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Philosophy For Children

by David Boersema

In the summer of 1987 I participated in the VIII International Congress of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, which was being held in Moscow (still in the USSR at the time). At the hotel where I stayed, the receptionist asked what brought me there. I answered that I was an academic philosopher and was there for a conference. She looked agog and remarked, “You are a philosopher? I thought philosophers were all old men with gray hair.”

She obviously had been reading Plato. In his discussion of the Allegory of the Cave he claimed that people should not be introduced to philosophy too early in life, lest they suffer the intellectual equivalent of the bends by trying to deal with those heady philosophical conundrums too soon. We need years and years of preparation – by studying astronomy, geometry, and dialectics – before we can safely and fruitfully take on philosophy. In Plato’s opinion, our fine philosopher kings need to be fifty years old before they are ready to “fix their gaze on that which provides light for all” (those pesky Platonic Ideas). Apparently, some kids these days – along with some ne’er-do-well older philosophers – haven’t taken our Greek sage’s wisdom to heart. They seem to think that philosophy and children mix quite well, thank you very much.

Since the 1970s, when Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp began a serious program of teaching philosophy to and for children, through their Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair State College in New Jersey, there has been a steady growth in what has come to be called Philosophy for Children (P4C). One of the early works to come out of this movement was Lipman’s Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery (‘Harry Stottlemeier’: think ‘Aristotle’).

Since those early days of the 70s, programs around the globe have sprung up, such as the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC). The American Philosophical Association has a standing committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. It hosts a web site, PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), with useful resources (go to plato-apa.org). There are journals devoted to P4C, such as Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children and Questions: Philosophy for Young People, as well as numerous books. (Google ‘philosophy for children’, or look it up on Amazon.)

We hope you enjoy our special themed issue on children and philosophy. Robert Fisher claims in his introductory article that children are natural-born philosophers; they sincerely and spontaneously ask philosophical questions. Children have the drive and ability to wonder about and discuss philosophical issues – they simply lack experience, and perhaps opportunity. They wonder: what does love mean? or, how long will the world last? or, where is grandma now that she’s dead? Adults can help them address those questions. For Fisher, this is easily done through thinking about stories that engage children at the level of their experiences. Some stories can help them think about the world, of what is the case; others can help them think beyond the world, of imagination, and what is not the case.

Thomas Wartenberg also uses stories to generate philosophical discussion with children: not self-consciously philosophical stories, however, but popular ‘everyday’ stories such as The Wizard of Oz. He also writes of the value of using picture books, especially for younger children, as a way to bring philosophy and philosophical thinking to children.

Wendy Turgeon focuses on teaching moral character and education, again by using stories and issues that are live for children. This might be picture books for very young children, or perhaps films or stories of celebrities for older children. The point is to use what matters to young people to facilitate truly thinking about those things, not merely opining. (A lesson here for all too many: philosophy does not equate with a bull session!)

Susan Gardner speaks of philosophy for and with children in the context of parenting. Treating young people as capable of being reasoners is the healthy alternative to parenting relationships which are either outright authoritarian (answering a child’s “Why?” with “Because I said so!”), or as if of friends and partners (“Anything goes!”). The primary parenting responsibility is to raise a child who can grow into full autonomy.

Coming at this from a different perspective, Rory Kraft claims that teaching philosophy to children benefits not only the child but also the philosopher. All too often, professional philosophers focus on the problems of philosophers, including style of argumentation. A value and virtue of teaching philosophy for children is that the children zero in on the content of the matter at hand, the ideas, and so force the teacher to do so as well.

We round off with an interview with Peter Worley, who teaches ‘thinking techniques’ to children from age three up.

The wonder of philosophy is dealing with ideas. Like toilet training, it’s never too young to start – whether or not we grow up to be philosopher kings.

David Boersema has cats, not kids. A former member of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy, he nonetheless appreciates P4C. He teaches philosophy at Pacific University, in Oregon, and now has gray hair.

This issue is a tribute to Matthew Lipman, who passed away last year.

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