Night of Philosophy

On Friday April 24th, the first New York ‘Night of Philosophy‘ was to be held – a 12 hour marathon of lectures and performances on the Upper East Side. It appeared to be going under the radar for quite a while, but received some very good publicity on big websites towards the end of the week. The New York Times ran a piece on the Friday. Despite this, I still felt it was something that would receive modest attendance – after all, who wants to spend their Friday night (and early hours of Saturday) listening to philosophy lectures? Apart from people like me, that is.

As it turned out, there were quite a few people like me. In fact hundreds. Armed with an itinerary of which of the 62 lectures I wanted to see, and where and when they were happening, I arrived around 7:30, hoping to make the one rejecting moral relativism at 8pm. I had agreed to meet Joe, a friend with whom I did Philosophy at Durham. There was no chance of that. The event was being held in two buildings – French and Ukranian cultural institutes – and then lines outside each were sizeable. There must have been at least 300 in each, and moving incredibly slowly, for they could only let people in once others had left. And who was leaving after the first hour? Pretty much no one. Cue 2 hours of occasionally shuffling forward.

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I got talking to a few people around me in the line, and ended up sitting with a few of them once in. We got in at 9:30, just in time for the talk on Pascal’s Wager. I’ll write a little about each talk below, but a few thoughts/observations:

  • It’s amazing how people can do entire lectures without making a single thread of eye contact with the audience. As someone who does a lot of public speaking (and speaking generally in my day job), I can’t fathom this. OK, you don’t need to go ‘no notes’, but at least look up from the essay you’re reading now and then. Otherwise, we could have just read your piece online. OK, rant over.
  • One bathroom for an event catering for hundreds of people isn’t usually a good idea
  • It seemed more than ironic that an event being staged through the night, advertising its free coffee on demand, should suffer a coffee-machine breakdown.

Although the delivery of each talk I saw left a lot to be desired, the content was, at times, very interesting. The first was on Pascal’s Wager, by Dan Garber. Garber suggested that from Pascal’s point of view, the traditional arguments against Pascal’s Wager, e.g. that you cannot force yourself to believe, aren’t as convincing as they first seem. Pascal suggested that once we try to believe in God, we will find arguments and reasons which convince us, and that it he (speaking as God) does not request blind faith. Garber left this unaddressed, on purpose.

However, he did make distinctions between first order rationality – relating to evidence and argument, and second order rationality – related to how we got to our beliefs in the first place. Belief in God has a somewhat troubled history in terms of second order rationality (being brought up in religion/feeling forced to believe by Pascal). However, we should follow David Hume’s advice and pay attention to how we got to our beliefs, and try to notice the difference between first order and second order rationality, and worry about whether we have been caught in a ‘cognitive illusion’.

Dan Garber. One of the better speakers, though still entirely word for word from notes. I was stood at the back for this one, I would soon get closer...
Dan Garber. One of the better speakers, though still entirely word for word from notes. I was stood at the back for this one, I would soon get closer…

The next speaker, Talbot Brewer, called his piece ‘Proselytism without true believers.’ He suggested that capitalism requires a mass of desire, and that it is replacing religion (with more effective results) in telling the world’s population that consumerism will lead to a better life. And whilst almost everyone would probably rather a less consumer-driven world, this is the ‘tragedy of the cultural commons’ – in other words, it can’t be done, because we all buy into it, and there is no one/no body strong enough to stop it. He also made an interesting observation that a big cost of free speech is the recognition that eyes and ears are available for commerical capture, and there is a thriving market for human attention. Unfortunately, amplication of speech with commercial content is far more profitable than any other type of speech.

Clearly, I managed to get a little closer for this one - myself and a new friend Prat sitting on the floor. As animated as he looks here, this didn't last - the next 30 minutes was word for word reading, with no eye contact with the audience.
Clearly, I managed to get a little closer for this one – myself and a new friend Prat sitting on the floor. As animated as he looks here, this didn’t last – the next 30 minutes was word for word reading, with no eye contact with the audience.

