Having class outside

One sublime spring day I suggested to my political theory teacher that we hold seminar outdoors.


She said she had tried it before and found it was too distracting for the students. So we crawled into our artificially-lit cave, gathered around the table, and were certainly able to concentrate on whatever boring theory of freedom or justice that whatever dead lonely gouty guy had come up with in his own artificially-lit little cave. I can’t say whatever we learned that day has stuck with me. As I try to remember those days, I recall sitting out by the fountain at Old Main and watching science students catching butterflies in nets so that they could take them inside and kill them to learn about the workings of life. (I jumped up and waved my arms around, chasing the butterflies away. The biology students took their hunt elsewhere.) That day I remember learning to reflect on the absurdity of trying to learn anything about life from a fragment of a body you have killed.


How can nature distract us from something more important than herself?

I don’t want to learn any political theory that isn’t in harmony with the trees, the seasons, the bugs and the birds. Certainly any theory that can hold up when being read beneath a canopy of sweet orange blossoms in the spring must have some life in it. How can we learn about freedom and justice from dead words? The way the birds find their food in different places as the seasons change, the way a weed grows tougher and stronger if it can survive growing in the middle of a path, the way a tree scatters thousands of seeds to the wind so that one baby tree might take root somewhere – these are perfect metaphors for the way human beings as individuals and communities navigate this brief gift of life we are each, and all, given to do with as we will. Any tome that attempts to engage with questions like what we humans are doing here, how should we treat each other, and what are the best ways of getting along, needs to be breathing the same air that my living lungs are beneath these orange blossoms.



When I read Descartes, forefront in my mind is the picture of a little boy of ten being sent off to boarding school, learning to make mathematics his mother, learning to get love in the form of praise for academic achievement.  As philosophers, we love the life of the mind – it’s within the old noggin that we do our exploring and adventuring. But we need to always be aware of the potential “violence inherent in all abstraction,” lest we start killing our butterflies.


Public schools. Aims testing. Squashing of imagination.

The linear, outmoded, soul-crushing approach to education that has culminated in AIMS testing is an example of what we need to leave behind us. We can consciously work to change these forms, or our education system will crash beneath the weight of its own absurdity and we will be left with the job of creating new forms anyway. One way or another, we will evolve. Can math really be learned when divorced from the experience of the changing of the seasons, the movement of music, and the wonder that happens in moments of reflection? On some level, it seems… but what depths of mathematical understanding and brilliance are buried within the minds of students who are joylessly being “taught to the test,” force-fed facts, without time for reflection and exploration? Shorten the school day. Give kids more arts education and time outdoors. Watch how they rock the three R’s when they have time and space to actually think.


Ok, time for me to go outside.