Talking to Prof. Sundar Sarukkai -Philosophy in schools

Posted April 17, 2019 12:03 pm by

Dr. Sundar Sarukkai, is a Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He has also been recently involved with initiatives to introduce philosophy to school children. We spoke with him to find out more.

You have been trying to create awareness on philosophy at the school level. What has been your experience?
Basically, I have been working towards getting philosophy to schools. Formally, lot of philosophy programs in the country are being closed down – there are very few of them now. A year or two ago, I thought of philosophy in public projects, more of a philosophy in action kind of initiative. This is now funded by the TATA Trust.
We started not to preach philosophy as a subject or as philosophers but to address certain philosophical concepts to children. That was the first camp we conducted and it turned out very successful. We learned that a large number of parents also wanted to be a part of it. Now, we are taking it to different cities – Calcutta, Chennai, etc. We are also publishing a series of philosophical books for children.
The thought behind this is that Philosophy is like the Mother Discipline who brings fundamentals into this world. Disciplines get separated because they ask questions in a specific sense. But, there is a commonality to our notions of inquiry and thinking. This is what Philosophy is at the foundation level.
The large amount of questions that children have about the world and their experiences are already philosophical in some sense. But, you need someone to show them the path. That is how we started this and hopefully with our books and children’s camp, in the long run we will have a larger impact. Our aim is to get teachers, children and parents aware that there are other ways of looking at the world, other than through the technological lens.
Was the philosophy camp in Bangalore your first attempt?
Formally, in the stint of dealing with various schools, etc., I have been working with many school children. There is a school in Kanjeevaram which teaches the Koothu tradition. There are marginalized children who live there. We have been trying to plan out something with them earlier. But, if you are talking about a formal approach where we contacted many schools, etc. then, this was the first one we did – the one in Bangalore.
Were the schools forthcoming to this idea?
As a matter of principle, we avoided asking schools to nominate students. We find that to be opening up a can of partiality. I am not talking about all schools because I do not know enough. But, typically school heads and teachers tend to nominate those children who they think are the best students. And, that is not what we have in mind.
Our point is to attract children who are open to think openly with us and preferably not-so-good students are welcome because they are the ones who will bring another dimension to our discussions, usually. This is because of the current school systems, which I am sure you are aware.
This camp was done more out of public interest than just a school thing. So, we didn’t go through schools at all. We sent them emails etc. and parents who were interested applied for the camp. There were lot of people who applied and we couldn’t handle that kind of crowd. We had to choose a small group and restricted the age group to 10-12 years and worked with that.

How does a camp run?
Since philosophical thinking is so central to most of our experiences, we worked with few teams who are central to philosophy without having to call it philosophy as such.
For example, we did a module on perception. What do we actually see? We think we are seeing a green tree and then we start inquiring into is there something called a tree. Is it really green in colour or could it be that the eye is contributing some property atop that object. The whole concept behind what we see and what we perceive is done through a series of dialogues. There was no course material as such.
We wanted to do this cautiously because we were doing it for the first time. Most people were very sceptical about how would we teach philosophy to children and stuff. We had about 8-10 students, some of whom were my PhD students. We divided the crowd into 8-10 groups and worked individually with each group.
We would discuss a topic and each group would have discussions with their mentor in a more detailed fashion. It was one of the best workshops that we had ever done and so decided to take it other places. I support exercises like these. We still have parents and students asking when they can come next etc.
Many of the students who came for the camp already had a clear vision for themselves. It is a bit surprising when children in class 4 and 5 are so clear in thought and vision. There must be pleasure in learning to be that way at that age, other than learning for 10 years down the lane.
If there is a headmaster somewhere who wants to introduce philosophy in their school, what kind of guidelines would you suggest?
Part of the problem is that, and this is something the community of philosophers in India should take some blame for, that there is not enough material which can be accessible to students and teachers to teach. That is why as part of our initiative, we try to get books published. But the publishers are worried if these books will be something students will be interested in. So, we will have to brainstorm on how to make it useful and accessible.
Philosophy exists to broaden their scope of understanding things. To take into account not just the technical skills but also the humanistic skills, something which makes us better human beings in our own circle and everywhere we go. It is not just about being smarter than each other.
Philosophy is also about how the trend is in terms of technology use among children. Everybody I speak to, including teachers and parents are worried about how technology has entered into the children’s spectrum and how it is dominating interactions. On one side, parents can restrict it but that is not going to go very far because it gets confrontational after a while. But, how to make children understand technology and its impact and the right way to handle it?
You should prepare them to understand these concepts. It is not just about terming things as good and bad. The aim should be to be able to think through and reflect on such concepts.
I have two researchers working for Teach for India initiative and will be doing these workshops in some of the schools here. This is something that needs to be given a lot of thought. If we talk to teachers they say they are anyway teaching too much.
Care should be taken for it not to be seen as adding one more discipline to already burdened ones. Philosophy doesn’t have to be taught separately, it can be part of every subject you teach.

