Teaching Philosophy of Religion to Junior High Kids


Yesterday I spoke in two classes, a 7th-grade class and an 8th-grade class, at Vineyard Christian School in Anaheim. Our topic? The Existence of God. I had a 2-page handout for them, and in 45 minutes we examined the value of evidence for what we believe, what it means to have evidence, and what sort of evidence there might be for the existence of God. This is not my usual audience and my biggest concern was that it would all seem boring and over their heads. I was mistaken. Here are three lessons I learned:

  1. Our kids care about these questions. They want to know what to believe.
  2. Our kids want evidence for the things they’re asked to believe.
  3. Our kids have natural strengths in assessing evidence about things that matter, but these strength need to be cultivated and tutored.

It was with some trepidation that I handed my outline to the office assistant for duplicating. I worried that she would take one look at the detail and sophistication and be hard-pressed not to snicker. She was more confident than I that it would work. The kids proved me wrong. We need to expect more from our young people, urge them to keep the questions coming, and invite them into a vigorous life of the mind. Let us not underestimate their interest and capacity. They are the next generation. And we are responsible for their nurture.

Related posts:

Teaching Logic & Critical Thinking to Your Kids


Cover of

Cover of Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

It’s pleasing to know that parents are taking a more proactive role in the education of their children, whether or not they are homeschooling. I’ve been asked if I can recommend tools that could be used to teach children the elements of logic and critical thinking.

  1. My first suggestion is that the best way to teach children how to think critically is to be a visible model of critical thinking. Children have a far greater aptitude for critical thinking than adults credit them for. They tend to be good at inferential reasoning. Their powers are limited in part by their limited storehouse of information from which to make inferences.
  2. Modeling excellence in critical thinking presupposes skill in critical thinking. So parents need to be students of logic and critical thinking themselves. Unfortunately, most have not had the opportunity for formal education in these skills. But there are accessible books to consider. I’ll add a list of recommendations at the end of this post.
  3. If your children see you making the attempt to sharpen your skills in reasoning, this will itself be a good example to them. You can tell them what you’re learning.
  4. Learn the names of basic inferential moves (for example modus ponens, modus tollens) and use these labels with your children when they demonstrate their own ability to make such moves. This should reinforce their awareness of the significance of their mental powers, and affirm them in the use of their powers.
  5. Encourage your children to think about the implications of something they have said or heard. You’ll have to be alert to opportunities for this. But once you’ve been at it for awhile, you’ll get into a natural groove. It will eventually become a part of your routine interaction with your kids. How to do this? I’ll save that for another post sometime.
  6. Get your children reading at their grade level (or above!) books that exemplify and encourage critical thinking. Mystery and suspense novels, carefully selected for their sophistication and interest, can be useful. I read the Hardy Boys as a kid. I also liked the stories of the Sugar Creek Gang.
  7. If you’re home schooling (or not), you can include in the curriculum some materials that teach critical thinking. The Fallacy Detective is a good source for this. (See below.)

Recommendations:

So, here are a few of the many resources available. I’m recommending those that provide a good place to start. Each title is linked to its Amazon page.

Books that inspire parents and other educators to teach children these skills:

Books for self-education in logic and critical thinking:

With adequate preparation in the early years, children in junior high and high school may be ready to work through these books themselves. They don’t provide a complete education in logic, but they are satisfactory for pre-college preparation. For more rigorous study in high school, I recommend using one of two textbooks:

Like most textbooks, Copi and Hurley are pricey. So you may want to settle for a second-hand copy. The illustrations and exposition of old editions will be dated, but the logic will be the same! I shop for second-hand books at AbeBooks.com.

For grade school and up:

Fiction classics for youth:

This post is cross-referenced in an interesting post here.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Using “Google Sites” for a Course Project


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Today TOMD73’s blog has a post that explores the possibility of using blog assignments as part of a course.

I did something very like this with a class of about 75 university students, mostly juniors and sophomores.

