This summer at Mississippi Governor’s School, I will be teaching a philosophy course to academically talented high school students about the philosophy of death. I’ve already worked out a general outline of the course, but over the next few months I’m going to be doing more in depth reading and planning. I’m open to ideas and suggestions for improving it along the way!
To begin with, here is the course description:
Unlike the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story 2BR02B, we don’t have a choice – we will definitely all die some day. We will explore this idea in depth, but this is no normal philosophy course. We’re going to be getting our hands dirty with “applied philosophy”, which can verge on being both more emotional and messier than traditional philosophy because it appeals directly to what’s going on in our every day lives. Death is a topic that has been explored in some of the greatest philosophy, religion, science, and art throughout time, and we’ll use all these resources to help explore questions associated with death: What does it mean to die? Is it ok to decide to end our own life? What happens after life? Do we have a soul? Many philosophers have suggested that it is only through reflecting on our own inevitable death that we can truly understand what it means to be alive. In this course we’ll learn how to tackle these questions through mastering the Socratic dialectic method of questioning. Just how messy will it get? Socrates was put to death for it!
I’ve taught at Governor’s School two previous years, and I’ve found that opening the class by exploring the question: What is philosophy? is extremely helpful, as most only have a very vague notion. The first several days are spent on this topic. We have class 5 days a week for three hours each day. I’m going to be working my way though my planning for each of these days, one by one.
Topics: A brief history of the beginning of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. This will serve as an introduction to the spirit and pursuit of philosophic inquiry. In contrast to familiarity with other subjects, many people aren’t even sure what philosophy is about, so addressing its beginnings and some of the basic questions that are asked by philosophy will help fill out that understanding and set the tone for the class.
Activity: To begin, each student will answer the questions: what is philosophy? and: what is the good life? After that, they will break into groups to try to derive a single answer for each question as a group. We will discuss the answers as a class. Finally, we will spend some time creating a personal “Book of the Dead,” journal in which I will have students perform certain activities throughout the course, and will serve to collect their thoughts from throughout.
Materials: Pre-Socratics comic handout from Action Philosophers!
This is a pretty standard day, and going over the Pre-Socractics using a comic book really gets things going, as it’s not incredibly difficult, but begins to open up interesting discussions, especially when we discuss Parmenides and Zeno. We also take this opportunity to discuss the different branches of philosophy and the types of questions associated with each.
Also, I had the course last year create a Good Life Journal, and I think this served as a good place to record thoughts throughout the course. They definitely appreciated the artistic activity on the first day of actually creating the journal, so I’m following that up with a Book of the Dead this year.