Do you think teaching critical reasoning skills at the school level are a good first step?
For example, in the camp, we began with perception and then we did something on thinking and logic because that it is really the core of philosophy – logical thinking, aspects of it, etc. None of these were taught like how we teach subjects in school. We worked with examples children are familiar with and got them to articulate what they already know. This was a discussion and dialogue. Most the discussion was driven by their own understanding of what a concept could be. Children easily pick concepts without any difficulty.
What is the current state of undergraduate philosophy courses in India?
I went to Manipal, to start a centre of Philosophy. I started a Masters course but there are very few undergraduates who opted for Philosophy. Typically, in India, today undergraduates will take people from all disciplines unlike other disciplines.
Delhi colleges always had courses on Philosophy at St Stephen’s College and a few others. There used to be good undergraduate programs in Pune etc. But everything has closed down, almost everywhere. No colleges in Bangalore offer courses on philosophy with the exception of Dharmaram, which is largely a seminary institution.
No, there are no real undergraduate programs in any of the colleges. I think very few colleges like Loyola and Madras Christian colleges, in Chennai offer it and that is because of the connection with Christian institutions who have the priests who are trained in Philosophy.
How did you start with philosophy and what was your journey like? What are your current interests in Philosophy?
I studied in Bangalore in St. Joseph’s and even at that time, there were no philosophy programs. I went on do to Physics, which also interested me a lot. Once I went to the US to do my PhD in Physics, I realised that they have a whole department for Philosophy and went on to understand what Philosophy is.
I found this brilliant philosopher and took courses with him for many years. I was very sure from then on that that is what I have ever wanted to do.
In that sense, it was good that we didn’t have philosophy classes here.
You are based at Bangalore, is it?

We understand that western philosophy is about logic and reason. What about Indian philosophy?
That is a very fair question. Much of what we understand about Indian philosophy is something to do with religion etc., right? From my engagement with Indian philosophy, and I had a taste of all Indian traditions, my great discovery was that all Indian philosophical traditions are very analytical in nature. If there is one term that is central to what their idea about philosophy in India is, it is about arguments and the idea of debates.
You find that among all the Indian philosophical schools, they look at what is the valid means of knowing anything. They begin with perception. The second most important topic of analysis for knowing is inference – which is logic in what we call as western tradition, the nature of inference – how do we infer for example, clouds to rain, etc. the nature of inference that leads to the whole idea of moods etc.
So, this notion of inference is so central to all Indian traditions that they become the dominant aspect of analysis of almost any actions that you do. Suppose you want to make some comment as a philosopher, it has to be grounded as a valid means of knowing and for that. It is not because they are saying something odd, but everything you say – every word you say – is analysed, defected and broken up. You need to have great energy to stick to that argument.
It is ultra-rigorous. That is part of the reason why I started doing this book called Indian Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. It is to point out this argument about how philosophy of science within the west has almost overlooked the analysis from Indians, particularly the Buddhist, Jain and Mayan traditions.
It is very argumentative about very simple things – how can you know for sure that a crow is black, all crows are black and stuff like that. So, there is a kind of different way in which we present Indian Philosophy itself.
Remember that the question of religion and religious beliefs in western philosophy is much centred. The presentation of western philosophy is as if they have nothing to do with religions or beliefs, etc. Without exception, important philosophers are deeply influenced by religion, prejudices against women, skin colour etc.
Sundar Sarukkai
National Institute of Advanced Studies
Indian Institute of Science Campus,
Bangalore 560012