One more speaker I wish to mention, Roger Pouviet, gave a talk on whether religious faith was rational. He argued that despite prevailing opinion, it is. His reason was that ‘rationality’ does not imply justification. In other words, if we call a belief rational, that doesn’t suggest there is good justification/evidence to hold it. Rationality simply means that there is a lack of ‘known-down evidence’ to disprove it. He pointed to Richard Swinburne’s attempts to defend faith as rationality by citing probabilities. Pouvet suggested that all beliefs can be rational, but disagree. And indeed, by criticising an argument, you are implicitly acknowledging its rationality, because you are making the effort to engage with it. I was drawn to think of the fact Richard Dawkins refuses to debate with creationists, because he doesn’t see the need to, for evidence has already disproved their beliefs. This seems to fit with what Roger Pouviet was saying. If you get into an argument with another point of you, you are accepting it has some strength, and its rationality.

Roger Pouviet. Interesting subject matter. The expression of the man in the front row summed up our engagement with his speaking style though.
Roger Pouviet. Interesting subject matter. The expression of the man in the front row summed up our engagement with his speaking style though.

I stayed for one more talk, which happened to be a criticism of the efforts to boycott Israel by those in support of Palestinians. It had originally been to do with obedience and thinking, but changed at the last minute in response to a complaint letter about letting somebody speak. We didn’t quite follow, but remained to listen. I was now behind the speaker after my back was calling for something to lean upon. The talk began with a very random segment from a patronising, strident toned voice somewhere off stage, talking about the philosophy of names. it seemed no one followed it, and were left confused by its purpose. After about 10 minutes, myself and another new friend, Steve, decided to burst into spontaenous applause, which of course everyone followed. Sadly, it didn’t spell the end of the voice-over.

I understood much of what Omri Boehm said, but won’t try to paraphrase here for I don’t think I could do it justice.

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With a queue of what looked like over 50 for the one bathroom, I made a move around 11.30, falling far short of my original target of 7am. I felt I had no choice, given how unsuitable the venue was for its attendance. It was good to see Philosophy so popular among New Yorkers, though. I worried that some of them may have come along to be seen at the Night of Philosophy. That’s the cynic in me though. The line was just as long at 11.30pm as it was at 7.30pm. Unfortunately for those waiting, it was going nowhere fast. I’d had my fill of philosophy though, and as often, was heading back for some food.

In for a long wait, probably  3-4 hours.
In for a long wait, probably 3-4 hours.
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More interviews and an enquiry: ‘How much should a teacher know?’

Thursday and Friday were both packed with interviews. On Thursday morning I travelled back over to New Jersey to interview Isil Tass, a doctoral research student in Montclair for 7 months from Turkey. We went out for breakfast (on me, after she cooked a great meal on Tuesday), though I was less than impressed having gone for the American speciality of “grilled cheese.” Being used to West Country Cheddar, what arrived in front of me seemed to have a high percentage of rubber. And quite how they can claim the bread was rye bread – to my mind, that’s the dark, healthy stuff mainly produced in Germany – I’ve no idea.

After our interview I walked up to Montclair State University – a move my Turkish colleague couldn’t quite fathom, given what seemed a great distance and a freezing temperature. Walking practically everywhere in London, it was no more than a hop down the road and the weather a little overcast. At MSU I interviewed David Kennedy, a true giant in the field of Philosophy for Children. It was fascinating to hear his insights and thoughts developed from such a distinguished career.

After this it was another, longer walk from MSU to Montclair Art Museum, where for a second week I assisted and observed Ariel deliver her fantastic Thinking through Art class. I took a group to play a game that crossed I spy with 20 questions up in the gallery, and then joined in with creating a ‘Guess Who’ game using artworks from the gallery. I was due to go to the stargazing club again on Thursday night, but it had been cloudy all day and all but certainly cancelled. Only as I boarded the train back to New York did the skies suddenly clear. Having not felt like eating since the horrendous cheese episode, the salad place around the corner from my hotel was calling pretty loud.

