Teaching Philosophy in High School Today: Interview with Sana El-Khalil
It is 2020, and our school systems are picking up on the signs of the times. We are teaching our children to embrace our hyper-connected world: by adopting a second language, or learning how to code. Under the rug of modernity lies, surely, older traditions, older disciplines such as philosophy, which is taught at a distance from the world, not in its absorption. To better understand the condition of teaching philosophy in high schools today, I interviewed Sana El-Khalil, a veteran humanities teacher who today celebrates her 36th year of teaching. Here is a translation of our conversation, which was held in French.
Let us start with some background information. How long have you been teaching philosophy? Did you meet the discipline at school, or at university? In general, how can you describe your own initiation to philosophy?
I met philosophy in my année de terminale (senior year of high school), but it didn’t speak to me right away. I had a professor in France that exhausted me to death — but when I came to Lebanon, I met a Belgian professor who inspired me. He was, albeit, all over the place, but he still inspired me.
I started my undergraduate studies as a history major; but in less than a trimester, I shifted to philosophy. I was interested in political philosophy; that I knew from the start; because questions on political engagement preoccupied me a lot.
I ended up teaching by coincidence. I was working in the domain of political philosophy research at the center Fiche Du Monde Arabe. I stayed there for a year, until I was offered a teaching position at the Carmel Saint Joseph school. I was to teach French literature with a bit of philosophy; which was not my background. But because of personal circumstances; I accepted the offer.
Did you have this inclination toward literature?
Yes, I loved reading novels. Very early on. Though I didn’t come from a family that read. At all. So reading was my own thing; my ability to be myself.
When did you shift from teaching literature to philosophy?
The shift happened ten years ago; since then, I’ve been teaching just philosophy. Because the teaching of literature had become too technical. We had to work more and more on literary and stylistic commentaries, which seems like a plumber’s work to me. We were no longer working on meanings, on interpretations, etc. I preferred continue reading novels, on my own, and opted to focus more exclusively on philosophical questions with my students of Terminale.
Let us talk about those students of Terminale. This last year of high school is foundational for them. It is when students begin to take their futures seriously. It is also a transitory year; some students feel trapped between school and university, childhood and adulthood, perhaps between essence and existence. How do you measure the capacity of philosophy to guide these students at such a tumultuous time, personally and academically?
First off, we should admit that the curriculum of philosophy during that year is very dense, as mandated by the French baccalaureate. We have a lot of grounds to cover. But I try to show my students that actually there is one lesson, not a million. I try to tell them that my class is not a subject with endless drawers; that everything is linked. And in some way, I achieve more or less to impact their way of thinking; without making it a copy of my own.
Do you purposely seek to impact them? Is it a mission?
No, not really. I seek to show them how important it is to hold this critical lens against themselves. Especially in our consumerist society, which makes them believe that they must, for example, major in business, and make a lot of money, etc. What I’m asking from them is perhaps connected to what Nietzsche once urged his readers; become who you are; that is, to try to re-find, perhaps in an Aristotelian way, what they are actually; I have no idea; in the realm of potentiality at least; what they are themselves; independently of what they receive from the exterior; from their parents, from society; from their entourage.
And do you think philosophy comes to their rescue at the right time? By their year of Terminale, students have already plunged in the social world and been told how to behave in it. Do you think your teaching comes at the right time?
Yes, I think it is the right time, and sometimes, students have come up to me and told me they wished they learned philosophy earlier.
That was actually my second question. How to introduce philosophy beforehand? Is it even advisable?
There have been experiments done at some schools; even at primary levels. In a playful way, too. On basic questions; on what money means; on what success should look like.
What is the youngest group you have taught?
The youngest were in Seconde (10th grade); back when I used to teach French literature; and of course it included a philosophical component. The essays of Montaigne, a staple read from that year, and who I also teach in my normal philosophy course in Terminale, can be easily adopted in a philosophical way. My way of teaching the tales of Voltaire, as well. My way of teaching Montesquieu, certainly. And that worked really well, actually.
Why do you think that method worked? Is it because students are used to literature as a discipline? Perhaps they understood it more?
I’m not sure it is a discipline that they understood; linguistically, my students aren’t that perfect. But I think for students, technicality bores them; it really bores them. So when we are faced with interpretations of texts; with their philosophical implications; it’s more exciting for them. Especially when they get to see the link; to realize that there isn’t a dichotomy. For example, in my philosophy courses, I talk about Rimbaud, or Baudelaire; I discuss Dostoevsky; and here they see things; for example, how the question of space is so evident in Tolstoy. I think for students, when we don’t separate things, it interests them a lot.
Then is it this segregation of disciplines in traditional educational systems that has negatively impacted philosophy; a subject that feeds off of others?
I’m not sure if the impact is inherently negative; but at least when we make the link between these subjects, they all begin making sense. Mathematics make sense. Biology makes sense. Physics make sense. Teachers must try to make those connections.
Should we then introduce philosophy everywhere?
Yes, definitely, we should introduce it in our way of teaching, not in what we teach. Already, in mathematics, if we work not out of mere exercises but through a problem; we are basically doing philosophy. A philosopher and a scientist start with a problem, don’t they?
So to save philosophy, it seems we’re faced with more major changes in our educational system. But let’s dig deeper into this connection between science and philosophy. In her article for La Tribune, Mazarine Pingeot writes: “Where comes the idea that a problem has a solution? In the privileged model of science, in the belief in the technical. A model that promoted human sciences, to the point that it partially absorbed the discipline of philosophy.” Do you agree with her diagnosis of philosophy’s fall from grace in our classrooms?
