Last week they tried to prove they exist. Next week they will debate when a cake is a cake. Today’s challenge: define the meaning of “fair”—not the outdoor party but the ethical term.
These were not graduate students but 10-year-old students taking part in a pioneering Philosophy Club at St. Martin De Porres Academy parochial school in the Hill.
On Monday afternoon last week, beneath the bright sun at the park at Monk Corner (Cedar and Amistad streets), teacher Jesse Walsh arrayed seven kids who had signed up for the club around a picnic table.
There they commenced one of their favorite philosophy exercises that Walsh has invented. She calls it the candy game.
A former math and science teacher at the school, philosophy-lover and now graduate student, Walsh (pictured) now travels in from Boston every Monday to conduct the class. Walsh began the club two years ago as St. Martin De Porres Academy (SMPA) teachers are encouraged to create curriculum that derives from their own passions for the 3 to 5 p.m. time slot.
“This [the candy game]is about fairness, equality, and what they mean,” Walsh said.
Each of the 10 and 11-year-olds was given a bag of ten pieces of candy, 70 pieces in all. In two rounds, each kid puts however many pieces of candy he or she wants into the center of the picnic table, which becomes the property of Walsh.
“At the end of both rounds, I need to have 46 pieces. If I get 46, the game is over. You keep what you have left. If after two rounds, I don’t have 46, I take it all back,” she instructed.
Most of the kids of course were reluctant to give up candy, or at least much of it. They looked around. Mariyah Richardson put in one piece. Pierce Garratt, three. Damian Blount ,a generous handful.
At the end of the first round there were only 26 pieces in the center. No one wanted to put in any more.
“She’ll take it back,” Maleek Wray warned.
The second round commenced. The kids slowly withdrew their little Kit Kats, Starbursts, and miniature chocolate footballs.
As Monet Wray and Sapphire Moore each plunked in final offerings, Walsh did an out-loud count that gradually grew more ominous: Ooops, only 45 pieces.
“One short. Never has that ever happened in the history of the candy game,” she pronounced. Then, true to her word, she gathered up the candy and put it in her bag.
That was the end of the game—and the beginning of the discussion.
Most of the kids ganged up on Mariyah, who, everyone noticed, had put in the fewest and so now was receiving the blame for the candy-dearth for all.
She defended her position: “It’s not fair. Ms. Walsh said you need to put in ‘some.’ I did. Three.”
Pierce wasn’t accepting that narrow interpretation: If the goal of the game was ultimately some candy for all, “it’s not fair. You [that is, Mariyah] didn’t want to reach the goal, make the sacrifice.”
Here was a teaching point in the discussion, and Walsh didn’t miss it. She interposed a question to Pierce: “Are some sacrifices bigger to some than others? If the rules stated are I’m going to sacrifice one thing and you ten, but if my sacrifice is my right arm and you have to give up nine pairs of shoes is that fair?”
A sometimes intense, sometimes meandering discussion followed. The kids spoke about how much money their parents would now have to spend to buy them candy, whereas they just blew this chance for a free haul.
Back in the classroom, however, there was a happy ending. As the kids’ names were called on the loudspeaker that their parents had arrived to pick them up, each went up to Walsh’s bag and withdrew two pieces.
Isn’t philosophy ultimately sweet!
A Lover of Wisdom Wants to Keep it Going
Walsh said that her own eyes were opened to the field and the Socratic questioning of basic concepts when she took a bioethics class during her senior year at Notre Dame High School in Hingham, Mass. In college she fell in love with the dialog model of teaching and, with helpful professors, founded a philosophy club at the Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester. She said with pride that that club is still going strong.
The Dorchester Club is for teens who can sustain discussion. When she came to New Haven’s St. Martin’s, the challenge was to devise philosophy games and techniques for younger kids, specifically middle-schoolers.
“I started to rethink how I could teach. It was the end of the day,” she said. Then there was the age problem. Middle-schoolers are too young for sustained discussion. They find picture books uncool. They need to be occupied pretty rigorously, she said.
So she began to devise activities like the candy game.
Walsh had one problem. St. Martin’s couldn’t come up with a salary for her to return to run the club. Fortunately the Squire Foundation gave her at least enough of a stipend to cover her commuting costs from Boston, where she is to begin graduate school soon at Boston University. (At that point the SMPA Philosophy Club may not have a leader next year.) She volunteers her time as the club teacher.
Her passion for clarity of thinking in young people runs deep as she recalled her own eye-opening experience as a 17-year old in a high school bioethics course: “Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Simone De Beauvoir. I have a distinct memory of Aristotle: What does it mean to be good? What is a good life? My god, I was 17. What a good question. That was the first time [anyone posed it]. I had always taken language for granted.”
Walsh can’t continue next year when her graduate studies on the nexus of public health policy and philosophy begin in earnest. She is hoping some of the graduate students at Yale, who currently run a once-a-week philosophy session with students at Career High, might take over the club at SMPA. They’ve attended as observers, Walsh said; it isn’t clear yet whether funding or person power is available. It’s also not clear that philosophy graduate students have the passion Walsh does about middle-schoolers
As she put away the candy and mentioned the several other jobs she currently juggles—substitute teacher, nanny, and waitress—Walsh smiled and remained, well, philosophical.