Friday began with an observation of Joe Oyler’s Philosophy of Education class back over at Montclair. We studied a text by Anna Freud on the role psychoanalysis can play in child development, and in groups looked at particular case studies of a child’s early experiences affecting disturbing later behaviours, and suggested interventions that could have been made in their early years to help them overcome their later difficulties. We then used the text as a stimulus for an enquiry, adding questions around the room and voted for one to discuss. The question voted for by an overwhelming margin was ‘Should teachers know about the private lives of their students?’ An enriching discussion followed, with the focus on building on the ideas of others, and importatingly, stating that we were going to do – e.g ‘I’m going to agree with/I’m going to disagree with…As a community, we actually ended up talking about what a teacher should do with information if it is disclosed by a child, and many of us (includng me!) forgetting to link it back to explain relevance to the original question. In true enquiry-style though, we recognised this at the end when reflecting on our progress.

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After the session I interviewed Joe, before heading back over to New York for an interview with Alina Reznitskaya, who has worked from a more research-methods perspective on assessment in P4C – and so had many interesting points to make in answer to my questions. The day finished with a final interview, with Jordan Fullam, Adjunct lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Montclair and New York University doctoral student. Jordan facilitated philosophy in New York for three years before his current position, and made the film ‘Why Philosophy?’ about student perspectives on the subject. I recommend watching!

That evening I attended a Night of Philosophy, which deserves its own blog post, coming soon (when I get some more time).

Good Will Hunting @ Tribeca Film Festival

After a day of writing and marking, I was lucky enough to get tickets to a special screening of Good Will Hunting last night, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. As the founder, Jane Rosenthal,  explained to us before the film, the festival started directly after 9/11, and a volunteer crew member told me it was to bring people back to that area of Manhattan, and show solidarity with the businesses who had been hugely affected by the tragedy. The founder’s referencing to starting the festival in a rush seemed to corroborate this. Robert de Niro was a key player in it’s creation – a local to Tribeca himself.

This screening was followed by a panel interview consisting of stars of the film Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgard, as well as the director Gus van Sant, and scientist Brian Greene and psychiatrist Paul Browde. I tried to catch Stellan afterwards to mention to him that several of my GCSE RS class had recognised him in the recent film we watched called ‘God on Trial’ and what a great performance it was, but he was being mobbed by selfie-seekers.

Good Will Hunting is one of my favourite films, probably up there in second behind a particular email-themed romantic comedy that I’m often constantly mocked for. The moderator of the discussion, Faith Salie, asked Minnie Driver why this film is so special to so many people, and indeed why she had described it as precious to her, and Minnie’s answer seemed to sum it up perfectly: ‘the film is so funny, and so sad at the same time. The score is beautiful, the cinematography is beautiful, and the acting is beautiful. And it is so full of redemption. It is very rare for a film to have all of these qualities at the same time.’ Gus van Sant also commented on how little the movie had aged. I couldn’t agree more, with both.

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I had forgotten just how funny the film is, especially in the scenes involving Will (Matt Damon) and Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and their friends. Seeing something on a big screen, in the presence of hundreds of others, magnifies every scene in more ways than one, and you notice the jokes and the humour far better. Maybe it’s because you’ve got the audience laughing, maybe it’s because a cinema gives no opportunities for the distractions. If we’re talking humour, Special mention needs to be given to Casey Affleck as Mikey, who steals almost every scene he is in by being the butt of most of the group’s jokes. By watching it on the big screen, you also notice far more little intricacies you would miss normally (or I did, anyway) – the perfectly understated role of Jerry’s occasionally jealous assistant, Tom (and the fact you’ve got Tom and Jerry working in tandem). We also found out that that the key maths consultant on the film gets a cameo-role – his only line calling out Williams’ character on plagiarising a story.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at certain scenes (I won’t give them away, in case anyone hasn’t seen it). ‘Who is crying?’ was the first question the moderator asked as the lights came up over the credits. Many tears were no doubt for Robin WIlliams, whom I have written about before on this blog. The anticipation in the room was palpable as we approached his first scene, waiting for his characters’ bearded, humble face to appear on screen. There was a brief applause from some as he first appeared – I was ready to join but it didn’t catch on. The applause at the end of the film felt more for him than anything else, and it felt apt that he had the last lines in the film, which were famously improvised.

