Carlos Gómez is a retired teacher who spent his career working in a public school in Rivas-Vaciamadrid. He taught philosophy, mainly to bachillerato students (the final two years of high school), but also a class called “Ethical Values” to lower levels. He has been my student for over a year now; and, despite his constantly humble insistence that his English is “so bad,” he is remarkably articulate in this second language, which he learned later in life.
We have our classes in his personal library. The walls are lined with bookshelves, stuffed full. Around me I see Newton, Locke, Bentham, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Kant, the complete works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, a multi-volume history of private life, and several histories of Western philosophy. On one shelf sits a bust of Voltaire, looking impish. In his office hangs a poem by Antonio Machado; and on an easel sits a painting he is working on.
Carlos recently agreed to turn one of our classes into an interview, focusing on his experience in philosophy and education. The following is an edited transcript.
CARLOS: This will be the first interviewed I ever answered.
ROY: Are you excited?
C: Yes, I feel like a like a VIP. All people like to have other people interested in them, I think.
R: Okay, first question. What originally drew you to philosophy? Were there any particular authors or experiences that inclined you to study the subject?
C: It was really the influence of a teacher. When I was in secondary school, my main goal, until the age of 17, was to study chemistry. But then something happened. And that was to have a very good philosophy teacher. He was, indeed, a student of Ortega y Gasset. His name was Antonio Rodríguez Huéscar. He was a student of Ortega y Gasset during the Spanish Republic (1931-35), and he went into exile at the end of the Civil War. He ended up teaching philosophy at Puerto Rico University, but he eventually decided to come back to Spain. He was an old man by then. And he decided to get a post as a philosophy teacher here, but he wasn’t allowed to teach in a university, because of his past. So he taught in a secondary school.
Well, he came to my public school, and for me that was amazing. I discovered philosophy. At that time philosophy was taught in the two last years of Bachillerato. I had him as a teacher these two years, and I saw that philosophy was “my way.” That was my only reason to study philosophy. A great teacher.
R: What made you decide to become a secondary school teacher?
C: Here in Spain, professional paths for a philosopher are few. One of the most important is to be a teacher. Another one is to publish and to translate other philosophers, but most graduates become teachers, either at secondary school or at university. This is our fate. In my case, I became a teacher just when I finished my degree.
R: Can you give me some idea of the process of becoming a secondary school teacher of philosophy?
C: To be a teacher in a secondary school you need to have a degree. In fact, if you are trying to be a philosophy teacher, your degree need not be in philosophy. You just need a degree in general. Of course, most people who teach philosophy studied the subject, too. You also need to pass the oposiciones.
The oposiciones are a special public examination in which there are a determined number of posts to be got. People need, not only to pass the exam, but to beat each other. This is why they are called “oposiciones,” because everyone is opposed. There is a writing portion in which you need to write about one subject chosen from 150 possible subjects. Most of these were about the history of philosophy, specific philosophers, aesthetics, ethics, etc.
The second part of the exam used to be called the encerrona, because they locked you in a classroom with some books, to prepare a topic that had been given to you randomly. You don’t choose it. I had 4 or 5 hours to prepare the topic, and then I had to give a presentation about it. The last part of the exam was a kind of pedagogical test, about how to teach philosophy, how to organize your materials, what exercises, what resources you could employ to make your subject more attractive.
R: What are some of the challenges of getting adolescents to grapple with philosophical questions?
C: I don’t know if I got it, I tried but… Well, today I think the main obstacle to gain teenagers to our cause is that they live in a visual culture. They don’t usually read. And they understand mostly things that they can see or that they can imagine. Or things that they can find in their everyday life. Philosophy, on the other hand, as everyone knows, is a quite general, quite abstract subject. So the question is to unite both things. So, to me, this visual culture is the most difficult obstacle. How do you overcome that? Well, with difficulty. I don’t have an easy solution, but I think you need to bring philosophical questions closer to their lives.
I’ve discovered that you have to begin to treat any problem by asking for their experience in that field. Of course, you don’t ask a teenager “Does God exist?” But, perhaps, “Do you think we’re alone in the universe?” or “Do you think have any idea about the meaning of life?” or “Have you ever thought about death?” Or something similar. Trying to attract them to problems that, eventually, can get them to your field—to a field in which you, eventually, can ask “Do you think there could be another kind of being different from us, more powerful than us, a creator, or a judge for our actions?”
But I repeat that I have no magic bullet for this problem. You have a saying, in English, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” And I think that this is the way. The other thing is to have the will.
R: In the United States we do not teach philosophy in public secondary schools. Are we missing out?
C: Well, I don’t know if you are missing out. We have always had a subject of philosophy in secondary schools. And I’ve learned quite recently that this is not very common, even in Europe. But I think that it has its function. Why? I would say that everybody should have the opportunity to think about the persistent problems that afflict human beings. As Popper says, if you don’t have a philosophical idea, you will have a philosophical prejudice. In any case, you won’t have any conscious idea about what to do in an ethical context, or about what is going to happen when you die, or about what it means to live in a fair society.
