Today I asked this question

I am working on introducing my young students to philosophical and political concepts surrounding the question of a just and fair society. I am using the work of John Rawls and Emmanuel Kant to aid my efforts.

Today I asked the group this question:

Which society would you choose:

A.) Everyone can do as they choose if it maximizes the happiness of the society

B.) Everyone can do as they choose provided it benefits the most vulnerable in society

Interestingly, the vote was 8-4 in favour of option A. In other words, the students voted for the utilitarian principle (Jeremy Bentham) as opposed to the difference principle (John Rawls). As we discuss these matters further, I will revisit this question with them.

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Noam Chomsky on John Rawls

On a note related to my previous post:
I am currently weighing John Rawls’ ideas on “justice as fairness” with my own re-envisioning of the history of my native land. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ collection of essays “We Were Eight Years In Power” and found myself sitting once again with a bedevilling problem, which has long disturbed me: the tension between theory and practice; that distance between the careful and necessary study of ideas, especially ideas about fairness, liberty and equality as first order principles and, frankly, reality: the socio-economic and political realities of race and class, which play such a formative role in the application of fairness, liberty and equality.

I remember so well being confronted with a terrible feeling of inadequacy when I was immersed in graduate studies whereby I felt that my work in history was irrelevant; irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary society. The inadequacy was, I think in hindsight, the result of a flaw in my approach to my research (these things often are). But I have never been able to move away from, or beyond, a terrible sense that the careful examination of first order principles of how a fair and just society is to be constructed are somehow far removed from the historical legacy and the contemporary socio-economic and political -not to mention ecological- realities of the United States (Canada, too). I mention the U.S. specifically as it is my native land and therefore the society I know best.

In the short clip that follows, Noam Chomsky speaks to this dilemma I am facing as I read and re-read Rawls and try and respond to the claims and criticisms Ta-Nehisi Coates has so profoundly drawn together in his essays on the 2009-2017 period in American history (with all of its antecedents).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6Cqi_W8PmI

Children, young adults and John Rawls

I am currently working on an exercise for young adults and public school age children that involves exploring “the difference principle” as articulated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. I find this to be an especially interesting exercise as it has me thinking about how to conduct a group activity where each child/young adult has to imagine a society where the social benefits that accrue to those most well off must also improve the position of the worst off or most vulnerable. I am led to what is, for me, the inevitable question:

Do social goods like health care and public education improve the position of the most vulnerable in our society?

My answer, drawing from personal observation and experience, will have two categories: 1.) Canada. 2.) United States.

On another note, what I am interested to know is whether children & young adults find Rawls’ “difference principle” to be fundamentally fair or not. Will they find it necessary for the creation of a just society?

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Three more poems appearing

I was pleased -very pleased- to learn this evening that three of my poems will be appearing soon at The Black Lion journal. The pieces are entitled “North Providence Deli,” “Scenes from my father’s Rhode Island” and “Ladies Auxiliary.” The poems are each about what you might call my imagining of my own parents’ pasts. When the poems appear, I will post a link here.

 

Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.