what this part is – I´ve been studying philosophy for a while, and I don´t think that today I exercise my citizenship better than before. As a matter of fact, I have no idea what it means to exercise my citizenship!

In the end, I agree with your brother Chico – I don´t see any reason to get optimistic…


End of part 2

translators´s note: I´m not 100% sure that active exercise of one´s citizenship is the right expression in English. Any notes on this would be much appreciated.