The talk afterwards also illuminated much of the other improvisation involved in the film, especially from Robin Williams. The stars spoke of how he would do impressions in between scenes to break up the heavy filming, and several scenes had to be re-shot, either because he was acting up off camera, or because he wanted to add a little something extra into what he had already done. One of the most famous improvised scenes is one between Will and Sean (Damon and Williams) where you can actually see the camera shaking because the camera-operator can’t help laughing. Damon and Affleck, who wrote the film, also apparently submitted the original script when it came to the Oscars, so the judges could notice exactly what had been improvised. The film went on to win Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Williams.

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A mention most also go to the score, comprised of Danny Elfman’s music and Elliott Smith’s songs. It’s often one I listen to on Spotify, and it was again raised several times in the discussion afterwards. It brings an entire new dimension to the film and seems to fit perfectly with its themes. The sound quality in the theatre was outstanding – the music and dialogue enveloping the auditorium without at any point feeling too loud. This only added to the experience.

Heading over for a day in New Jersey for two interviews and the philosophy in art class, Will report back tomorrow.

Visit to Columbia University

Yesterday saw two interviews – in both New York and New Jersey. I began by meeting Jessica Davis, of Columbia University, who co-runs a Philosophy Outreach programme in the area. Over some vegetarian Indian food we had a discussion about assessment in Philosophy, accompanied by my recording laptop. I then took a spot in the sunshine on the Columbia University campus to do some work. It’s a beautiful campus, and a wonderful part of New York in general. Given the statue of The Thinker, and the inscriptions upon the buildings, I can see that the university places philosophy at the heart of its ethos.

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It’s hard to see, but the far building contains inscriptions of Aristotle, Plato, Vergil, among many others
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Columbia University Library.
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Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ outside of the Philosophy department.

Next, I got straight on the train, on which I saw a shot which really demonstrated how tall the Empire State and 1WTC buildings are compared to the rest in NYC:

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In New Jersey to meet Monica Glina, a professor at Montclair State University, and editor of the book Philosophy for, with, and of Children.

I’m finding some incredibly rich and varied answers to my questions, and am always finding new questions to ask. It feels as if interviews could last for hours if we wanted them to – there is that much to discuss. I’ve kept almost all to under an hour, so far.

After meeting Monica I was cooked for by Isil Tass, another visiting scholar, from Turkey. Like much of what I’ve tried over here, it was another first to eat Turkish food. Isil is also providing me with far too many lifts around Montclair, I feel I should start paying her a taxi fare.

ESU Middle School Debate Championship

On Saturday I travelled upstate to Tarrytown, a small community on the Hudson river, for an ESU Middle School Debate Championship. 

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Whilst often holding mini debate in lessons, to engage and consolidate pupils’ knowlege of two sides of a particular issue (amongst other reasons), I have never hosted/observed a formal debate competition – where strict procedures are followed and a judge awards a winner. Indeed, it seems to contrast with the principles of Philosophy for Children, whereby everyone works together as a community to develop and extend their understanding of a topic/question. Debates are much more competitive, much more partisan. I’m not saying I am against them because of this difference. Debates and communities of enquiry are simply different in nature, though they do share many similarities, such as forcing pupils to use their analytical and evaluative skills, among others and to think on their feet to show thinking of the highest order.

The motions included:

• The US should approve the release of genetically-modified insects.

• It is unjust to have the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial in Boston.

• The US should pay ransom for hostages.

• Political advertising does more good than harm.

• The Obama community college plan will do more harm than good.

• Repeal the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution!

It was a big event, with several schools in attendance and several preliminary rounds before a grand final. These rounds were held in rooms around the large, impressive school and I observed as many as I could. Once inside a classroom it was a rather intimate setting – two teams of three pupils, a judge, and a couple of parents watching from the edge of the room.

