I would like to share a quote from a book I am re-reading with a student and which I think deserves careful study and discussion: Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset .
I offer this quote without comment (for the present):
“Advanced civilisation is one and the same thing as arduous problems. Hence, the greater the progress, the greater danger it is in. Life gets gradually better, but evidently also gradually more complicated. Of course, as problems become more complex, the means of solving them also become more perfect. But each new generation must master these perfected means. Amongst them- to come to the concrete- there is one most plainly attached to the advance of a civilisation, namely, that it have a great deal of the past at its back, a great deal of experience; in a word: history. Historical knowledge is a technique of the first order to preserve and continue a civilisation already advanced. Not that it affords positive solutions to the new aspect of vital conditions- life is always different from what it was- but that it prevents us committing the ingenuous mistakes of other times. But if, in addition to being old and, therefore, beginning to find life difficult, you have lost the memory of the past, and do not profit by experience, then everything turns to disadvantage.” (Take from chapter x, “Primitivism and history”)
“To view ourselves, therefore, as in the world of grace, where all happiness awaits us, except in so far as we ourselves limit our share in it through being unworthy of happiness, is, from the practical standpoint, a necessary idea of reason.”
-Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (pp. 640)
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.
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).
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?
Apparently the English have shown that when you teach students philosophy they improve in mathematics and logical reasoning skills. I am pleased to say that I teach and discuss philosophy with my students. The Socratic approach is the very core of what I do; it’s what I’ve been doing at DEMOI for three and a half years and it is what I am also doing at The Infinity School. http://infinityschool.ca
I must say that I am again delighted with the session I had with the philosophy discussion group. Yesterday we met a second time and discussed The God That Failed, a collection of testimonials by six writers who turned against communism.
I remain deeply impressed by the contributions of the group. Not only did they read the book with enthusiasm but they also connected the analysis of writers like Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone and André Gide to contemporary socio-economic and political problems. To witness a group of young people sit and debate ideas with intellectual commitment, personal humility and unfailing politeness is always a great joy for me and offers me hope for our social future.
At the risk of being repetitive, I just cannot help but express my delight at having the opportunity to work with such a group of engaged and committed thinkers who approach ideas with purpose and verve. Not only are the sessions delightful to participate in, but they are a personal gift to me as I am reminded why teaching is my calling. I am grateful to my students (and their parents) for reminding me of that.
I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.
Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist Manifesto, The God That Failed, To Kill A Mockingbird, Winnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.
It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriouslyand embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.