A growth medium for the whole mind
“Education is what remains when what has been learned has been forgotten.”
- B.F. Skinner
For a limited number of High School Students, college students, and Adults in the Seattle area -
a special kind of intensive Intellectual mentoring
It brings all my experience as a teacher, philosophy professor, journalist and published novelist to bear on creating deep changes in the maturity and effectiveness of a client's approach to his or her thinking and writing in general.
Wholly distinct from subject-specific tutoring, this is not a fix for specific problems but a growth medium for the whole mind.
Most teachers, professors, and college admissions officers have a secret: it can take a while to decide whether a student's work is bad, mediocre, or good. But some students communicate their excellence in the first sentence of a paper, or the first minute of a conversation or interview.
What's the magic in the excellent performance? Harder work? Higher IQ? Luck?
It's all in the voice. Confidence without arrogance. Precision without unnecessary detail. The discrete but helpful signposting of what you intend. In short: an adult level of maturity about effective communication.
Effective, mature communication is a just a set of skills - skills that can be learned.
“The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.”
- Lao Tsu
The Philosophy Connection
Philosophers like to say that the other subjects teach you what to think, and philosophy teaches you how to think.
That's unfair to the best teaching in other subjects, but it contains a kernel of truth. Our educational system - like the "tutoring" industry that sits atop it like whipped cream on a cake - does tend to treat each subject as a separate bucket of information, with "content" to be taken in, retained, and poured out again in the exam room.
My approach, growing out of my experience at a teacher, philosopher, and novelist, is to treat students of all ages as adult intellectuals-in-training. That means: stand back from filling the buckets and think hard about the shape of the buckets, why we have these buckets and not others, and how the buckets relate to one another.
The focus is not on a better grade in this week’s homework, or next month's test though we might use either one as raw material - but on the forging and sharpening of powerfully general cognitive and communication skills.
Rigorous attention to clear thinking and clear language. A willingness to play confidently with big, abstract questions. A minute, characteristically philosophical attention to "meta cognition" - thinking and learning about the process of thinking and learning.
“I never knew anybody, anywhere, who found life simple. A life looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.” - Ursula LeGuinn
Is this therapy?
Is this counseling? Is this coaching?
No, and no, and no - not in the dominant modern senses of all those terms.
Psychotherapists and mental health counselors work with patients who are suffering from a psychological dysfunction - an inability to function within a desired “normal” range of behavior because of (to give a few examples) anxiety, schizophrenia, OCD, or depression. The current DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), published by the American Psychiatric Association, list over 150 states that constitute a mental dysfunction. The therapist’s job is to identify the dysfunction(s), and then use a variety of methods - including exercises, talk therapies, and drug prescriptions, to mitigate or repair the dysfunction.
Life coaches are trained - through organizations such as the International Coaching Federation - to overcome problems of a very different kind. They usually work with people whose problem is not a DSM-type dysfunction, but rather a self-diagnosed need for help with (for example) inefficiency, procrastination, poor planning, or lack of career direction. And the language of coaching is not necessarily, but tends to be, rooted in a very particular business / career paradigm. The key aims are are goal-setting, efficiency, and effectiveness; the ICF’s definition of coaching is, in part: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential... fulfilling results… help people improve their performance… elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful” (emphases added).
There are no sharp lines here. Some philosophers do call themselves therapists or counselors - but others prefer terms like “guide,” “adviser,” “personal / life consultant,” or - as I do - mentor. One “philosophical counselor” has even described his work as “therapy for the sane,” which makes sense in so far as the word “therapy” comes from the Greek verb therapeuein - “to take care of.”
But philosophical mentoring is still very different from either therapy or coaching. In fact it can have more in common with, say, a mindfulness meditation class, because it is in part an end in itself: it is a process of opening up the mind because, as Aristotle might say, humans are creatures with questioning minds, and opening up the mind to its full potential is therefore a pleasurable and appropriate end in itself.
“Philosophy ... keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.” - Bertrand Russell
I talk with students, and tease out their opinions, about a vast range of questions you won't find on the school syllabus. Thinking about these questions isn't just interesting: it forms a vital context for genuinely intelligent responses to what is on the curriculum:
What is it to know something? To believe something?
What's the relationship between knowledge and information?
What is science? Where does it come from? Why is it special? Is there a "scientific method" (as your school science teacher seems to believe)?
Is history a science? Why? Why not?
It's my opinion that whales are not fish, that Shakespeare was a great writer, and that enslaving people is wrong. Do I have persuasive reasons for believing these things, or are they "merely opinions"?
What's better: a society in which you can choose to do or be anything, but many people are made unhappy by either their choices or their inability to choose, or a society in which your birth determines how you will be raised, what work you will do, and why you will marry - but it does not occur to people to question their roles?
What students get from mentoring is not more information, dumped into their brains, but a set of tools for growing and shaping their minds.
“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.” - Historian David McCullough
At the center of my technique lies intensive, rigorous, ultra-detailed attention to clear thinking and clear language.
My approach comes in part from the ideas that animate the "Philosophy in the Schools" movement, which has a track record of dramatically improving students' academic abilities across the board.
In the UK, a randomized trial involving 3,000 children investigated the academic value of teaching philosophy to children. The teachers, often with no previous experience in philosophy, were given just two days of training. Yet students showed dramatic gains in confidence and self-esteem. Average reading, math, and writing skills improved by several months relative to peers outside the program.
At Duke University, a 5-year study of 10,000 children tried a beautifully simple experiment: teach children who do not test as "gifted" as if they are gifted. The result? Many children subsequently did so much better academically that they then did test as gifted.
“It is no ordinary thing we are discussing, but how to live our lives.”
Initially at least it's best for us to work at your home.
Mentoring works best as a relatively long-term engagement, but even a few hours can make a big difference.
The best session length depends on each individual's interests, age, maturity, and goals. One-hour sessions are a good place to start. Sometimes 90-minute or 2-hour sessions are worth considering.
I charge $75 per hour. The first meeting (roughly an hour, with a parent or guardian present too, if under eighteen) is free - your chance to get a taste of whether this is a good fit for you.
At any time you can save 10% by paying in advance for five or more hours of my time.