This is part three in a series of blog posts written by some of our undergraduate students doing P4C in local pre-college classrooms. We’ll be posting reflections from the group we call the “Five Fearless Philosophers” over the course of the next few weeks. Read the introduction by Dr. Claire Katz here.
My initial feelings regarding the opportunity to engage in philosophical discussions with the students at Harmony Science Academy were a combination of anticipation and trepidation. I had no idea what to expect but I decided to work with first, seventh, and eighth grade students because I wanted to gain as much experience as possible and be exposed to the classroom dynamics of vastly different age brackets to help me determine which grade level I would like to teach in the future. As expected, the first-graders were a bit more difficult to engage in philosophical reflection than the middle-school students because the first-graders required more direction and patience. But I thoroughly enjoyed working with all three grade levels and I feel that I have learned a lot about myself as an aspiring educator, as well as how children at different developmental stages interpret various philosophical themes and apply them to their own lives.
One of my favorite experiences throughout this entire process was definitely the first time that my colleagues and I visited Harmony Science Academy and presented the story of the Spaceship of Theseus to the eighth-grade students. When discussing the story, the students in my group initially agreed that the ship was the same despite being composed of entirely new parts. They reasoned that although the ship no longer consisted of its original parts, its design and function remained the same and it still fulfilled the same purpose. One girl named Ash said that although the astronauts had lost the original components of the spaceship, they were able to “preserve the idea of the spaceship, and that’s what really matters.” The other students shared Ash’s position until a boy named Andrew weighed in on the matter, positing that even if the spaceship with the new parts had the same design and served the same purpose, the idea behind it could not truly be the same because all of the astronauts remember that the original spaceship’s parts had to be replaced. Although the new parts were identical to the old parts, the fact that the old parts needed to be replaced changed the way that the astronauts viewed the spaceship, and thus changed the identity of the spaceship.
Andrew’s point prompted a conversation on organ transplants and prosthetic limbs. I asked the group if a person who received a new heart or a new arm or any other new body part would still be the same person as they were before receiving their new body part. Most of the students immediately agreed that the person would in fact be the same because the only thing that had changed about them was something physical and unrelated to their personality. However, I probed them further by asking if the person’s experience of losing their original body part and then receiving a replacement would affect their personality or not. This question left them visibly vexed and they remained silent for a moment before Andrew piped up and compared my example to sufferers of PTSD. He stated that “people who go through traumatic things can never be the same. Even if they learn to accept their new reality, their memory of the experience changes them.” One girl added, “Everything is always changing. Memories are the only thing that stay the same.” Following her profound reflection, I asked the students if they could apply this idea to their own identities and the qualities that “make them who they are.” Everyone agreed that their personalities are always changing, and that the only consistent aspect of their identity is their memory. I then posed the question of the spaceship of Theseus again. The students vacillated between whether the spaceship was the same or not before coming to the general consensus that it was both the same and different. They decided that it had become a new ship as soon as the first part was replaced, but that it was still the spaceship of Theseus so long as the astronauts remembered it and referred to it as such.
I was thrilled by how quickly the eighth-grade students applied the concepts behind the Spaceship of Theseus to their own lives and generated real-world examples related to the themes of identity, change, and memory. They concluded that our personality traits are in a state of perpetual metamorphosis and thus we cannot accurately define our identities by such ephemeral variables because the only constant to our sense of ‘self’ is memory. By contrast, the seventh-graders responded to the Spaceship of Theseus in a much more straightforward manner that seemed to lack the same level of intense reflection exhibited by the eighth-graders. The seventh-graders in my group almost immediately resolved that the ship was the same no matter what, and they did not seem interested in exploring any other positions on the matter. I was a bit disheartened by my inability to elicit the same enthusiastic response from the seventh-graders that I had observed in the eighth-graders, but I was still impressed with the seventh-grade group’s capacity for philosophical discussion on a topic as complex as the Spaceship of Theseus.
Cultivating a community of inquiry with the first-grade students required a more nuanced approach because they obviously had much shorter attention spans and less developed vocabularies than their seventh and eighth-grade counterparts, but I was completely captivated by how articulate and insightful they were in their responses to The Giving Tree. After I read the story to the students I first asked them whether or not they thought that the tree was happy. Almost all of the kids immediately replied “No,” despite the fact that the story repeatedly states that the tree is happy. Not only did the students recognize that the relationship between the tree and the boy was unfair and that the boy was mistreating the tree, but they also identified how the relationship changed over time. One boy explained, “When the boy was younger he just wanted to play with the tree and have fun, and then when he grew up he just wanted to use the tree to make things for himself because he was selfish.” To this another student replied with the question, “Then why did the boy come back when he was a really old man? Why did he want to be with the tree even when the tree had already given him everything?” This sparked an interesting conversation on the meaning of friendship and what it means to be a ‘good friend.’ The Giving Tree subtly introduces the three types of friendship described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and demonstrates the growth that the boy in the story experiences as his relationship with the tree transitions from a friendship of pleasure into a friendship of utility, and then finally into a true, virtuous friendship in which both sides of the friendship value each other for who they are rather how they can benefit themselves.
The first-graders agreed that the boy didn’t really seem to love or care for the tree until the end of the book when he had become a very old man who could no longer do much of anything besides sit and reflect on his past experiences. When I asked if the boy was happy as an old man at the end of the story, the class said “no,” and one girl explained that she believes the old man was sad because he felt guilty for taking advantage of the tree and not being able to give anything back to the tree in return. However, the students pointed out that despite the old man’s apparent sadness, he seemed to have finally learned how to care for the tree in the way that friends are supposed to care for each other by the end of the story. The most emotionally rewarding experience that I had with the first-grade class was at the end of our discussion on The Giving Tree when one boy named Roan commented in the most pure and precious manner possible, “This was just a beautiful story.
Overall I cannot express how thankful I am to have had the opportunity to lead philosophical discussions with the students at Harmony Science Academy. This experience has been incredibly fulfilling for me as someone who plans on pursuing a career in teaching in the near future, and I hope that by introducing philosophy to children from a young age we can enrich the lives of today’s generation of young people and generations to come.