I agree with her in some way because we are indeed in this search for efficiency; for a long time, actually; it didn’t start in the 20th century. But there’s no answer, Ms. El-Khalil!, my students keep telling me. But some of them have come up to me and admitted that my class didn’t provide them with answers but it made them question the answers they had. Their longing for definitive answers, in any case, reveals the influence of the technical boom on them.
Influential but to what extent?
To the point where they don’t have a proper understanding of their own technologies; even the things they claim to be proficient in; their smartphones, their laptops, etc. The more we are in a society that promotes efficiency, the less we are able to take distance from the efficient machinery; and it is this aptitude for distance that should be taught everywhere; not only in philosophy.
Speaking of distance, this leads me to another question I wanted to pick your brain about. We live in the age of the image, of Netflix, of social media; of information that comes to us the quickest way possible. How do you see this rivalry between technology and philosophy, between surface and depth; how do we teach students to pause in a hyper-accelerated time; how to convince them that to know is not merely to be informed?
Well, I first think that we should not see things in terms of rivalry. We should ask: how should we use technology for philosophy? For example, in the chapter on the living; we talk about bioethics. I use more and more applications and softwares to teach. I love it. I love TV shows: I bring extracts from Youtube to class so we can analyze them philosophically. I don’t think that is a bad thing. Because it is a fait accompli; we are there; in a society that will only multiply technologies. I have a lot of apps on my own phone. Sometimes, I send my students links from BBC, interesting columns or footage on some current affairs, and I ask them, for example, to think on the questions of morality and the political.
But don’t you think that this easy access to information hurts our ability to think? I’m not referring to the endless image-based news we find more and more. Even articles from top news outlets are increasingly dumbed-down, shortened, written in a style that is accessible, sure, but whose simplicity hinders us from accessing the full depth of their content. Don’t you think that this modern way of reading goes against… perhaps the tradition of philosophy…. that is based on… I don’t know…
… On holding one’s breath?
Well, isn’t it the same with cinema? Forget about the slowness of movies back in the day. Let’s talk about new films. Take Parasite, for example. It is very hard to show it in class, or get my students to watch it at home. Because it is slow; viewers must take their time, and hold their breath.
And this repulsion toward slowness is a challenge for all teachers. Students are not reading, in general. In literature class, they read summaries online. It is all out there. They tell you that they simply don’t have time to read the whole thing. How to get students to sit down and take their time; not to rush their learning? How to give them this extra breath, in some way? I want to do that; but whenever I try, it feels more and more that I’m going against the current.
But you know, this comparison with cinema is super interesting. There is a philosophy-related anecdote about it, actually. Jacques Derrida was once interviewed in the US, and the Q&A started off this way: “So, Mr. Derrida, tell us about your conception of love.” The philosopher paused, and made an interesting remark: “Oh that’s very American of you.” And indeed, he went on to explain how as a professor in America he had become accustomed to students coming into his office hours and telling him: “Professor, could you elaborate about that?” And he found this behavior typically American. Straight of out of Hollywood, he told the interviewer. As if students, to him, are now directors of blockbusters: they want things to appear right away; for the movie set to be prepared in advance — elaborate about this, elaborate about that, as though knowledge itself could come in a pre-packaged box.
That attitude is close to the problem we’re facing with your students who claim to have no time; who just want a summary to pop up on their screen; for the Youtube video to be brief and clear. So perhaps we should let the directors learn on their own set, in some way? I don’t know, do you think that teaching philosophy should look more and more like a suspenseful treasure hunt? Do you try to do that; to steer them closer to the essence of philosophical learning, which has always been a personal quest, not a collective one?
I’ll have to think about that, but perhaps, yes, sometimes I do that. For example, this year, I have asked them to think about one topic, and I told them they are free to set up their own modus operandi. They can watch TV shows; they can look up videos on Youtube, and I told them that the end product can be anything. A dissertation, professor? No, it can be anything, I don’t care, I insisted. I told them it must be a critical reflection; and it can look like anything. This kind of interaction often works, and my students end up coming up with some interesting answers.
Sometimes, I must admit, it feels empty; especially when they don’t have enough content in their hand. But I do believe that it is possible for them to make links with so much material around them. Like pulling some ideas from this one book they are simultaneously reading in literature class, or this movie they watched on their own a few weeks ago.
Speaking of holding one’s breath, how to do so in today’s political climate? This year, you’ve taught philosophy during a tumultuous period in Lebanese politics. For Hannah Arendt, philosophy and politics have not crossed each other since the condemnation of Socrates. How did you navigate this age-old rivalry between philosophy and politics in a time when your students may feel more useful on the streets, with the country’s protestors, than in the classroom? Where is the link between thinking and acting?
Well, we did work on the Arendtian concept of action; on the idea of citizenship, too, and the political animal of Aristotle, or questions on laws and legitimacy, or on the separation of powers; and I’ve tried to show them that in philosophy we are both inside and outside the action; that we are not in our ivory tower; Socrates wasn’t.
But at the same time the philosopher should not be dragged by the flow of things; they must keep their critical thinking on guard. Which is why I tried to teach them, for example, the difference between revolution and reform; without guiding them onto either.
Were you successful in that?
I don’t know; I hope I succeeded in teaching them about nuance in general; about the need for nuance. I don’t have any answer for them for our political climate; but let’s say that radical ideologies scare me, and I tell them that; without talking about myself. We need radical questions, not answers; and I try to arouse these whenever I bring up taboo subjects. I try to push them to find interest in them. Because if we truly want to learn philosophy, we cannot be cowards. We have to ask these tough questions. We simply cannot be cowards.
To learn philosophy, we cannot be cowards. What a great way to wrap up our talk on teaching philosophy, which surely requires even more courage. Thank you, Ms. El-Khalil!