Philosopher Children Make for Better Politics

This article in the New York Times brings up an under-discussed topic: teaching children philosophy:

“The world is a puzzling place and when you’re young it doesn’t make sense,” Professor Wartenberg says. “What you’re giving them is the sort of skills to learn how to think about these things.”

Professor Wartenberg has written a book, “Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), to spread his experiment to more elementary schools. His focus is on teaching undergraduate philosophy students how to work with children, and his decade-old course at Mount Holyoke, “Teaching Children Philosophy,” has led many of his students to pursue careers in early-childhood education.

“A lot of them don’t know what to do after college,” he says. “If they want to do something with philosophy, this opens up an avenue.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

The view that children can do philosophy and engage in conversations on metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and epistemology challenges the view of child psychologist Jean Piaget who claimed that children under the age of 12 were not capable of the sort of abstract thinking required for philosophical analysis. Matthew Lipman, however, founder of Philosophy for Children, disagrees, claiming that the insatiable curiosity of children makes them ripe for engaging in philosophical dialogues. According to Lipman’s approach, the teacher acts as a sort of “midwife to the thoughts of the students” (to use an expression from Plato). The idea is not to teach students what Plato or Descartes thought, but rather to teach them how to think.

Literature turns out to be a wonderful place to begin, as the following exchange over The Giving Tree illustrates:

Ms. Runquist’s students managed to fit philosophy in between writing and science. This was their sixth lesson of the year, and by now they knew the drill: deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said.

Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat.

“It’s only a tree,” Justin said with a shrug.

“The tree has feelings!” Keyshawn replied.

Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences.

“If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,” said Nyasia.

Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.

“Say me and a rock was a friend,” he said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”

This gave his classmates pause.

In book VII of The Politics, Aristotle addresses the question of how people should be educated in an ideal city according to both the end and means of education. The end of education is eudaimonia, a life of flourishing or as we say, happiness. Whereas practical reason makes important contributions to eudaimonia in terms of making decisions conducive to health and financial success, ultimately, it is the speculative intellect which contributes most directly to the ultimate end of education and the achievement of eudaimonia. While Aristotle definitely thinks that children are not born in command of their reason, but must rather be trained, he clearly thinks that by the age of seven, children should be engaged in the most basic and foundational forms of philosophical inquiry, and should be learning the intellectual habits (counsel, understanding, wisdom) which are integral to the philosophical life. Active, creative, and democratic conversation among children creates adults who can engage in active, creative, and democratic conversation. Young philosophers, according to both Aristotle and Lipman, turn into good citizens.

Opponents claim that children need to be taught “useful” subjects like math, science, and reading, all of which are conveniently-suited to standardized tests, and that philosophy is a luxury which our already-undereducated children cannot afford. Lipman, however, started working on developing philosophical tools for children during the Vietnam era, during which he claimed “many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.”

It seems to me that with all the unproductive back and forths between liberals and tea-party conservatives, the gross misunderstandings on both sides in the debates on health care reform, the vitriol we see in coverage of the Roman Catholic Church in recent weeks, and countless other examples point to the fact that even the best brains among us do not know how to have a conversation, to reason about ideas, and to listen and compromise with those who hold divergent views. Perhaps teaching kids philosophy isn’t such a worthless idea after all.

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6 comments so far

  1. Meg on

    Beth – I enjoyed reading your response to the article…I found the article so – hopeful. Unfortunately, I fear that Lipman may be right – starting to try and teach people to reason for themselves only in college may often be too late…simply accepting authoritative answers is quite the difficult pattern to break!

    • everydaythomist on

      Yeah, and with the legacy of No Child Left Behind, I think we are in store for quite a few “left behind” adults. And then with budget cuts, I see little possibility at this point for making philosophical education more widespread in our schools.

  2. Meg on

    Ok – I forgot my name – Its Meghan

  3. Cindy on

    Beth – thank you for posting this article. It seems that the US should reconsider philosophy’s status as a “luxury” subject in school, especially in a society where mid-20 year-olds often complain about being “confused” or “trying to find themselves.” I think that it takes awhile for many college students to make sense of basic philosophy, if they even chose to take a course.

    Furthermore, many religions employ philosophical reasoning. As the population is becoming seemingly more secular, I fear that exposure to philosophy will be decreased further. It goes without saying, however, that we should consider what type of philosophy should be introduced to children. For example, we might not want expose 12 year-olds to Nietzsche off the bat…

  4. everydaythomist on

    Cindy,
    You are definitely right that religion and philosophy are closely related. In fact, one of the branches of philosophy, metaphysics, ponders some of the same questions as theology such as the nature of the soul, the origin of being, and the essence of God. Our secularism tends to make us as a society shy away from such subjects out of fear of making objective truth claims, but I would say that almost every young adult/teenager asks themselves such metaphysical questions and it is best to prepare them at a young age by giving them the tools to engage in metaphysical inquiry without falling into blind fundamentalism or nihilism.

    Speaking of nihilism, I think 12 year olds might be fine reading Nietzsche had they been taught earlier how to critically read and discuss such texts, but regardless, Lipman does not advocate teaching young people “philosophers” but rather “philosophy.” The idea is not so much to get elementary and middle school students to know the ideas of the philosophers who came before them, but to teach them how to become philosophers themselves by learning how to read and discuss texts and the ideas contained therein.

  5. […] article has also been discussed in this blog. -31.955400 […]


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