Instead of calling it a blog, I called it a website. I had all of them use the Google website app so that (1) everyone was required to follow the same steps and (2) they could very easily create access to each other without “going public.”

With so many students, I formed the group into teams. Students would comment on the websites of those in their team. I gave very specific instructions about the kinds of comments they were to make, and explained that the quality of their comments would be a variable in their final grade evaluation.

Building a website of 5-7 linked pages was the major course project. Students could select their own topics, with two provisos: (1) the topic had to be related to the course topic; (2) I had to approve their selection.

Class met weekly. Each week students were given a series of steps to be completed by the next class period. These steps moved them gradually to completion of their website projects by the end of the semester.

The course was a philosophy of religion course for non-philosophy majors, with special focus on the New Atheism.

Many of the students produced excellent websites that they could be proud to make available to the public.

On the whole, I was pleased with the results. Most difficulties related to the size of the class. This type of assignment would have been much easier for me to manage with fewer students.

Here are some of the more significant challenges I encountered:

  1. Mastering the technology so that I knew what I was asking of the students and so that I could explain it to even the most technologically timid.
  2. Getting teams to work with so many students. There was considerable troubleshooting early on while students were learning the steps to get up and running. But more important, some students simply didn’t participate. I hadn’t counted on this since they were required to. This complicated things for the conscientious students, since part of their assignment was to respond to the comments they received.
  3. Helping the students work within a template of 5-7 pages that would do justice to their topics. Creating website pages differs from writing a paper. Developing and linking ideas is handled differently. Ideally, a decision to create a website rather than to write a paper should be grounded in the conviction that a website better serves the purposes of the project—especially because of the way material can be packaged (e.g., audio and visual tools can be included, and convenient links to other valuable items can be made).
  4. This project required more assistance from me than many other assignments. The student-teacher ratio made this a challenge. But one advantage is that I did get better acquainted with many of the students.
  5. Grading these assignments proved to be time intensive. This isn’t a bad thing. But you need to expect this when planning a course that includes this type of project.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! It would be much easier the next time around. But it has to be the right kind of course for this to count as a suitable assignment. I especially like it that students that have excelled have something to offer the rest of the world the moment the course is over!

Best Reason for Homeschooling


“Homeschooling” is a noun; “homeschool” is sometimes a noun, sometimes a verb. “We homeschooled our daughters”—verb, past tense. Also, a true sentence.

This week we move our second daughter to university. She, like her older sister did, begins one year sooner than she would have if she had not been homeschooled. But this is not why she was homeschooled.

We began homeschooling in 1998, in part as a convenience for our family while I enjoyed a sabbatical at the University of Oxford. Homeschooling was portable. It was a reasonable experiment. Also a successful experiment.

At that point, our older daughter had been to public school for kindergarten and first and second grades. These were not bad experiences. But there was something missing. Later, she experimented with a return to public school in high school and changed her mind after one semester.

Our younger daughter was homeschooled from the beginning, but attended junior high for two years at an excellent private school. Then it was back to homeschooling.

Each year, and for each of our daughters, we made the best decision we could about their education. This is a parent’s responsibility. Thankfully, it is a freedom we still enjoy.

With each decision we considered several things:

  1. Where could they be taught what they needed to know?
  2. How would they be taught what they needed to know?
  3. Would the things they would be taught be true?
  4. Would they be taught how to think intelligently for themselves?
  5. Would they eventually be able to teach themselves the truth about things yet to be learned?
  6. Would they be treated fairly and respectfully by their teaching authorities?
  7. Would they be learning in a physically safe environment?
  8. Would they be learning in an emotionally healthy environment?

These were our major questions. Athletic programs, music programs, theater programs, and the like, were important but secondary. Whatever talent they had for any of these things deserved development, but not at the risk of shrinking—or, God forbid, losing—their souls.

