Erin McDonagh (Core ’08, CAS ’10), a member of the EnCore steering committee, writes:
In this article by Carlos Fraenkel of Boston Review, we learn that Brazil’s public education policy has surprising stipulation: According to a 2008 law, students are required to study philosophy for three years in high school. The law is a political reaction against the country’s recent history: “The official rationale…is that philosophy ‘is necessary for the exercise of citizenship,’” and from 1971-1985, the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil outlawed philosophy, replacing it with classes on citizenship and loyalty to the state. The military leaders seem to have recognized something Core students are taught: that studying philosophy creates an endless chain of questions about freedom, enlightenment, equality, reason, and justice, all principles alien to an autocratic regime. Brazil’s relatively new democracy and its public education have taken active resistance against creating the conditions for such a regime, teaching students to ask these questions about the world around them.
The article (warning: it’s a bit lengthy) goes farther, questioning the implementation, wisdom, and principles of this new practice. Almira Ribiero, a philosophy teacher in a poor, violent, and racially segregated neighborhood in Salvador, insists that students come out of the cave, learn about the world, and then bring those lessons back down before the fire and apply them. She believes, as do other supporters of the 2008 law, that teaching students about what justice and democracy mean will help them to become more engaged citizens, and that examining reason and fairness will help them work toward a clearer idea of equality. This is part of the Core mission: by examining why we do things, discussing the basis for our mores and morals, and trying to live what Socrates called an examined life, we make better choices for ourselves and for others.
Other Brazilians, including many academics, are not so sure. They don’t believe that all students can be made to understand Kant, Socrates, or Hume, or that everyone can make theirs an examined life. “To make them question the beliefs and customs they were brought up in isn’t useful because they can’t replace them with examined ones,” Fraenkel explains, a point applicable in Athens or in Salvador. “So Socrates ended up pushing [Athenian citizens] into nihilism,” and nihilists do not make engaged citizens. The students in Ms. Ribiero’s class disagree. They protested to Fraenkel that “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 if studying philosophy presupposes justice.”
Core students are self-selected to attempt the examined life: we sign up for the program and continue in it for two years knowing that we will be asked questions with no correct answer. Students in Brazil are not given a choice, but does that make them unequal to the task? Fraenkel relates an engaging and enlightening discussion from his day with the students, and examines the role philosophy plays in building up this new society. Core lasts only for two years, and sends students on to a wide variety of disciplines; how to we, in our more solidly established system, bring Plato’s lessons back to our own cave?