Equal Opportunity via Philosophy

There is much talk about bringing equality to females and minorities, that is, providing equal footing and a fair chance to all.  I hear a number of claims about what the problems are, and some of these have studies to support them.  Many of them boggle my mind, because they don’t correspond to my personal experience, not that my experience is exhaustive by any means.  I have given a bit of thought to all of this, and I find it likely that there are many destabilizing factors that need accounting for, before the envisaged can be achieved.  To present my case and line of thought, maybe I can supply an anecdote, and provide some commentary, and go from there.

Those who follow my blog know that my undergraduate work (and some of my graduate work) was done in sciences and mathematics.  What the reader almost assuredly doesn’t know is that my sister was a far better mathematician than I was, when we were young.  I was by no means a slouch; I was marked for my prowess at a young age, but my sister thoroughly outdid me.  Keep in mind that she is two years younger than I.  This continued until we were in high school, actually, at the end of high school.  There was no doubt that she enjoyed arithmetic and basic number theory.  Geometry was where there seemed to be a change in attitude.  She still did well, but by the time she was done with trigonometry, she was definitely lacking interest to the point that it was hurting her performance —a student who did quite a bit of undergraduate coursework at the college level while in high school, so there was no lack of intellectual interest that could explain it.  By the time calculus rolled around, she wanted no part in it, and no longer did mathematics for enjoyment.  As it turns out, I could cite a couple of instances where I saw females exhibit the same kind of behavior, not that it was such a broad phenomenon that it can stand as a universal generalization, but you get the idea.  My assessment, which turned out to be correct, was that my sister felt no personal connection to what she was doing.  She just couldn’t relate to the extreme degree of abstraction, and she hadn’t even realized it herself.  Not until I brought it up did she realize it.  Until then, she just felt a slow loss of confidence, lack of interest, and it was as thought, inexplicably, her mathematical powers had failed her.

The turn in this story came when I began to talk philosophy with her, particularly, philosophy that dealt with mathematics.  Amazingly, discussions about Zeno’s paradox ended up resulting in a desire to take another look at integral calculus.  I think she was dumbfounded at the result.  It was, of course, a bit late for her to get back into “the mix” and see how a career run at the harder sciences would have turned out —she’s involved with the sciences as a veterinarian—, but this all turned out to be instructive for us, and it rekindled, to some degree, her appreciation of mathematics.  What is the moral, then?  I would like to propose that the “story,” imagination, and context for a puzzle (one that adds meaning for the person) of philosophy can be a pivotal tool in equalizing the playing field.  There is something very approachable about philosophy, and it doesn’t surprise me that it has been with us since time immemorial, and has such a central role in cultural histories.  Anyone can approach many of its most fundamental questions: what is ethical?, what does it mean for something to move (to be in motion)?, what is the nature of the world we live in?, and so on.  Most importantly (sometimes considered erroneously to be to the detriment of philosophy) there really aren’t any wrong answers, which makes it approachable, basically, with impunity.  This is a very favorable quality in education: no fear of being wrong, only having to put one’s absolute best effort forward.

The way in which this could be implemented is not far from the manner in which I just suggested it be implemented.  Student involvement at young enough stages is what I would propose.  There really is no reason to withhold philosophy from the young —lest you fear the corruption of the youth!  Involving young student with philosophy will not only inspire them to be independent thinkers, taking up subject matters and lines of thought that interest them, but also building those contexts that will unwittingly develop interest in traditional disciplines that the individual would not otherwise be interested.  This doesn’t just give females an enormous leg up, but the males, too. For example, many young boys, such as was my case, are very poor in things like vocabulary, grammar, and writing ability.  The natural way to do this is by taking the child that has a great enjoyment of logic, who has maybe done the PennyPress magazine logic puzzles and knows informal logic, and begin to teach him (or her, if it is a young lady that exhibits a passion for logic, but has a similar problem as the hypothetical male) that logic and language are, in essence, extensions of one another.  Syntax and semantics exhibit this overlap between the logical language, natural language (English, Swahili, and so on), and even mathematics.  What I cannot stress enough is this single point: Philosophy undergirds all disciplines, and, through it, context can be developed such that anyone can develop a personalized relationship to a discipline which he or she would otherwise not be interested in.

On the matter of underprivileged youths, such as minorities, someone who comes from an unhealthy social culture (I number among these), and/or someone who comes from extreme poverty (I number among these, too), philosophy can also be very helpful.  I certainly don’t want to bill it as the panacea, the end-all of all woes; but I do want to illustrate how powerful in can be for the underprivileged, as it was a game-changer for me.  Aside from developing a deep-seated interest in traditional disciplines, as discussed above, there is a particular way in which the individual might be empowered.  There is an old dictum, sometimes called the “Delphic injunction,” though we know it comes from the temple of Karnak in Africa.  The dictum is never in danger becoming a cliché, though, undoubtedly, someone somewhere says it on any given day.  It is this: Know thyself.  There are few things that rival the self-empowerment one derives from adhering to this dictum, as there are few things in this world that embody such a freeing capacity as that of having a sense and understanding of oneself, and the coupled capacity to orient oneself toward the future in self-evolving manner.  While I don’t think I actually heard this until I was in high school, it certainly is a general perspective and sentiment I had, when I was very, very young.  If there is anything that can help pull someone out of an unhealthy subculture, a situation in which they are discriminated against, or in the direst of life circumstance, the self-refining power of this sentiment and related philosophical questions can help the individual overcome all.

While philosophy isn’t going to solve all the problems —it won’t make available, for instance, opportunities that have not been availed—, I have made (hopefully) a strong first attempt to stress the value of it to equalize the playing field for females and minorities.  In my personal experience, I have seen many instances in which philosophy has helped people in just the ways I outlined that it could.  What I would push for is a little philosophy at every level of education, and use it to the education system’s advantage.

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