The ultimate question

Pompous title? Read to the end and that may change πŸ˜‰

Yesterday I watched an avalanche on Twitter, for lack of better analogy. Within minutes, a very casual pondering of a couple of good, open ended questions (OK, let’s call them philosophical) between Bianca Hewes and myself turned into a frenzy of criss-crossing replies by almost a dozen people. In a typical Twitter fashion it was messy, bit restricted (no essays is not an inherently bad thing either), we all kinda threw bits of philosophers we have read and like(d) into the mix, made some new connections, challenged, asked each other a bit, wondered together … in short, it felt like a shot of thinking espresso (at least to me).

And it was the second such little avalanche in two days … We were onto something!

I have never formally studied philosophy, apart from a few units at uni. I taught Philosophy & Ethics at a high school (and loved it!) for a year. I am no ‘philosopher’ but I have always liked and enjoyed to think, read, poke, question, wonder, stir and sleep with clear conscience.

Everyone is a philosopher, even the young kids. In fact, they ask the best questions! To illustrate, just a few recent questions from my 5 year old: Why can’t we have a day off today at school today? Why do adults drink things kids can’t? Why people don’t share money? Why do people have different languages?

And it is sad that it is only the young kids and the very top scientists and scholars that ‘get away’ with ‘dumb’ questions like that. Anyone else would be dismissed along the lines of ‘what’s wrong with you to ask that sort of thing?’ or, worse, be threatened by it because they immediately think YOU have the answer and they don’t. We are addicted to answers, particularly if they are quick and delivered with certainty, no matter how bluffy, unsound and downright crappy, wrong, even hurtful they may be. Want an example? Read this passionate post by Leesa Watego on her views of our Prime Minister’s rhetoric).

Philosophy is at the heart of everything we do, every choice we (don’t) make in our lives. Don’t believe it? OK, let’s ask, top of the head scenario: Were you at work on time this morning? Why (not)? Why is that important? What things should always run on time and which ones not so? Who decides? What gives you/them the right to decide for many? Can somebody then tell you what to do with your body? Why (not)?Β  When is it OK to ignore them? … I am sure you can see the infinity of possibilities. I am also sure you can see how conversations like that can be steered in a particular direction. And I hope you can see the value of pausing sometimes and thinking about these things. Are you a teacher? Parent? Reckon kids would like to have a crack at some of these questions in their own way? You bet !

And do we need a PhD in philosophy to ask such questions? Do we need to learn the entire history of Western philosophy or know in depth some French guy who wrote 5 books on the topic 300 years ago to wrestle with answers? Sure, it may help a bit (oh, and dropping a name or two on Twitter looks so cool πŸ˜‰ ) … but answers, no matter how partial, incomplete, must ultimately come from within, no matter how ‘educated’ we are.

Now, I am NOT dismissing professional philosophers neither am I suggesting we navel gaze all day long and doubt with every single breath we take. But sometimes it is just nice and useful to (in the parlance of road campaigns for kids) Stop, Look, Listen, Think (thanks Leesa πŸ˜‰ ) and, importantly, Act.

Deleuze, one of my favourite philosophers (showing off here? πŸ˜‰ wrote this about art: “Art is not a notion but a motion, It us not about what art is but what it does that is important.” You can easily replace ‘art’ with ‘philosophy’ (or anything else for that matter …’education’, ‘love’, ‘snow’, ‘cooking’, ‘kiss’) and you can see the ultimate point of philosophy is a pragmatic one – it is to be done, not merely known and learned about.

And to break the shackles of perception of philosophy as something you ‘take’ at uni and something only those who have read great philosophers in depth can do and similar nonsense, we (Bianca Hewes, Malyn Mawby, Mitch Squires, Nathan Hutchings, Janie Kibble, and myself) started a special hashtag on Twitter: #42c

Sure, we can have some very sophisticated discussions and links in there BUT (at least in the humble, naive view of yours truly)… the tag is NOT about showing off how much you know about [insert name of a philosopher]. It is NOT about big words to impress (some may be needed though, just is…). It is NOT about feeling guilty for not having read more or thought more. It’s NOT about talking, it’s more about listening. It’s NOT about providing definite answers, it’s about asking good questions (a skill not practiced enough in classrooms and broader society). It’s NOT a win-lose debate, it’s a dialogue (distinction here ). It’s NOT a bogey to shame, it’s a chance to learn.

