What is art? Blog Series Part III

This week the sixth graders and I read part of a chapter from Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery (by Matthew Lipman, part of the curriculum developed by the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey), which involves two girls visiting an art museum together and talking as they wander around. The chapter raises many philosophical questions, including questions about art, poetry, nature, and friendship.

The students and I read about three pages together and then I asked the students if the reading brought any questions to their minds. They came up with questions about what it meant to treat someone like a thing, whether we have moral responsibilities to living things that are not human beings, why some people are more sensitive than others, and whether something that is offensive to many people can be considered art.

Although we had some interesting exchanges, especially about the nature of things versus people, this class was not as successful as others I have facilitated. It is sometimes the less successful classes from which I learn the most as a teacher, and I’ve been analyzing what it was that led this session to work less well than others. I think perhaps I let the conversation become too scattered and didn’t sufficiently rein it in — it is always a balance for me to help the students to take the dialogue where they want to go with it and at the same time to keep it structured, philosophical and coherent. I want to encourage the students to talk with each other (which they do quite well now, rarely just directing their comments just at me), but I also want to make sure that we make some progress in our discussions. I had some difficulty this time in helping the students to build on each other’s ideas, and the conversation really seemed to jump from one point to another in a somewhat jumbled way.

We’re going to read another part of the same chapter in Harry next week, which raises (among other things) questions about the relationship between art and life. I think I will plan some more activities and exercises that we can use to help focus our discussion, in whatever direction it ends up taking.