Sunday, December 13, 2009

Students, the Web, and the Enlightenment

Checking out two recent websites reminded me again of the power of the web to excite and inform high school students as a critical component of their formal and informal education. While discussing the benefits of information on line may be tantamount to stating the obvious, I believe that it bears remembering how amazing our world is today with what is out there. Some of this information may be new and some may have been available for a long time; the important thing is how we expose our students to the available information and how they use it for their own purposes.

Just recently the British Royal Society unveiled a new website that gives a historical overview to scientific discoveries. In the format of a time line, the Royal Society offers information on seminal moments in scientific history that also correspond to what was occurring in the world in general at that time. By studying the time line a student can learn that the invention of a new measuring tool for angles in 1731 followed the publication of Gulliver's Travels in 1726. In the process, students may begin to see that what happens in one area or discipline may be connected to what is transpiring in another and that what may seem as coincidence may be the product of "great minds thinking alike." Such an approach also allows students to see that the lines between seemingly disparate disciplines may be our artificially imposed distinctions rather than barriers that exist in the "real world."

Beyond that, the Society is publishing the original scientific papers in PDF format that the British Royal Society produced when these discoveries were made. Students can read the thinking of the members of the Society as they grappled with these revolutionary moments in science and see how philosophers approached seemingly insoluble problems. The website is

Also new this year is a class from Harvard University that is being televised by WBUR. Law Professor Michael Sandel's class on justice comes in weekly installments and shows students grappling with philosophical questions and the law. By looking at the morality and the legal aspects of lying or stealing and relating the teachings of different philosophers to these ever-present issues, viewers can experience for themselves being in a class that discusses the relevance of the teachings of Jeremy Bentham or Immanuel Kant to their own lives. Watching these classes makes for exciting television but it also returns one to school where professors challenged us with difficult questions without easy answers and made us see that these questions were not just fodder for late night bull sessions; they hold importance for us on a daily basis.

I thought of both of these websites as I recently watched the sophomores at Crossroads College Prep engage in an annual rite of passage known as the Enlightenment Salon. This project requires each tenth grader to research and analyze the teachings of an Enlightenment philosopher. After compiling their research, each student must write a persuasive essay arguing the view of his/her philosopher and write a Facebook profile of the philosopher. The truly amazing component of this interdisciplinary assignment arrives on the day of the Salon when students come to class dressed as their philosopher (complete with white wigs and pantaloons), and as their character give an introductory speech outlining their teachings and writings and then engage in an hour long debate on issues like natural law, the rights of man, and the existence of a deity. Students are assessed partially on how well they remain in character and how well they know the teachings of their philosopher as well as the view of others in the room. Such an assignment requires students to know the background of the philosopher but also the fundamental issues of the Enlightenment and the questions asked by these thinkers. Hopefully, they leave this major project with a better understanding of the Enlightenment, the intellectual dynamism of this time in history, and the way that this period has affected their world today.

Probably very few if any of our students used the Royal Society or the Sandel websites as they're very new. However, the information from the British Royal Society might have given our students even more insight into their philosophers and allowed them to read some of their actual writings. Michael Sandel's series on justice might have provided our students with an even greater feel for how pertinent these age old questions of justice are. As a result, they can see that while much has changed over history, many fundamental questions remain and their wrestling with these issues places them in good company with their predecessors. Whether the information comes from the web or a book, we hope that students take the opportunity to engage in analytical research, relate philosophical questions to their own lives, and realize that the joy of reading and studying comes less in finding answers but in finding even more exciting questions to ask.