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New to the procedures of debating, it was fascinating to see the pupils go back and forth, each taking their turn to speak and formally requesting ‘points of information’, and either being granted a chance to interrupt, or being told to sit down. Heckling also played a big part of the debates. In a ‘guide to judging’ I got hold of, heckling is described as: ‘dynamic elements of the debate, not intended against the speaker but for the judge to add argumentative value. Whilst someone spoke, his/her team would show support by knocking on the table and chanting ‘here here’. The opposing team could be heard heckling a range of things, from widely used responses such as ‘irrelevant!’ to ‘misconception!’ to ‘shame!’, to more specific replies to what was being said, as long as they were kept short. Whilst one member of a team is speaking, all other 5 students in the room are frantically noting down what has been to ensure they reply to it/build upon it. There was a lot of formula being followed – students clearly well-trained in introducing themselves to the judge, ‘framing’ the question, outlining their intentions. Whilst there was plenty of space for free-thinking within the debate, some things felt a little formulaic – students all stating how they would build upon/rebutt/weigh the debate/frame the debate. There was much evidence of students understanding these terms, especially when I spoke to some after the grand final debate, but I couldn’t help but wonder if knowledge of these terms’ meanings can be lost in the mad rush to squeeze in as many of them as possible when introducing a set of points.

Once the proposition and opposition had both given their statements and rebuttals, all retire from the room to let the judge loolk over his/her notes, often laid out on a sheet of paper divided into six sections. I noticed that when watching the final, many students in the audience were doing this themselves – they were incredibly engaged, following every single word being said and noting down rebuttals, inconsistencies, points of information dealt with and ignored. I asked a few of them their main reasons for doing this, and they said they were doing it to practice note-taking when in a debate, and also to have a good knowledge of what has been said when they hear the judges’ opinions. It seemed to provide them with the tools to agree/disagree with the judge once verdicts had been read.

One students' scoring of the grand final debate.
One students’ scoring of the grand final debate.

The feedback of the judges across the board was excellent. Their ability to take notes on what was being said, what had been missed, what had been tackled, and the speaking quality of each debater was inspiring. Each speaker is given a score at the end of the debate for their performance, though I was told early on that this wouldn’t necessarily mean they won the debate. In the end, the winners would be the team who either prove the case, or in the case of the opposition, overwhelm the case, showing that that it is more likely to be false or more likely to produce counterproductive results. A very interesting way of putting it, by judge Jake Meany, was ‘it’s a matter of trust – who do I place more trust in?’

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A long yet hugely enjoyable day, I came away with many reflections, not least a desire to put more structure into debates in lessons, and also get more involved in debating in school generally. Listening to feedback given by the judges was also a fascinating learning experience. It was also interesting to wonder how the almost-scientific criteria for winning a debate could be applied to P4C, if at all. This was an event based upon giving a subjective opinion – yet no one could doubt the academic rigour involved when assessing each students’ performance. For those worried that the intellectual goals and aims of philosophy could go missing within a community of enquiry, this could provide a few ideas. Transferring them from a competitive arena to a community, however, would require a lot of thought.

Philosophy around the fire

Last week ended just as busily as it started and proceeded. On Friday evening I was invited to take part in a Community of Enquiry at the home of one of my interviewees. It was a wonderful evening – brilliant vegan food, 9 very open and enquiring minds, and a log fire. Some of us were very experienced in communities of enquiry – indeed, a few of us do them as a day job – but others were not, and it was very encouraging to notice just how quickly they took to the format. Speaking of which, what also struck was how similar the format is to how I practice it in the classroom. This is an idea that began over in the States 40 or so years ago, yet many who practise it are remaining true to its founding principles and processes.

As such, we read a stimulus, an incredibly thought provoking poem written by one of the group – and then gave our potential questions to the facilitator. We voted for them, and my question of “Can we effectively self-govern?” was chosen, though all received votes.

We then spent the next two hours deep in discussion about whether we can effectively govern ourselves, deciding to focus on small, community government but often linking it to a wider context. As part of the enquiry we raised and did our best to tackle several sub-questions. ranging from:

  • Should every person in a community be given a vote for local laws, such as speed limits?
  • What does effective government look like – is it empowered people? Economic prosperity?
  • What is the role of money in self-government?

