Philosophy: there's a reason why those academics spent their lives fighting over it

Our Scholar in Residence Akram Azimi is a university lecturer, practising sociologist and social justice advocate, and he's at the heart of our Enrichment and Philosophy programmes. Akram shares his story of resilience, being named the Young Australian of the Year and how young people can make a difference.

What's your take on Philosophy?

To steal from an old master: philosophy is about what is real and what matters. It entails more know-how – a way of doing – than just content. It is about the art of asking better questions and giving good reasons for one's positions.

So, if the subjects at school are different organs of the human body, then, I would say that philosophy is the nourishing blood!

On another level, philosophy, I think, is also a particular type of learned disposition: the capacity to seriously consider other people's ideas without necessarily accepting them. And by learning about and with other people's thinking, we make sense of who we are and the conditions that made us.

Tell us a little about your journey to now.

I was born amidst a civil war in Afghanistan and fled to Pakistan. I saw rampant diseases and violence and learned how precious the institutions that order our society are. We're fortunate to have democratic institutions that structure our actions to give us – at least most of us – a good chance at life. My family moved to Australia, and I went from topping my classes to not knowing the language and failing. I was bullied, and it only took a few bullies to believe I was stupid. However, everything changed after September 11. I went from inferior to being seen as dangerous and a few of my peers looked to me to seek vengeance. My prospects looked bleak.

What changed my life was an amazing teacher, Mr Bell. One day he said, 'Do you want to come to the library? I want to teach you some history'. After six months, he said, 'Akram, why don't you teach these stories to kids in the history class?' I started teaching them and discovered my self-esteem in helping others. I was no longer an outsider. I became hooked on learning and went to university to study science, sociology and law. Later, I did my honours in law and sociology and I am finishing off my PhD in sociology. From all my studies, I have learned that the aim of all my teaching – in law, sociology, philosophy and science – is the cultivation of good judgment so my students can flourish in their obligations.

You were named Young Australian of the Year in 2013. What was that like?

I went to Government House mostly to stuff my pockets full of delicious pastries. I didn't expect to win because nobody who has pockets full of pastries expects to be winning something.

It was an honour to win the award and my mum cried for three days out of joy! Being Young Australians of the Year doesn't come with power or position but instead a pool of goodwill in the community. So, I used this opportunity to travel across Australia to speak and campaign for polio eradication and we raised millions. During that time, I spoke at Scotch. The teachers invited me to come back a few times and I began to sit in on Head of Enrichment Sam Sterrett's classes. After a while, he invited me to collaborate with him.


What's at the core of what you do at Scotch?

I take current academic debates, combine the heart of the arguments and bring it to the boys in clear terms without reducing their complexity. There's no point in teaching philosophy if it's not controversial. There's a reason why those academics spent their lives fighting over it.

We never put boundaries around what we teach, but the complexity must be introduced step-by-step. Ideas are only confusing if you present them in compound form. When broken down and slowly rebuilt, we achieve the same results that a high-level university class can. My students produce knowledge to persuade another human mind, not for a grade.

What's your biggest piece of advice for young people who want to make a difference?

Consider the definition of the problem before acting. Many of our social, political and economic policies have been misdiagnosed because we don't fully understand or critically examine them. For instance, with my students, we critique assumptions and build models that support the definition of the problem. If we don't understand the problem, any solution we add will either do nothing or exacerbate the underlying problem.

What's your proudest moment?

Yes, our intellectual programs sharpen minds, but they are ultimately for the emotional and social development of our boys. The fact that their grades improve is a lovely by-product. Two moments in particular make me proud. First, when our boys, with their very sharp minds, learn intellectual humility and restraint, and steer their intellect towards some form of service. Second, when you have been told you're 'clever' all your life, you can easily mistake a part (being clever) for the whole (being a person). I feel deep pride when our boys no longer define themselves by their cleverness.

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