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The philosophy class takes a decision

Who learns what?

The Nubian museum in the upper Egyptian town of Aswan is beautifully conceived. It has all sorts of detail on the history of the Nubian people and their culture; its dim intimate lighting produces a semi-religious effect and leaves one feeling reverence for the works on display. In addition to a number of lovely artefacts the museum also has life-size models that simulate or momentarily capture vignettes of Nubian culture. The scene in the photograph shows one of those models. It looks as if some sort of lesson or transmission of information is taking place. But what? It rather obviously suggests a structure of power, control and authority  – although the emotional content of the scene remains elusive and undecidable. I liked looking at the scene – particularly because it emphasises the power of words and the way reality and belief are mediated through language – through the stories that are told. It reminds me that children are not really in a position to challenge the content of the culture within which they are situated.

The scene might well have a much wider cultural resonance. I have enjoyed various accounts (for example, those by Josef Skvorecky  or Herbert Kohl or Paolo Friere) that describe the way an education for the development of our sensibilities can be brought about by a single committed teacher. Skvorecky does this brilliantly in his short story Emoke – a story which contains an impassioned description of the way a lone village schoolmaster brings joy and imagination, sensitivity and enlarged thought to the children of an isolated mountain community.

Part of the goal of our philosophy class is to enlarge our thought! But, in contrast to the model in the Nubian museum, we do not have  a single guide or teacher. We have to sort it out for ourselves. In each seminar one of the participants leads a review of the text we are studying and the rest of us respond. The responsibility to lead the seminar is taken by a different person – so everyone gets a chance to lead twice a year. And today was a special day because we chose the next book that we will study for the forthcoming year. We had to make our choice from the following six titles:

The technological society by Jacques Ellul

Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick

Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis

On Science by B.K. Ridley

Moral Clarity by Susan Neiman

The essential Mary Midgley (edited by David Midgley)

Each of the six books was reviewed by one of the group – and then a reasoned account was given as to why it might be worth our while studying it. I commended On Science by B.K. Ridley – partly because I’ve neglected any study of science for years. I would like to know more about the strengths and limitations of science. I didn’t really do the book justice and I failed to convey the spread of issues which it examined. (There was a definite reason for my failure: underneath it all I had an ambivalence towards the book. I wasn’t at all sure that I really wanted to study it. But I still should have conveyed more accurately what the book was about.)  As a whole, the group was drawn either to Robert Nozick’s work ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia‘ or to selected excerpts from Mary Midgley’s published papers and books; in the end, we opted to study ‘The essential Mary Midgley‘. It looks like a very good choice.

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