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And several more. After the session, some of us who do enquiries in our jobs commented on how cohesive the community was, and how much we worked together to build on and critique others’ ideas. We also managed to stay focused despite a very young kitten doing it’s best to look adorable – a job not found particularly difficult by kittens – possibly the biggest achievement of the evening! Believe or not, we also maintained the ‘hands-up’ rule throughout. For any pupils reading, something you so brilliantly is often difficult for adults, long out of school. As well as being incredibly enjoyable to take part in an enquiry, it also provided plenty of food for thought for my report into assessment. In terms of our enquiry, we certainly could govern ourselves.

My next blog post will be on an entirely different experience, the ESU Middle School Debating Championship that happened the next day…

Thoughts on the 9/11 Museum

A rare window of free-time allowed to visit the recently opened 9/11 Museum on Friday. We visited the memorial when I was in New York this time last year, but the museum was yet to open. It takes a couple of hours to walk around (much of its features detailed here) and it’s been a couple of days since and my thoughts are still undecided. It is presented simply, thoughtfully and informatively. There is a large mix of artefacts, detailing New York before, during and in the years since 9/11. The atmosphere is sombre and but also engaging – with news clips/commentaries playing from above in various sections. The behaviour of the visitors was generally very good, though I sadly can’t say I didn’t see selfies. It has received a mixed reception, with the most criticism being at the gift shop. I deliberately didn’t go anywhere near it. A museum, no to mention a shop, chronicling mass murder still feels a little uneasy. The New Yorker seemed to sum things up very well when they said:

“The site contains more contradictions, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, than any other eight acres in Manhattan. A celebration of liberty tightly policed; a cemetery that cowers in the shadow of commerce; an insistence that we are here to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget—visitors experience these things with a free-floating sense of unease. The contradictions are already so evident that they’ve infuriated critics, from right to center to left.”

I also found this article particularly well-written – sums up much of what I think, in a far better way than I could ever write.

My hunch is that if it is purely designed to educate and remember, then this provides some argument for it. As someone alive at the time it happened, and who has taken time to research and develop a better understanding of the socio/religious/economic causes and consequences, I didn’t learn much new. Indeed, to borrow from the New Yorker once more (can you tell it’s one of my regular reads?):

“The Holocaust museums do the work museums were made to do: display an unusual object and explain its original meaning. Their subject is a great crime whose perpetrators did all within their power to keep concealed, and simply making the story public has been a big part of the work of mourning. Every found photograph of a Jewish child is a memory recovered from oblivion. What happened on 9/11, by contrast, was a crime deliberately committed in open air as a nightmarish publicity stunt, one already as well documented as any incident in history. We can’t relearn it; we can only relive it.”

The accusation of trading upon the graves of thousands seems to be rebutted fairly well by the fact the museum needs to pay for itself. I’m less certain about the rationale and wisdom in some of the items apparently on sale, and the restaurant which is supposedly being built in the future. As a keen historian, I have visited several museums and have seen mass-killing chronicled very sensitively indeed. I feel the 9/11 Museum could have made more of an effort to foster a sombre atmosphere among visitors. Tighter rules on cameras, phones for example. Unlike the writers of the articles, I didn’t see any visitors lying down, lazing around or on social media, but I was only there for a snapshot of the day. Posing in front of New York skyline scenes was the worst I encountered, yet there seemed to be very few staff on hand to remind those of the correct tone.

One of the above articles mentions ‘commerce over commemoration’. This is quite generalised but it’s hard not to feel some degree of truth from some aspects of the site (not least the touts selling unofficial guides to naive tourists outside – not anything to do with the authorities, though I personally feel they should be removed). There is much to be admired and there has been much noble effort. Would it have ever been possible to create something here that wouldn’t impress, divide, and disgust people? Probably not.

Teaching Philosophy in Kindergarten

Thursday was a busy day. I made my first trip over to Montclair, New Jersey – a charming town and home to Montclair State University.

