The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New
In twice-a-week schoolroom visits, undergraduate philosophy students are helping local youngsters wrap their minds around fundamental concepts of right and wrong.
By Jan Fitzpatrick
Teresa Lozeau '96 in class last spring with Clara Barton School pupils Akila Barksdale and Anthony Bryant
Should you tell on a friend who has brought a knife to school? Join up with a gang? Do drugs?
Schoolchildren today, especially those in urban schools, are asked to make brutal choices and solve problems that have far-reaching, sometimes even life-threatening consequences. Schools must therefore teach students how to think clearly, reason effectively, and make good choices.
What better models should they have, one might ask, than some of the great thinkers of the ages?
In a productive partnership between University undergraduates and local elementary school pupils, some very young thinkers have been joining ranks with the likes of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Kant in learning to reason their way though hard questions. Distant echoes of Voltaire, Hume, Jefferson, Paine, and Mill can be heard in classroom discussions led by about a dozen and a half Rochester philosophy students working as interns in as many city schools.
In twice-a-week sessions, the River Campus visitors are showing first through fifth graders how to wrap their minds around fundamental concepts of right and wrong. They are helping them grapple with questions that have obsessed philosophers since the Age of Reason, issues such as free will versus determinism, and individual rights versus respect for the group. Reasoning like junior versions of the justices of the Supreme Court, these youngsters are learning how to build arguments for their views.
The questions the student interns put to them are far from easy, but these kids seem to thrive on the challenge.
Take a peek at the class led last spring by senior Teresa Lozeau. She poses this question to her students at Clara Barton School: Why do we think cheating is bad? Is it because it breaks a fundamental rule about fairness, or because cheating has bad consequences?
Students who argue that cheating is bad because it breaks a rule learn that there is a big word for the kind of reasoning they are using: deontology, or the idea that there are essential rules and principles that guide our beliefs and behavior about good and evil.
Those who argue that it is the consequences of cheating that are bad learn that they are utilitarians, people who believe that questions about right and wrong can be decided on the grounds of what is best for the greatest number of people.
Lozeau, who works with very young students, has developed some simple exercises to warm them up for the rigors of philosophical thinking.
First, she shows them how to think in order. She might, for instance, write down the steps involved in making a peanut butter sandwich. Then she scrambles the steps and asks her students to arrange them in a logical sequence. Which comes first: "Spread the peanut butter on a piece of bread" or "Take bread out of the package"?
Later on in the term, Lozeau has her charges tackle real-world questions about right and wrong. One day she tells them this story:
Tomorrow is Tereza's mom's birthday, but Tereza does not have a gift or any money. Tereza loves her mom very much and wants to give her a nice present. On her way home from school, she passes a store that sells pretty jewelry. When she goes inside she sees the prettiest pin -- it would be perfect for her mom. But the pin is expensive and she cannot afford it. The salesclerk isn't paying any attention to her, and she realizes she could take the pin without paying for it, and nobody in the store would even notice. If she steals the pin she will have a beautiful gift for her mom. If she doesn't steal the pin, she will follow the rule her mother always taught her -- "Do not steal" -- but she will be sad that she has no gift for the birthday.
Before she asks her students to decide what Tereza should do, Lozeau has them think about questions like these: What if Tereza gets caught? What will the consequences be?
What if she doesn't get caught, but her mom realizes she stole the pin?
Which should be more important: making herself and her mom happy, or following an important rule like "Do not steal"?
Lozeau also asks the youngsters to think about what a "utilitarian" would advise Tereza to do, and what a "deontologist" would say.
In the essays Lozeau has them write, the children all argue that stealing the pin is a bad idea, though they offer different reasons:
"Tereza will be in deep, deep trouble if she's caught."
"She will feel guilty."
"If Tereza has to go to jail, her mom will be sad."
"Being honest is a great birthday present for her mom."
Others suggest that Tereza could buy a cheaper present, ask other people for money, or throw a surprise party for her mom instead.
For Lozeau, presenting lessons on right and wrong, on responsibility and on human rights, has been "like a comprehensive examination" that forced her to review and think about all the things she's learned in college.
For the students, having "Ms. Lozeau" in class is a welcome break from the routine, and a chance to show that they can handle tough thinking assignments.
Many of the undergraduates who have interned in city schools in the last couple of years have, like Lozeau, been philosophy majors, and many have taken a seminar led by Professor Richard Feldman, chair of the department, that gives them the opportunity to discuss appropriate ways of introducing philosophy to the younger generation.
City school teachers who have had University interns in their classes say the children look forward to their visits and lap up the lessons enthusiastically.
Last fall, junior Reema Khan worked with fifth graders at School 52, teaching them to develop arguments for and against such tough questions as whether war is ever justified, whether affirmative action is right or wrong, whether it is better to imprison those who break the law or seek alternatives to incarceration.
Sometimes her students struggled with vocabulary--some found it a lot easier to remember "Deion Sanders" than to say "deontology," but by the end of the term, they were holding seriously argued debates on the kinds of questions even Supreme Court justices have trouble with.
"I was amazed at how much they were able to learn," Khan says. "They worked so hard. You could just hear a pin drop when they were thinking."
Jan Fitzpatrick is public information coordinator for the Office of University Public Relations.
Copyright 1996, University of Rochester