Now I think of it, much of our concern reduced to three basic things, revolving round one major concept: (1) proper respect for truth; (2) effectual methods of obtaining truth; and, (3) behavior in accordance with truth.

The second of these depends on growth in reasoning powers and skill in assessing evidence. It’s here where many educational options in the United States prove so terribly inadequate.

I was reminded of this today when I came across a nice little article by Susan Wise Bauer, called “Dodging the Homeschool Stereotype.” She explains why she opted for homeschooling in the style of classical education:

Classical education leans heavily on the evaluation of evidence: The educated child learns to avoid logical fallacies, to decide whether arguments are trustworthy or flawed.

I believe she’s right when she adds:

And both secular and religious classrooms are prone to simplistic thinking.

The reasons why traditional classrooms, whether secular or religious, are prone to simplistic thinking deserves development in other posts. But I stress the point that simplistic thinking is the blight of current cultural discourse, infecting all of our institutions—political, educational, ecclesiastical—and methods of knowledge management—schools, media, church, and home.

It happens that homeschooling is susceptible to the same infection. But it need not be. And parents have more direct control over this dimension of childhood education if they do not rely on traditional classrooms.

Homeschooling is a choice. Parents must be free to exercise the option. The future of our culture, the outlook for the common good, may depend on the success of homeschooling.

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Recommended Reading for Doing Apologetics in Your Home


My lecture on “Apologetics in Your Home” has been popular at conferences. During this presentation, I recommend the following books to parents:

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a great hymn writer. But his two books contain much timeless advice for the education of children in piety and critical thinking.

J. Budziszewski is a Christian author and professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He converted from Marxism to Christianity and has written these two books to guide Christian university students through the thickets of their “higher” educational experience.

American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was a leading figure in the pragmatist movement in philosophy, and is well-known for his work on the philosophy of education. If used with caution, parents will find much wisdom in his book on How We Think.

Three books are listed here for the exceptional value they offer in areas related to logic and critical thinking. I recommend beginning with D. J. McInerny for an overview of issues related to the nature of truth, evidence, logic, and good judgment. The book by Bowell and Kemp is an excellent textbook—the best of breed, in my opinion. Parents should learn this material early, and lead their children through a close study of its principles before graduation from high school. The book by C. Allen and M. Hand is a useful reference work.

The book by Norman Geisler and David Geisler explains the challenges of relativism and postmodernism and offers practical advice for combining critical thinking with conversational skill in dialogue with nonbelievers.

Here are two additional books to consider: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, and Study Is Hard Work, by William Howard Armstrong.

Finally, for general wisdom on the cultivation of the mind, I highly recommend the classic by A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.

The Religious Lives—and Questions—of Children


I know from experience that children think deep thoughts and come up with the most difficult questions. Throughout their childhood, my daughters plied me with questions about the nature of the universe, the existence of God, whether we have souls—that sort of thing. I have always been amazed by two things as a parent and a university professor. First, grad students in philosophy ask questions they probably had when they were three to five years old. They had’t forgotten the answers; they had forgotten the questions. Second, the quirky solutions young kids reach in answer to deep intellectual challenges are seldom more quirky than the ideas of philosophers and theologians about the same things. Come to think of it, their answers often bear a remarkable resemblance!

I’m not the first to marvel at this. My friend Jim Spiegel also teaches philosophy. He has twice as many children as I do, and they’re about half the ages of my kids. And his kids don’t let him relax from doing philosophy when he comes home from work. Fortunately for us, he’s written a spanking new book about his experiences in this arena.

It’s called Gum, Geckos and God: A Family’s Adventure in Space, Time, and Faith. My copy just arrived and already I’ve read the first forty pages. Jim is a talented writer and an insightful parent. He can tell a good story, and this book is loaded with them. He’s funny, too, and self-effacing. If you have children or grandchildren, or know someone who does, and you haven’t given up asking questions about faith, I think you might enjoy and grow wiser reading this book.

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