Monday, May 12, 2008

Why are we here?

At the end of our philosophy sessions together this year, I asked the 5th grade students with whom I'd been working what questions they'd like to keep talking about. I loved their questions. Here are some of them:

Why are we here?
Why am I me?
Why do we have philosophy?
What is art?
How do we know life isn't just a dream?
What are emotions?
How do we know we have minds?
Why do we ask questions?
What is the imagination? Is the imagination memory?
What started everything? What is the beginning?
What is time?
How do we know other people see what we see and hear what we hear?

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.

The Why Questions

Around the age of four most children start asking the “why” questions. Why do things have to be fair? Why do we have to die? Why is blue a color? Why do we have minds? The beginning of intellectual curiosity. Children generally have no idea that they are joining a dialogue that has been going on for thousands of years. They don't think they have the answers, and they aren't even really looking for someone to give them answers. They just want to wonder about these questions, and we can wonder along with them. In some ways, children are the ideal philosophers, because they do not have to grapple with long-held and often unexamined assumptions about what they know about the world. They assume they know very little. I think that we adults can learn a great deal from that.
When my children were preschool age, we had long thoughtful discussions about these kinds of questions, discussions that were different than many other kinds of talks I had with my kids where I was typically the expert, answering their questions. Here we were co-thinkers in a way. Unlike the more practical questions the boys asked (“where are my gloves?”), I had no answers to these questions, finding them endlessly puzzling myself. These were the kinds of questions, after all, that had led me to study philosophy in college and then graduate school.
When my oldest son, Will, was in preschool and kindergarten, I convinced his teachers to let me try leading philosophy classes with their students. I would bring a philosophically suggestive story to read or tell, and we would discuss the questions raised in the story for a half hour or so. It was marvelous. We read stories like Owl and the Moon," in Owl at Home, by Arnold Lobel, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, and "Dragons and Giants," in Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel. We talked about questions like: What makes something alive? What is time? Does everything have a cause? What does it mean to be brave? Can you be brave and afraid at the same time?
Meanwhile I was having a very different experience as a teaching assistant in philosophy at the college level. Although my students were bright and interested in philosophy (after all, they were choosing to take the classes), they were very reticent about speaking honestly in class about their thoughts, clearly concerned about what their peers might think of them. Their curiosity about philosophy and its questions was too often overtaken by their interest in getting good grades, and making sure that we spent most of our time going over what was likely to be on their exams. They were learning various philosophical arguments, to be sure, but all too often they weren’t really doing philosophy, as I saw it; they were just passively taking in the views of past or current philosophers.
I began thinking about the first philosophy class I had taken, in my public high school during my senior year. It had been a life-changing experience for me. It was so exciting to be in a classroom talking with other students about questions I’d been thinking about for years. And being introduced to the idea that people could do this as their jobs! I remember thinking, “You mean there are people who actually get paid to spend their time thinking about these questions?” I was hooked.
Philosophy is not typically taught in the United States before college, and many adults I know have never been introduced to it. Given young people’s natural disposition to thinking about these large and puzzling issues, it seems to me that philosophy belongs in the school curriculum starting in elementary school. And especially in this time of greater and greater emphasis on what's needed for students to pass state tests, it's revitalizing for students to have a time in the school week devoted to dialogue about questions that have no settled answers, about which they can wonder and imagine without fear of their responses being wrong.