Should we teach Philosophy to ESL college level students?
Would anyone want to learn it? What’s it all about anyway?
Existentialism, empiricism, ontology, any idea what they mean? Kant, Heidegger and Kierkegaard; can you pronounce their names correctly? Once you’ve done that, now think about opening a course for nonnative English speakers who are still struggling with simple verb tenses. This is where one of my biggest teaching hurdles began 15 years ago and, to make matters worse, there was no YouTube back then to liven up the classroom with fun video clips. I had only just learnt how to email and was quite proud of being able to type with two fingers. I remember the first day just before class.
Already late, I dashed across the huge square of grass and concrete in desperate need of some tree cover to shade me. Eyes squinting in the intense sunlight, I got to the other side glad to reach the newly finished E building with strong air conditioning but still had four steep flights of stairs to climb. I bolted up with my heavy book bag, no mean feat in the tropical heat of southern Taiwan. I got to the fourth floor panting and stopped for a minute to get my breath back hoping I wasn’t sweating too much. Maybe it was the sudden light headedness, or the fear of making an absolute idiot of myself, I’m not sure which, but I got a fit of the giggles all the way into the classroom, to the amusement of the students. My one hope was they knew less about the subject than I did. I was about to find out. When the department chair first asked me to open a course on philosophy, to be perfectly honest, I thought he was joking, and then wondered aloud whether it was actually possible. “How on earth would any of our students cope with a subject like philosophy?” I was also thinking to myself, ‘How on earth am I going to cope teaching it?’ He retorted with, “You mean you are not able to teach the subject?” This was a definite challenge to my teaching ability so I quickly replied, “No, not at all, I love Philosophy, I would love to teach it!” The truth of the matter was, I knew almost nothing about Philosophy. It was something I had always been slightly in awe of and those of my friends who were really into it had a mysterious air of knowing deep secrets about the meaning of our existence that were far beyond my grasp. The more I thought about actually teaching the course, the more it dawned on me that I was not only not a philosopher but knew virtually nothing about the subject. I didn’t even know where to start. Any friends of mine who were Philosophy buffs lived about nine thousand miles away and weren’t very prompt to answer emails.
I consoled myself with the thought that, sometime during my English Literature MA, I had actually been given one of my first homework tasks of reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. I read it twice making notes; after the second reading, I was more confused than the first time round… that didn’t bode well. But I also remembered being introduced to Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” by a sympathetic classmate who could see I was struggling. Bertrand Russell had put the complex ideas into such clearly layman’s terminology that even an idiot should be able to glean a basic understanding, so even an idiot like me could pick up a few pointers. It was time for me to do some serious homework.
As soon as I got off work, I rushed home to rummage through my boxes of books. It took me a while to dislodge a moth eaten, yellowing copy of “Sophie’s World.” Brushing off some of the dust, I opened the book at the first chapter, “The Garden of Eden”. Not a bad place to start, I thought, as I dived into the story. If you’ve read the book, you will know it begins with a 14-year-old girl called Sophie who is on her way home from school with her friend Joanna. Jostein Gaarder begins,“They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?” A great discussion question; I thought and wondered whether my students would agree with Sophie or would they side with one of the modern metaphors of the brain, as a piece of hardware? Anyway, the whole book is a nice introduction to a deeper look into the history of philosophy from the perspective of a 14-year-old.
Thinking that it seemed an ideal text for the young university students who fill our classrooms, I ordered an English copy for all the participants who had signed up for the first semester of Philosophy. On the first day, I entered the class full of anticipation and more than a little apprehensive that there might be more than a few budding philosophers who would put my meagre knowledge of the subject to shame. I soon realized I needn’t have worried on that score, at least as far as discussing the subject in their second or third language, English. In fact, it only took till the second week for me to realize I had come up against a brick wall. I wished I had waited and ordered the book in Mandarin Chinese (the language that Taiwanese are educated in), at least then they could have had some grasp as to what was going on; also, a better chance of really understanding some of the theories and issues that arose. This may have led to some fun discussions on the thoughts of the philosophers. As it was, all I got were blank stares.
This was way back in the year 2001. No Internet to help me then, I decided to try to find the simplest texts I could. I ploughed through everything I could get my hands on in the quest for clarity for myself and, more to the point, for my students. “Philosophy for Dummies” by Tom Morris was right up my street, “The Big Questions” by Lou Marinoff, Brian Magee’s “Philosophy”, Bruce Lee’s “Striking Thoughts” and Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” are all great texts. Later, I was put onto an interesting book which takes a quite different approach: “The Pig that Wants to be Eaten”, which comprises a hundred thought experiments by Julian Baggini, getting the reader to ponder over many controversial and thought-provoking issues. Each text provides a great insight into many philosophical questions. The next step was tailoring bits from each book to suit the students’ needs. Easy, if you have hundreds of spare hours on your hands to do all the research, put it together and try it out on the young unassuming minds, who may be more interested in the latest Korean soap opera or music video.
So many years on, I hope, if nothing else, that I have a better grasp of the subject myself. Does that make me a better teacher? Not necessarily; but among the maze of philosophical jargon and some very long winded, if not almost incomprehensible texts (have you ever read Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”?), I certainly aimed to make any material or activity I was going to use in the classroom as basic as I possibly could. Sorry, Immanuel! It became a mission of simplification. As the not-so-stupid Albert Einstein himself professed, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” And six-year-olds they may not be, but where philosophy is concerned, it really helps if you teach them as if they were.
To answer the questions posed by the title: can you teach it? If I can, anybody can. Should you teach it? As a matter of philosophical debate, I would argue absolutely, totally and definitely, ‘YES!’ It is far more valuable than the average conversation, grammar or pronunciation class which, at college level, I believe should not be the main focus of the curriculum. Will you lose all your students from the ESL classroom? Well, only two semesters in the last fifteen years the registration of the course dropped below the minimum level of twenty students. Which isn’t too bad, especially considering the course clashed with a required course at the same time. So there were students who wanted to study it but had no choice. I have even had night school classes where there was an overattendance of students and they had to go hunting around other classrooms to find some spare chairs to bring back to sit on.