I hope my New England friends have been enjoying a summer full of beach days and Del’s lemonade, and my pals back home are beating the heat with some Ted Drewes. My summer so far has been lacking in travel and outdoor activities compared to past years but has nevertheless been exciting … in a less ‘summery,’ more educational way. Reading and writing lots of philosophy may sound like an actual nightmare to some, but that is what most of my summer so far has consisted of, and I am happy as a clam about it.
About a month and a half after settling into my research here at PC, I spent two weeks in July attending an intensive summer philosophy program at Brown University, joined by eight other students from around the country. Specifically, this was a program to promote diversity and inclusivity in philosophy, which has been historically dominated by Western males. Being surrounded by peers whose identities have been traditionally underrepresented in the discipline was extremely rewarding, and hearing about their unique experiences within philosophy opened my eyes to new perspectives.
For the duration of the program, we attended two daily seminars, “Philosophy of Time” and “Global Justice” taught by two different professors. Some highlights from the first, a metaphysics course, was being able to talk physics … without actually talking physics. While I had studied Einstein’s Laws of Special Relativity before, aside from the analytical calculations, I had not approached the topic from a philosophical perspective. In simple terms, this theory states that we have evidence to believe that time is relative! (Specifically, the duration of time between two events depends on the frame of reference from which it is being observed.) Basically, in this seminar we got to ditch all the formulas and numbers while talking about how this theory conflicts with our norms about time being an objectively measurable entity, and how we should make sense of a notion that seems so counter intuitive.
What really got me thinking, though, was the question about which times exist; for most of us, the default is that the present is special (compared to past and future) in some way, and that the past no longer exists. But what about the past makes it “past?” You can see how this question could go in circles. We could say that we know past events are in the past because they already happened. But this would mean that we already assume that time is a dynamic, and such a thing as “now” and “then” exist. And how do we know this for sure? Also, can we locate “in the past” spatially? These kinds of discussions had me confused and intrigued for hours on end, and almost always ended in further questions regarding the ontology of time. I even started to question the ability of linguistics, particularly our use of past and future tenses, to accurately capture our experiences of time. This course was like a combination of philosophy + physics on steroids, and I loved every minute of it.
As for my Global Justice seminar, we covered topics ranging from inequality, distribution issues, individual moral obligations in preventing suffering, and war. All are clearly very relevant to real world application, which made the content even more enriching. But the highlight of this seminar was, hands down, Skyping with Jeff McMahan, the mastermind behind the revisionist version of Just War Theory. He gave us an MTV Cribs-style tour of his office at Oxford, and we had the opportunity to ask questions about his theory, only to be blown away by his well-articulated and brilliant responses to even the most theoretically insane “What ifs?” that we threw at him.
All in all, my two weeks up on College Hill were extremely rewarding, and I learned more about philosophy than I could’ve ever hoped to. Although the program sadly came to an end, I was able to dive into my personal research project with some added inspiration, mostly due to the experiences of cultural relativism that I heard from my peers.
Quick recap: My research, overseen by Dr. Arroyo, is based on a cross-cultural examination of Japan and America. My interest lies in the sphere of early education and childrearing, analyzing how each society’s values and ethos inform how parents and teachers educate and nurture children. One of the most interesting things I have been writing about recently is the fact that Japan’s educational system was democratized to mirror that of the United States’, after WW2 under the occupation of General MacArthur. Ever since these reforms, the basic structure of the elementary school system has been essentially the same in each country. Yet, despite this similarity, the methods and teaching philosophies utilized in each are wildly different. Dr. Merry White, anthropologist at Boston University, says it best: “in borrowing European and American models of schooling, Japan did not borrow Western conceptions of learning and childhood.”
These conceptions refer to a range of things. Like, for example, the purpose that education is believed to serve in each society. You may be wondering, “Isn’t the purpose of education pretty … universal?” That’s what I thought, too. But it turns out, this concept holds distinct cultural meaning in each society. In Japan, learning in school is regarded as a holistic development, encompassing mind, body, and soul. There is equal emphasis on physical activity, moral development, as well as academics within the curriculum. And in the moral sphere, cooperation, empathy and loyalty to the group are emphasized, and so large class sizes are preferred to allow students to practice these skills. All of these philosophies are quite foreign to our elementary schools. So, you can see how diverging beliefs about learning and childhood can greatly change how the elementary school system functions, despite a similar structure.
I’m still working on getting the findings of my research down on paper, so how my project will turn out is one big question mark for now. But I am excited to continue putting bits and pieces of my work together, and discovering more about two major elements of my identity along the way.
Thanks for reading!