So when you feel like asking a curly question and/or wrestle with one- just type and hash #42c on Twitter and away you go. To keep the hashtag brief and relevant, we had settled for the genially funny ’42’ and added the ‘c’ for cents so Twitter search picks it up. Why 42? Good question! Watch below, it’s a must πŸ˜‰

Spread the word, we only have 7.5 million years left!

8 comments

  1. Malyn

    I didn’t think you only did a few units of Philosophy as you seem far more erudite than that – I only did a few units myself so you know where I’m coming from.

    The Twitter conversations have indeed been like a shot of espresso – enjoyable (I’m a coffee drinker though prefer with milk) and like a caffeine hit (wakes me up). I’m excited about #42c.

    Here’s my “related” post which may appeal to you because of the reference to Philosophy and Ethics. I don’t ask the ultimate question – just one in fact – Why teach Simultaneous Equations – an exercise in Critical Thinking or dare I say, doing philosophy.

    cheers,
    Malyn

  2. Malyn

    I didn’t think you only did a few units of Philosophy as you seem far more erudite than that – I only did a few units myself so you know where I’m coming from.

    The Twitter conversations have indeed been like a shot of espresso – enjoyable (I’m a coffee drinker though prefer with milk) and like a caffeine hit (wakes me up). I’m excited about #42c.

    Here’s my “related” post which may appeal to you because of the reference to Philosophy and Ethics. I don’t ask the ultimate question – just one in fact – Why teach Simultaneous Equations – an exercise in Critical Thinking or dare I say, doing philosophy.

    cheers,
    Malyn

  3. human

    Hi Malyn

    Thanks, I suppose it’s a case of ‘schooling not getting in the way of education’ (Twain, paraphrased). I read fairly widely for my Masters (and before) but, more importantly, had many conversations with people who made me think while walking around with eyes, ears open.

    An anecdote to illustrate how learning about philosophy is not exactly a guarantee for that elusive ‘examined life’… An acquaintance of mine (a ‘real philosopher’) was a judge at Philosothon, a philosophy comp/event between a bunch of elite private schools here in Perth.

    Now, most people came out if with glowing praises how these kids ‘know the philosophers, technically construct their arguments according to Xyz framework etc etc’

    He hated it (well, disliked it), even got angry about it. He said it was the most boring thing to watch kids quote famous philosophers and argue the same old ‘existence of God’ and the likes. In his words: “Where is the true creativity? Where is kids ‘stuff’ that bothers them and us all? Where are new, un-coached, un-trained, original ideas? THAT is what Philosophy is about!

    Again, I am NOT saying that knowing parts of the large body of information about philosophy (I deliberately don’t call it knowledge, but more on that another time …) and its phenomenal tradition does not help. It DOES, but as long as it doesn’t restrict people in nutting things out themselves, not ‘as Kant would’ or discuss the ‘merits of Nietzsche’ instead of actually acting and seeing how applicable are those ideas in their own context and that of the community they live in.

    And I know, without dissing it again, that analytical philosophy (structure of argument, logic etc.) is important but it is more the ‘continental philosophy’ (since we are bracketing a bit here πŸ˜‰ ), the ‘big questions of every day’ that appeals the most to the kids we teach and ourselves too. And that is a great ‘hook’ to make ‘philosophical, critical thinking’ less of an elitist bogey and help develop in us all something that is VITAL in a robust, healthy, and just democratic society – a great set of bullshit detectors.

    Looking forward to #42c, let’s see where it takes us. Cheers.

  4. human

    Hi Malyn

    Thanks, I suppose it’s a case of ‘schooling not getting in the way of education’ (Twain, paraphrased). I read fairly widely for my Masters (and before) but, more importantly, had many conversations with people who made me think while walking around with eyes, ears open.

    An anecdote to illustrate how learning about philosophy is not exactly a guarantee for that elusive ‘examined life’… An acquaintance of mine (a ‘real philosopher’) was a judge at Philosothon, a philosophy comp/event between a bunch of elite private schools here in Perth.