I think that it’s better to be trained to use your mind to solve these problems. And I think, in any case, you will be a philosopher, as Kant said, since everyone faces philosophical problems. The important point, for me, is that philosophy in secondary school should be understood as training, a training to be conscious of problems, to have a reflective attitude. For me, it’s nothing but that. To be reflective.
R: Do you think that philosophy classes contribute to the health of society?
C: I hope so! For me the answer is the same. Societies where people make their decisions consciously is definitely preferable to a society where people make decisions in a random way. And to make a non-rational decision, for me, is to make a random decision. Would this be the solution of every social problem? Absolutely not. But if we had this kind of society, a rational society, a society in which all its members think through their decisions—this would absolutely be better than the reverse. Some philosophers have had their utopia in which all people are rational and discuss every issue rationally, and make their decision without any interest or interference. Of course this is far from real. But I think that the main idea is a good one, even though this is a very difficult, in some way unreachable, ideal—but an ideal that attracts us so much that it makes us walk in its direction. And this is good in itself, even though we never reach the goal.
R: How would you respond to those who find philosophy pretentious nonsense or completely impractical?
C: In some sense they are right, because there have been, in history, a lot of pretentious philosophers and a lot of impractical philosophers. Even from the point of view of a philosopher. This can be said of some number of philosophers, but not of philosophy in itself. As happens in every realm of culture, there are people who aren’t at the level they are supposed to be. But is philosophy in itself pretentious? Absolutely not. For example, Ortega y Gasset is, for me, an example of a clear, practical philosopher. He wrote understandably and he brought his ideas to the political arena. He gained a seat in parliament. He wrote many articles about the political situation.
In general, I don’t think it’s necessary that philosophers be considered as men who live above the clouds, not interested in real life. This is not true. On the other hand, it is true that philosophers who write in a very complicated way have created a “black legend” about philosophy. But that is something we have to fight against. We don’t need to take that as something essential for philosophy.
R: Do you have any suggestions for improving Spain’s educational system?
C: Today, I am an outsider, out of the public educational system, so I can speak more freely. But I don’t really have a magic bullet in this case either. But for me there are two general lines to develop. One of them would be to get rid of charter schools. Why? Because I think it doesn’t make sense that we have schools that are at the same time public and private. If it is private, it must face the challenges that private companies face. And they should not have any public benefits. They should not have public aid. I think this because, nowadays in Spain, public schools have to compete with a kind of school that offers them benefits that public schools, with their limited budgets, cannot. This is not fair. The charter schools, as a result, get the best students. Because students are attracted by things like indoor pools and dancing programs, and so on. So private schools shouldn’t use public funds.
The other idea that I always had is that… Well, you know, we have all the students from 7th grade to 12th in the same schools, with the same kinds of curriculums. That is to say that they all study the same academic things, in the same classrooms, with the same level of depth, and the same teachers. For me this is not functional. When I was a child there were two curriculums. There were two paths. A more academic line, which led us to university. And there was a practical, professional line which led into vocational schools. I think this model is better than the one that we have today. And I would go back to it. Of course, you must allow people to switch back and forth, if they want. Teenagers change their minds. Many problems we have in secondary schools nowadays come from this lack of differentiation. How can you teach a class when one half is interested and the other half isn’t?
R: Are there any thinkers, ideas, or books that you find yourself returning to again and again?
C: I am interested, basically, in questions of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics, and politics. I don’t know enough about aesthetics, for example, and hence I am not interested in it too much. I also do not care much for ontology. My preference for the above mentioned topics has been constant from the beginning. And the philosophers who have contributed the most to these fields are the ones I like best. For example, Aristotle more than Plato, though I recognize that Plato was more creative. In modern philosophy, I like the empiricists (such as Hume) more than the rationalists; and among the rationalist philosophers I like Spinoza, but not Descartes very much.
But my very favorite philosophers are those from the age of Kant and afterwards. Kant himself is the father of contemporary philosophy. And there are the greatest of the nineteenth century, Marx and Nietzsche. Mill is interesting, too. In my early days I liked Ortega very much, but Ortega is a philosopher who I don’t read anymore. I also like philosophers who are involved in the social sciences, like Karl Mannheim, about whom I wrote my thesis.
I am particularly interested in questions of technology, like whether technology is releasing us from nature or is exploiting or manipulating us, or is leading us to a new form of slavery. Technology is bringing new philosophical questions to light. Such as the old problem of immortality. Soon it may be, indeed, literally possible that we live longer or, even—why not?—that we live forever. Well, I don’t know. The question of human nature, raised by Hume, is also more important than it has ever been. Since today the possibility of changing human nature does exist. But for me the questions are more interesting than the answers.
I think you can find philosophical problems everywhere, if you have the proper sight. There are people who would never find a philosophical problem anywhere. And there are people, like us, who find philosophical problems everywhere. For me, these problems exist. Philosophers can be detestable people. But that doesn’t affect philosophy itself, and philosophy itself matters. And I think it will matter forever.