Sunday, May 11, 2008

Can Children Do Philosophy?

"The orgin of philosophy is wonder."
Plato, Theaetetus
When I tell people I spend a lot of my time in K-12 classrooms doing philosophy with young people, often I’m met with a somewhat skeptical response. How do you teach philosophy to children? What philosophy do you teach them? Is this religious? Are children really able to do philosophy?
In many ways, such responses capture the heart of what it is to think about philosophy and to think about it with children. It is a puzzling endeavor, in many ways. Because I don't really teach philosophy to children. And I certainly don't teach them any particular philosophy. Sometimes our discussions touch on religion, but what we're doing is not a religious activity. So what do I mean when I tell people, yes, children are definitely able to do philosophy?
This of course raises the question, what is philosophy? Literally philosophy means "love of wisdom." When I talk with students about what philosophy is, I like to talk about unsettled questions, about thinking about the questions that lie underneath other questions. For example, if someone says, "Is it true? -- a philosopher might ask, "What is truth?" Or when students argue over whether something is fair, a philosophical approach would be to ask, "What is fairness?"
So when I say children are able to do philosophy, I don't mean that ten-year-olds are able to grasp the intricacies of Descartes’ arguments about knowledge. (Though I hope that doing philosophy at an early age will eventually lead them to be curious about what Descartes had to say!) In fact, teaching philosophy for me rarely involves lecturing about what the great philosophers thought or what contemporary philosophers think (though sometimes that comes up and is helpful). What's most central about doing philosophy with children is examining for myself and helping children examine for themselves the ancient puzzles that philosophy seeks to explore. Those wonderful, mysterious questions about life and death and beauty and consciousness that are at the core of the human experience.

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