I speak to Ellen Cahill, a teacher in Montclair. She does Philosophy with her Kindergarten class every Thursday, and I had the chance to interview her about aims and assessment methods in P4C before her energetic class came back in. They built upon work they had done a week before about animals’ defences, and a visitor who brought a skunk! After a brief discussion about their opinions on the differences between animals’ and humans’ defences, Ellen handed over to me and I did a few activities with them to present their opinions even further – particularly on who has more ‘defences’ – animals or humans? Cue lots of opinions backed up with reference to animals’ instincts, claws, talons, teeth, and humans’ ability to create weapons and think at a higher level. It was the first time I had done Philosophy with such a young age group, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have photos but due to them containing pupils I’m not publishing on here. Instead, here’s one of me (I am surrounded by a class, promise…)

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It was their playtime next, but I said I’d be here to chat if any of them wanted to discuss the issue further, and two girls came over and spent much of their time talking with me about whether humans deserve to be number 1 in the list of most dangerous animals. It was also great to meet Isil Tas – who is spending several months in Montclair researching the impact of P4C on cognitive ability for her phD.

Next up was a session led by Ariel Sykes at the Montclair Museum of Art, called ‘Thinking through Art’

CC BY-SA 3.0 at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montclair_Art_Museum#/media/File:Montclair_Art_Museum_(Montclair,_New_Jersey).jpg
CC BY-SA 3.0 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montclair_Art_Museum#/media/File:Montclair_Art_Museum_(Montclair,_New_Jersey).jpg

I observed, supervised and took part in a range of discussions about the nature of creativity, which involved a tour around one of the museum’s galleries looking for examples of high creativity, and indeed lack of. Incredibly enjoyable and provided plenty of ideas for the use of artwork, and school-visits, in philosophy classes. It was particularly interesting to hear students’ reasons for what they deemed to be ‘creative’ and not so creative.

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I interviewed Ariel afterwards, over a lovely Ethiopian meal (another new cuisine for the trip – highly recommend). The day finished by going back to the school  to join them for their Solar System Night – I missed the after school model-making in the classroom, but joined for a trip up to Montclair to do some stargazing with the Department of Science. Unfortunately, a sudden cloud cover meant the event for the pupils was cancelled, but a couple of us braved the cold and waited for the clouds to part.

I always loved thinking about science and space as a child, but when I realised I wasn’t very good at the subject, and far better at writing essays about history, religion etc. – I seemed to leave my fascination behind. Hearing Mark and Phil, organisers of the stargazing, start to just point upwards and say ‘oh, that’s Venus….yep, that’s Jupiter’, I seemed to suddenly feel five years old myself – and proceeded to ask questions at a rate of knots. A few minutes later, Mark and Phil were wheeling out a big telescope and it wasn’t long before we were looking upwards, with me still pressing them with questions of a wide-eyed novice. It was an inspiring experience – the first time I had ever looked at planets in the sky. it was genuinely moving to see the lines across Jupiter and it’s four moons, and reconnect with my love of space from my childhood. I’m definitely going back next week. If the clouds stay away.

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Interviews and all-night philosophy

Can’t quite believe it’s only the start of my third full day, but here I am, sat in the breakfast bar of the Pod Hotel with a bagel and a coffee, with another packed day ahead – more on that shortly.

I have conducted my first interview, with the wonderful Professor Megan Laverty, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education at Columbia University Teachers’ College. It was an experience just walking around Morningside Heights – from seeing some strict PE teacher marching pupils up and down these steps…

IMG_3617w-MornPkStepsWall…somewhat reminiscent of the ‘hill of pain’ myself and another games teacher used to set boys at my previous school (before you say something, we took part as well!). The architecture of the area was also stunning – cathedrals, churches and chapels many in number. I will post some pictures when I return there next week.

Talking philosophy with Professor Laverty was immensely enjoyable and I feel we tackled some fascinating issues surrounding not only assessment in philosophy, but its aims and objectives. Like any good philosophical discussion, we raised more questions than we probably answered, and one phrase which I seemed to repeatedly say was ‘that’s food for thought.’ It also encouraged me that we seemed to naturally move onto issues and questions I had planned. This seemed to suggest my choice and order of questions had a logical sequence. A fantastic start to my research and leaving so much to think about.

Much of the first couple of days has also been spent finalising arrangements with other teachers, academics and students I am due to interview, and also arranging further ones. Just when you feel you’re done for the night, a chance observation browsing websites related to philosophy in New York will open up a new treasure-trove of possibilities. I’ve already signed up to take part in some philosophical discussions this and next weekend, and I’ll be able to talk to the organisers and facilitators of those. There is also a ‘Night of Philosophy‘ happening next Friday – a 12 hour marathon of talks and workshops, from 7pm – 7am on the Upper East Side. I intend to be there for the whole thing.

