Citizen Philosophy Classes

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Athena looking over Socrates.

Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.

In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.

“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable in The Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents.

To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. Voting in Brazil is obligatory, but many think it’s useless.

“There are also other ways of political participation,” Ribeiro tells her students. She gives them the town hall’s phone number for complaints about infrastructure and asks them to find something in their street they want repaired. When one student calls, nothing happens. But when 15 call, the city reacts. In the same vein she’s now organizing an association of philosophy teachers. One urgent matter is the lack of qualified personnel. Another project is improving the relationship with the philosophy department at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), the region’s academic hub. Most teachers I meet complain that academic philosophers ignore them or look down on them.

That’s not surprising, considering that the 2008 law is above all a political project. In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy classes from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious.

The 2008 law–the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere–represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?

I was intrigued when I first heard about the law and wanted to see for myself whether philosophy could do something outside of academia. With the help of colleagues from the UFBA philosophy department I was often welcomed as a guest teacher in Salvador, and had the opportunity to discuss with teachers their curricula, instructional styles, and hopes for the students.

In every classroom I was at first flooded with questions: Who is this professor from Montreal and what’s he doing here? How did I get into philosophy? And–still more personally–do I believe in God, a question I encountered almost every time. When I asked who was a Catholic, who was an evangelical, and who practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, all students raised their hand at least once.

I asked them, “Do moral norms depend on God’s will? Would it be fine to murder an innocent child if God says so?” The students found the idea outrageous.

“But doesn’t God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?” I asked. There was a moment of confusion.

“But Abraham also holds God responsible when he wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorra,” one student replied. That can be interpreted as an independent norm of justice, I admitted.

I pressed on. “But if God must submit to objective moral norms, do we still need the Bible for moral guidance?”

Another student doubted that reason can replace the Bible: “Reason even justifies killing an innocent child if that’s the only way to save a thousand lives.”

We assumed for the moment that reason is indeed unable to ground absolute moral norms. “But how can we act on the authority of the Bible if there are so many different interpretations of it?” I asked. A third student intervened: “Can’t each interpretation be right in its own time and place?” I reminded them of Salvador’s Museum of Modern Art, which they visited on a class excursion. It is located in a beautifully restored casa grande–a colonial plantation owner’s mansion–with adjacent slave dormitories–senzala. “You remember the private chapel? Going to mass and having slaves obviously wasn’t a contradiction back then.” Most students have slaves among their ancestors. So they were reluctant to concede that an interpretation of the Bible allowing slavery is valid. “Is, then, reason the arbiter between competing interpretations?” I asked.

We hadn’t reached a conclusion when the bell rang, but we’d touched on a wide range of important issues in an open-ended Socratic discussion that seemed well suited to the public philosophy envisioned in the 2008 law.

But can philosophy really become part of ordinary life? Wasn’t Socrates executed for trying?

The Socratic approach does not have much support among the two main camps competing to define the high school curriculum in Brazil: academic philosophers on the one hand and political activists and educators on the other.

For academic philosophers, philosophy is not a democratic practice or an emancipatory exercise, but a rigorous scholarly discipline. For them, doing philosophy is no longer possible, only history of philosophy: reconstructing systems of thought through a painstaking analysis of their immanent structure.

For political activists and educators, this leads to “intellectual schizophrenia” as Eduardo Oliveira, who teaches in UFBA’s Faculty of Education, puts it. Many in this camp are affiliated with the “philosophy of liberation” movement, a series of loosely related intellectual exercises resisting local dictatorships and what is seen as the West’s political, economic, and cultural domination. But whatever its merits, I wonder if any substantive philosophical agenda is compatible with the diverse views citizens hold in a democracy.

Among the greatest skeptics of the 2008 law is José Arthur Giannotti, one of Brazil’s most respected academic philosophers. “Teaching philosophy to students who can hardly read and write,” Giannotti said in 2008, “is sad foolishness.”

To be sure, conditions are dire in public schools. More than 12 million poor families get tiny financial incentives to keep their children in school. Brazil still has 15 million illiterate people and an additional 30 million “functionally” illiterate who can decipher a text, but not understand it, much less write something coherent.

When I mentioned Giannotti’s statement to students they were outraged. They thought he described a vicious circle: if you can’t establish a just society democratically without the citizens knowing what justice is, and if you can’t know what justice is without philosophy, it would be impossible to achieve justice in an unjust society like Brazil.

The philosophy law presented academic philosophers with a fait accompli, so they have been mostly vocal in ensuring that the high school curriculum reflects their idea of rigor.

When I asked Ribeiro what she thought about these guidelines, she looked amused. “Let’s see what my evening class students”–maids, taxi drivers, construction workers, and others who hope the high school diploma will get them out of what she calls “slave work”–“will say if I ask them to make a structural analysis of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” And even if it were possible, she didn’t see the point. “If the students can’t relate what they learn to their own experience, of what use will it be to them?”

There are plenty of real-life experiences, though, that could be addressed in philosophy classes. Consider the myth of racial equality in Brazil, the idea that Brazil is a “racial democracy.” Following the Socratic call to self-knowledge, João Belmiro asks his students to sketch their biography and family background. “They always know much more about the white part of their family than about the black part,” he observed. In a country where races are so thoroughly mixed, what does it mean that skin color remains important?

Or consider the gap between rich and poor in Brazil, one of the world’s widest. Many here don’t perceive it as unjust. “Most of my students think that inequality is a law of nature,” explained Luis Rusmando, a teacher at an elite private school in Salvador. That’s why they find nothing wrong with the social hierarchy that Plato proposes in The Republic. “Only when I tell them that wisdom, not money, rules, according to Plato, they’re confused.”

João Belmiro’s studentshave discussed justice. In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. “But what is freedom worth,” one student asked, “without access to land, jobs, and education?” All students in his class are in favor of affirmative action programs in universities.

“But are quotas enough?” I asked the students. “Isn’t there a risk of graduating black engineers, lawyers, and doctors who think and behave exactly like their white colleagues?”

“Consider two acarajé stands,” I said, referring to Salvador’s most popular street food. One is run by a talented cook, the other by a cook without talent. Both work hard, but the first stand has lots of customers, the second only a few. “Would it be just to take part of the talented cook’s income and give it to the untalented one?” Differences due to talent or effort seemed acceptable to the students as long as equal opportunities were granted. I pressed harder: “Isn’t talent an arbitrary fact of nature? Why, then, should it be rewarded? And is effort really more in our control? If one cook has just lost a child in an accident and now is depressed and can’t work properly–does she deserve to be punished?” The bell rang. One more inconclusive discussion, and another invitation to continue the philosophical conversation.

Carlos Fraenkel is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at McGill University. A longer version of this article appears in his forthcoming book Teaching Plato in Palestine. Excerpted from Boston Review(January/February 2012), a bimonthly magazine that has been recognized as an award-winning forum for political, cultural, and literary ideas.

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