A few times each month, second graders at a charter school in Springfield, Mass., take time from math and reading to engage in philosophical debate. There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism. Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.
“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”
One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.
“We don’t actually try to convince them that trees deserve respect,” he says, “but ask them, ‘What do you think?’ We’re trying to get them engaged in the practice of doing philosophy, versus trying to teach them, say, what Descartes thought about something.”
He is not the first philosopher to work with children. In the 1970s, Matthew Lipman, then a professor at Columbia University, argued that children could think abstractly at an early age and that philosophical questioning could help them develop reasoning skills. It was the Vietnam era, and Professor Lipman believed that many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.
Professor Lipman’s view opposed that of the child-development theorist Jean Piaget, who asserted that children under 12 were not capable of abstract reasoning. He and others, including Gareth Matthews, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, concluded that their curiosity and sense of wonder make children ripe for philosophic inquiry.
“The world is new to them and they want to figure things out,” says Professor Matthews, who has written extensively about children and philosophy. “Young children very often engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical, but typically their parents or teachers don’t react in a way that encourages them. They might say, ‘That’s cute,’ but they don’t engage the children in thinking further about whatever the issue is.”
In 1974, Professor Lipman, now 87, started the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, which has since developed curriculum materials that have been translated into more than 40 languages and used in more than 60 countries. But American public schools have been slow to embrace philosophy for children; while outreach programs are offered by a handful of universities — among them the University of Washington andCalifornia State University, Long Beach — many school officials either find the subject too intimidating or believe it does not fit with the test-driven culture of public education these days.
“Our current educational system is about standards and efficiency,” says Joe Oyler, programs coordinator for the institute at Montclair State. “It’s not fast and it’s not clean. We help children become comfortable with ambiguity and responding to it, so it’s tough to fit in.”
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.
Professor Wartenberg and students use eight picture books to introduce children to the major fields of philosophy, including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.
With Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad Together,” in which Frog and Toad try to determine whether they can be brave and scared at the same time, the pupils examine the nature of courage — one of Aristotle’s central virtues. With Bernard Wiseman’s “Morris the Moose,” about a moose who mistakenly assumes all his friends are also moose, they consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence. And with Peter Catalanotto’s “Emily’s Art,” about a talented young artist who loses a contest, they debate whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art.
“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.
“It’s giving kids a way to figure out what they think, support their own views and reason with one another,” he says. “So I can’t imagine this isn’t helping them on standardized tests.”
But the pupils in Ms. Runquist’s class said they liked philosophy because it involved reading good books and expressing themselves.
“We can say things about what we believe and stuff,” a girl named Autumn said. “It’s what we feel and what we think.”News by SoulRiser on April 20, 2010 @ 4:26 PM