Undergrad thesis asserts teaching children philosophy can strengthen democracy
Cora Drozd, a recent philosophy graduate of Texas A&M University, is the first student to pilot a collaboration between LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research and Philosophy for Children.
by Elena Watts
Cora Drozd, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University, learned about the teachings of the ancient philosophers in her first college philosophy course. As she and her classmates discussed what it means to live a good life, Drozd pondered why she had not engaged in such philosophical conversations earlier in her education.
“We were asking questions that were very pertinent to the way we live our lives,” Drozd said. “And I wondered why we didn’t have these discussions earlier to create and teach civil discourse, which I thought would be especially beneficial since we live in a democracy.”
In 2016, at a fundraising dinner for a nonprofit organization, the “stars really aligned” when Drozd sat next to Philosophy Professor Claire Katz and expressed her dismay about the exclusion of philosophy from K-12 classrooms in public schools as well as most private schools across the country.
“I felt really apathetic about my education in high school — preparing for standardized tests, sitting in classrooms for eight hours,” Drozd said. “It was philosophy in college that really reignited my appreciation for education.”
Katz revealed to her dinner companion that she teaches a Philosophy for Children (P4C) course and lab at Texas A&M that enables undergraduate and graduate students to teach philosophy at elementary and middle schools in Bryan, Texas.
Inspired by their conversation, Drozd enrolled in Katz’s P4C course and taught philosophy to students at Harmony Academy. Ultimately, with support and resources provided by the office of LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research, Drozd further explored her ideas about teaching philosophy to children and completed her undergraduate thesis, “Pre-college Philosophy: Its Implications for American Democracy in the 21st Century.” Katz served as her thesis adviser.
Philosophy promotes mentality, disposition for democracy
Drozd, a philosophy major, spent the last year of her undergraduate career researching the role that teaching philosophy to students in pre-college classrooms can play in building a stronger and more successful democracy.
In her Undergraduate Research Scholars thesis, Drozd proposes that teaching philosophy in primary and secondary school classrooms would help students learn the skills necessary to engage in civil discourse, which could help ease future tensions and deadlocks that increasingly plague the nation’s democratic processes.
Beyond providing better training for future politicians and decision-makers, many citizens are becoming more intimately and actively involved in democracy through social media.
More than ever, everyone, particularly the nation’s youth, can benefit from cultivating the intellectual virtues and disposition gained while engaging in productive dialogue about controversial topics at the center of their lives because of social media, Drozd said. Recently, for example, many of the progressive movements, such as Black Lives Matter and gun control, have emanated from youth using social media, especially Twitter.
Drozd proposes that K-12 schools should devote time each day to creating communities of inquiry, or groups of students who engage in dialogue and reflection to find personal meaning and mutual understanding. This philosophical approach to discussion is a departure from the more prevalent practice of debate that aims at tearing down opposition and winning arguments.
The conclusions of these discussions are less important than the way students are communicating and becoming prepared to engage in democracy, she said.
“For better or for worse, social media has changed the nature of our democracy,” Drozd said. “It is an information and communication tool that may or may not be used in the spirit of democracy, so we need philosophy in K-12 education to reinforce productive dialogue and to make us better listeners, communicators and citizens.”
America’s democracy rooted in philosophical principles
In her thesis, Drozd compares ancient philosopher Plato’s theory of states and rulers to that of Founding Father and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
In 399 BC, Plato witnessed the death of his teacher, Socrates, by poisonous hemlock for publicly challenging commonly held beliefs and ideas. Approximately 20 years later, based on his experience, Plato composed his famous work of political philosophy, “The Republic,” which equates democracy with tyranny of the majority, Drozd said. The philosopher described the ideal state as a meritocracy governed by philosopher-rulers.
“Plato thought education was critical, but he didn’t believe the masses could be educated in a way that would make them capable of self-rule,” she said.
More than two thousand years later, Jefferson, influenced by the precepts of liberty and equality that rose to prominence during the Enlightenment, championed freedom from oppression under the rule of tyrant monarchs. He believed that fully involved citizens could learn democracy, collaborating and moving toward the good of the community, by practicing it, and that a successful democracy depended upon an appropriate system of education, Drozd said.
“So Jefferson’s thoughts about democracy [expressed in his correspondence and papers] support the need for philosophy in education,” she said. “Philosophy, as I see it, is an inherently democratic discipline inasmuch as it maintains diverse viewpoints and enables people to see different perspectives.”
Jefferson also believed that realizing democracy would involve revision of the constitution every couple of decades and incessant revolutions. Relative to his contemporaries, Jefferson was a revolutionary theorist.
“I believe it is helpful to remind Americans of their roots, that democracy was founded on the philosophical principles of questioning and challenging conventional thought, which so many people fear,” Drozd said. “If it weren’t for the revolutionaries who questioned British rule, we, our country as we know it, would not exist, so philosophy is actually important, if not critical, to our democracy.”
Drozd does not fully embrace all of Jefferson’s theories, but she believes they underscore the idea that woven into democracy is the understanding that people may question it actively and collectively.
Drozd embarked on her undergraduate research journey with LAUNCH
While undergraduate research is happening on campuses around the world, universities often require that participating students be seniors or in honors programs. The Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) thesis program through LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research at Texas A&M enables all interested undergraduate students to conduct research across every discipline, major and college.
LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research provides resources for students as they look for research topics and faculty mentors, and assists them, as well as students like Drozd who already have ideas and advisers, in conducting their research and writing their theses. All participating students have access to resources including thesis templates, thesis assistants, writing and presentation workshops, drop-in informational sessions and the URS Symposium, among numerous other offerings.
“Texas A&M has nearly $1 billion in research funds and is the largest public university in the state of Texas, and the second-largest university system in the nation, so the scale of the research opportunities available to undergraduates is considerable compared to the majority of universities in the U.S.,” said Dr. Sarah M. Misemer, associate director of LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research.
Throughout the semester, Drozd delivered poster presentations about her thesis to students, educators and professionals at conferences hosted by Texas A&M, the University of Texas at Austin and the American Philosophical Association in San Diego.
Drozd also is a member of the inaugural class of the Academy of Undergraduate Researchers Across Texas (AURA), which provides a networking and professional development opportunity for a select group of undergraduate researchers from Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. AURA aims to strengthen the visibility of undergraduate research happening in the state.
To learn more about how to get involved in research as an undergraduate, visit http://launch.tamu.edu/UGR.
Originally posted here.