    Now, most people came out if with glowing praises how these kids ‘know the philosophers, technically construct their arguments according to Xyz framework etc etc’

    He hated it (well, disliked it), even got angry about it. He said it was the most boring thing to watch kids quote famous philosophers and argue the same old ‘existence of God’ and the likes. In his words: “Where is the true creativity? Where is kids ‘stuff’ that bothers them and us all? Where are new, un-coached, un-trained, original ideas? THAT is what Philosophy is about!

    Again, I am NOT saying that knowing parts of the large body of information about philosophy (I deliberately don’t call it knowledge, but more on that another time …) and its phenomenal tradition does not help. It DOES, but as long as it doesn’t restrict people in nutting things out themselves, not ‘as Kant would’ or discuss the ‘merits of Nietzsche’ instead of actually acting and seeing how applicable are those ideas in their own context and that of the community they live in.

    And I know, without dissing it again, that analytical philosophy (structure of argument, logic etc.) is important but it is more the ‘continental philosophy’ (since we are bracketing a bit here πŸ˜‰ ), the ‘big questions of every day’ that appeals the most to the kids we teach and ourselves too. And that is a great ‘hook’ to make ‘philosophical, critical thinking’ less of an elitist bogey and help develop in us all something that is VITAL in a robust, healthy, and just democratic society – a great set of bullshit detectors.

    Looking forward to #42c, let’s see where it takes us. Cheers.

  5. Ira Socol

    Funny, or sad, to see “Western Culture” descend to a point where “the big questions” are viewed as elitist bullshit and education is only perceived to have value if it is the lowest level of vocational training (scripted activities).

    Certainly this goes back to the origins of Anglo-American education “as-we-know-it” back in the very early 18th Century in the Prussian Rhineland. The Wikipedia entry on this is very good…

    “Seeking to replace the controlling functions of the local aristocracy, the Prussian court attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount.
    “The schools imposed an official language, to the prejudice of ethnic groups living in Prussia. The purpose of the system was to instill loyalty to the Crown and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”
    “Compulsory education
    “A series of edicts made clear for the first time that education was a task of the state. This evolution finally culminated in 1763, when Frederick II made schooling compulsory for all children between ages five and 13.”

    The system we have replaced the apprenticeship/master system of inquiry, as well as the nascent university concept of instructors hired by students, with a compliance based system specifically designed NOT to ask the big questions, not to raise doubts, but rather, to move a “product” through a sorting system.

    The adoption of this “Prussian Model” by the United States and Great Britain, in the first of what Americans call “Sputnik Moments,” during the early days of the Second Industrial Revolution, separated schooling throughout the English-Speaking world into elite “big questions” (Oxbridge, the Ivy League) and everyone else.

    The assumption in that, which carries through today in the popular fantasy that “most kids can’t handle this” is the Calvinist notion that those who are rich are intellectually blessed by God, those who are not, are not.

  6. Ira Socol

    Funny, or sad, to see “Western Culture” descend to a point where “the big questions” are viewed as elitist bullshit and education is only perceived to have value if it is the lowest level of vocational training (scripted activities).

    Certainly this goes back to the origins of Anglo-American education “as-we-know-it” back in the very early 18th Century in the Prussian Rhineland. The Wikipedia entry on this is very good…

    “Seeking to replace the controlling functions of the local aristocracy, the Prussian court attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount.
    “The schools imposed an official language, to the prejudice of ethnic groups living in Prussia. The purpose of the system was to instill loyalty to the Crown and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”
    “Compulsory education
    “A series of edicts made clear for the first time that education was a task of the state. This evolution finally culminated in 1763, when Frederick II made schooling compulsory for all children between ages five and 13.”

    The system we have replaced the apprenticeship/master system of inquiry, as well as the nascent university concept of instructors hired by students, with a compliance based system specifically designed NOT to ask the big questions, not to raise doubts, but rather, to move a “product” through a sorting system.

    The adoption of this “Prussian Model” by the United States and Great Britain, in the first of what Americans call “Sputnik Moments,” during the early days of the Second Industrial Revolution, separated schooling throughout the English-Speaking world into elite “big questions” (Oxbridge, the Ivy League) and everyone else.

    The assumption in that, which carries through today in the popular fantasy that “most kids can’t handle this” is the Calvinist notion that those who are rich are intellectually blessed by God, those who are not, are not.

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