When a bit of free time arises, mainly in the evenings, I’ve been sampling some of the food here. If you’re ever in New York, I recommend Laut (I’m in debt to my friend Laura for this recommendation) just off Union Square. Possibly the best Thai curry I have ever had, and inspired decor too:

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Caracas Arepa Bar, in East Village, is a charming Venezuelan restaurant – serving corn tortillas with a range of different toppings. And East Village itself is a wonderful area – it’s small-town, community vibe feels completely sepearate from the corporate high rises elsewhere in New York. I took a yoga class there last night. Will certainly be going back next week.

Later today I’m observing a two classes, one in a school and one at Montclair Museum of Art, and conducting interviews with both I have observed. It will be first time over in New Jersey since visiting Hoboken last year; I’m looking forward to it.

Touching down

Getting up at 4.30am was no easy task, but eleven and a half hours later I was touching down at JFK airport. I’ve come to New York three times in the past four years, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally, given the fact its Easter holiday) the same week in April. The route in is now familiar and it was rather worrying that I was getting off the subway and walking to the hotel – the same excellent one as before – Pieenars Politics podcast in my ears, and I’d not even looked up to recognise where I was. I’m putting it down to the pure drive to get to my room after the journey.

Probably doing my best impression of a guest more at home in Fawlty Towers, I had put in a request for a room high up away from the road and with a good view, given the fact I was going to have to face it for the next 13 nights. This would come at a slight price – having to wait for it to be ready, so I had another few hours to kill. Having just arrived from London, and forever keen to soak up the authentic New York food, the obvious choice was to pop to Pret a Manger.

Filled up with the same sandwich you can find on practically every street corner within a mile radius of the Euston Road, I got down to the simple task of producing a concise information sheet and consent form for all who were participating in my research. Anyone who knows me will know that concise is not something that comes naturally. Four sides of A4 later, I had something resembling a research ethics document, cobbled together on very little sleep and based on a very useful template from the University of Nottingham. Unfortunatelty, their template seemed more geared to people conducting clinical trials for some kind of pioneering biohazardous medicinal treatment. Given the fact I’m conducting professional, yet relatively informal research, I did my best to strike the right balance between making my intentions clear and following right ethical guidelines, without creating something that would make people wonder what exactly I had in mind with their interview answers….

Whilst still waiting for my room, I popped over to the New York branch of the English Speaking Union. I didn’t know it at the time of booking, but it is situated the best part of 5 seconds walk from the front door of my hotel. It’s literally bang-smack opposite. If you’re jaywalking. If you don’t want to be arrested, and walk to the crossroads and turn at the lights, it’s more like 30 seconds. Feeling high on possibly the most convenient coincidence in the history of trans-Atlantic travel, I wandered in and was introduced to the organisation by the most-welcoming Alice, and introduced to a range of her colleagues who very kindly promised to help in any way they could over the next two weeks. It felt very good to have such support so close at hand.

That evening, it turns out, another visitor from Britain – with the far grander title of Director of the Brunel Museum – was giving a lecture at the ESU on the impact of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I’ve always been interested in the Industrial Revolution – I wrote an A Level History project on it, as well as taking pupils to Ironbridge Gorge a couple of years back, so relished the chance to come along. Advised that the best way to get over jet-lag was to stay up as late as possible, I popped back over after unpacking and really enjoyed the talk – fascinating in content and engagingly presented by Robert Hulse. I had no idea that Brunel was behind the world’s first ever underground tunnel, and that it turned into a tourist attraction and shopping mall when they ran out of money. Real ‘brain food’ to start off the trup. I wanted to find out more so bought a signed copy of his book, which I’m trying to hyperlink but simply can’t find on the internet. Go to the Brunel Museum, it’s bound to be in the gift shop. I certainly will when I’m back.

2015-04-14 00.04.26I didn’t heed the advice to stay up late. Maybe another day.