Science & Research

Research spotlight: Fields ’17: Philosophy through theater

By
Science & Research Editor
Wednesday, October 22, 2014

This profile is part of a new series focused on Brown faculty and students engaged in science and research, with the purpose of highlighting and making more accessible the work being pursued at all levels across disciplines.

Noah Fields ’17 is out to test a hypothesis: “I think that children can learn philosophy,” he said. “I want to create an educational program which is a different form of a musical theater project.”

To begin examining this, Fields spent the summer writing WONDERWORLD, a musical in which characters including Edgar the Existential Elephant, Lonely Sue and Socrates dance across the stage and sing songs that convey philosophical musings.

“People think children aren’t mature enough for philosophy,” but if philosophical concepts are reframed in less technical terms, children are able to examine and internalize them, he said, adding that musical theater can be “a way in” for students.

Though philosophy is not emphasized in public schools, research suggests that teaching philosophy to students can improve their standardized test scores, he added.

“What I wanted to go for was to create something zany, something very ‘Alice in Wonderland’-like,” he said. “I really like the idea of framing philosophy in a way that it’s an adventure that people can go on,” entering into an alternate world of knowledge and curiosities, he added.

One of Field’s favorite scenes of WONDERWORLD explores the tension between consequentialism and utilitarianism. In this scene, a village has the choice: Either all of the residents will be unhappy or only one person will feel distress. The village decides one person, Lonely Sue, should bear the burden, while everyone else is happy. The villagers play outside and belt an upbeat song with the same chords as the sad melody that Lonely Sue sings alone in a basement.

Eventually, Lonely Sue helps the villagers decide that each person will spend a day feeling unhappy and share the burden, creating a “slightly feminist twist on a damsel in distress,” Fields said.

The scene has a greater ability than a direct lesson or textbook to explain the underlying philosophical question about consequentialism versus utilitarianism, words that “go right over kids’ heads,” Fields said. “But when you have Lonely Sue versus all the rest of the town with toys … they can feel the tension.”

The biggest challenge in Fields’ endeavor was inexperience, he said. Having never written a musical before, Fields had to learn the form and the differences between composing a musical score and pure songwriting. Guided by his advisor, Nancy Rosenberg, a teaching associate in the Department of Music, he poured over texts examining how to create musical theater and even wrote a short practice musical.

Now that his work is complete, he is in the process of talking to local theater companies about producing it. He also hopes that Brown students will workshop his play, he said.

When Fields is not writing bars about how “a question is a quest,” he enjoys participating in as many music and musical theater extracurricular activities he can. He is also a member of the St. Anthony Hall literary society and serves as vice chair of the Queer Alliance.

Though Fields is passionate about philosophy and music, he is not sure where these interests will take him in the future, he said. “My perspective in general is one step at a time, one project at a time. … Let your dreams follow you.”