Oddly, very few books exist to help teachers foster philosophical enquiry among high schoolers. Of these few, David Birch’s Provocations is a standout, distinguished by the originality, breadth and richness of its material. Any teacher who regards philosophy as a living, breathing practice will find in Provocations a vast reservoir of stimuli for thinking. It unlocks worlds of wonder and contemplation. Although wonderment may seem like a hard sell to a class of eye-rolling teens, this book is very likely to do the trick, reeling them in with tantalising vignettes and hooking them with contentious questions. “[A] question is an invitation,” Birch says –– and in class discussions, “the best questions are the questions that multiply.”
Not once underestimating the maturity of high schoolers, Birch broaches sophisticated ethical, logical, political and social topics with characteristic pith and earnestness. He believes in students “speaking to find out what they believe”. Accordingly, he suggests that teachers reinvent themselves, shrugging off the mantle of the expert (and the fluency and assurance that go along with it) in favour of listening generously as their students think aloud.
When young people are free to experiment with ideas –– to propose, evaluate, reject or concede arguments as they see fit, rather than swallow readymade conclusions –– philosophy becomes something to do rather than something merely to learn about. It becomes a conscious practice of rationality, balancing open-mindedness and scepticism. Provocations offers prompt after prompt for young people to be curious and receptive learners.
The book opens with a foreword by A. C. Grayling, reminding us that in philosophy we tend not to find clear-cut answers, just more or less convincing (and always contestable) reasons for our views. Birch’s preface sets out his thoughts on the place of philosophy in education. His introduction offers teachers hints on how to encourage meaningful participation in classroom discussion. Much hinges on patient, uninterrupted listening while students explore familiar concepts made strange by their contexts: “Philosophy is a way of relearning language.”
The substance of the book is a diverse selection of engaging short texts, each followed by a thoughtful series of “catalytic questions”. More than 50 philosophical topics feature within themed sections about the World (It), Self (I), Society (We) and Others (You). Included are such intriguing topics as ‘Imperialism and Magic’, ‘Language and Originality’, ‘Perfectibility’ and ‘The Sacred’.
The author doesn’t shy away from raising confronting subjects like gender, suicide and torture, nor does he overlook classic tropes like the nature of time, freedom and autonomy, all presented in fresh and surprising ways.It’s easy to see why the questions of tradition and change, desire and boredom, and belief in God may be especially gripping for students in their adolescent years. Additionally, the inclusion of topics like mass surveillance, consumer marketing and the ethics of eating animals makes Provocations acutely relevant to our contemporary world.
Cerebral but never stuffy, the book introduces complex themes in unpredictable ways. It taps rich veins of cultural and scientific history, ranging freely across historical periods. It interweaves ancient and modern perspectives, philosophies and mythologies of the West and East, events from pivotal moments in world history and recent case studies.
To help students begin to understand death, for instance, Birch marshals contemporary ethnological observations; ideas distilled from the Buddha’s teachings and from Seneca’s writings; modern European philosophies from the idealist, psychoanalytic and existentialist traditions; and even a quote from Hamlet.
The book pulses with interest. Psychiatric reports, a Wagnerian opera narrative, futurologists’ predictions, logic puzzles, boundary-pushing poetry and invented dialogues all rub shoulders with accounts of disputes over workers’ strikes, prisoners’ voting rights, eugenics experiments and the enactment of secularity laws in French schools.
Provocations asks you to “suspend your certainties” and to celebrate the spontaneity and confusion that follows. A sorely-needed antidote to an increasingly results-orientated education system, this book offers much of value not only to philosophy teachers but also to teachers of English, humanities and the arts. Beyond the school gates, this book will find a wider audience among reflective adults. Parents, book clubbers and Philosophy Café enthusiasts are all in for a treat.
Provocations –– so fittingly titled –– will inspire fresh conversations that “crack things wide open”. I expect it will push many young people (and adults, too) to challenge and refine their intuitions, identities and worldviews.
Written by Michelle Sowey runs philosophy programs for children in Australia through her social enterprise, The Philosophy Club. You can follow her thoughts on The Philosophy Club blog and on facebook.
Illustrations by Tamar Levi