Monday, November 29, 2010

The Thief

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is 1996 novel for young adults, the first of the series The Queen's Thief. The story's main character, Gen, is a thief who boasts about being able to steal anything, ends up in jail, and is recruited to steal a mythic spiritual object by the king. The novel tells the story of Gen and the people who accompany him on this journey to find and take this mysterious object.

This adventure novel is a philosophically rich page turner. It raises questions about loyalty, identity, political and social philosophy, heroism, and the obligation to tell the truth. Gen is a complex character whose identity is multi-layered and whose ethical code is slowly illuminated as the story unfolds. The novel can inspire young people to think and talk about what makes people who they are, whether we can ever really know another person, and what makes actions right or wrong.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Philosophy Talk and Fourth Grade Philosophers

Recently the fourth grade students at John Muir with whom I've been doing philosophy and I taped a segment for the radio show Philosophy Talk. We talked about personal identity, the mind-body problem, and the nature of happiness.

The students were so impressive! We all had a great time. Here is a recent University of Washington article about the event:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Cricket in Times Square

One of my favorite works of children's literature, The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, first published in 1960, is moving, funny and philosophically suggestive. In particular, the book can inspire discussion about a variety of ethical questions.

The story involves Chester, a cricket, who arrives in Times Square in an accidental way from his country home in Connecticut and is befriended by Mario Bellini, whose family owns a newsstand in the Times Square subway station. Chester's relationship with the Bellini family, his musical talent, his friendships with city-savvy Tucker Mouse and Harry the Cat, and his desire to help others are woven into a story that asks questions about happiness, our obligations to the people in our lives, talent and its cultivation, justice, and fairness.

For example, Chester's musical ability becomes a sensation and brings people to the newsstand, which helps the struggling Bellini family and provides pleasure to all of the people who hear Chester's music around the city. Chester, however, is uncomfortable with his growing fame and misses the rural life he knew in Connecticut. He wants to return there. Tucker Mouse, Harry the Cat and Chester have a conversation about whether this would be the right decision for Chester to make, weighing Chester's happiness and his right to choose the course of his life against the possible negative consequences of this choice (the potentially negative effect on the Bellini newsstand, Mario's sadness when Chester leaves, the loss of the opportunity to listen to Chester's music for thousands of listeners, etc.).

Throughout the story, there are several junctures at which Chester and other characters must make moral decisions -- whether to help someone else, tell the truth, abandon a difficult situation -- and the characters' discussions and reflections can motivate interesting discussions with children about these situations. Charmingly illustrated by Garth Williams, the story, in my experience, is completely engaging for children ages 5 to 12, and captivates older readers and listeners as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Double Trouble

On Friday the 4th graders at John Muir and I had a long conversation about personal identity. We also had some visitors from Nova High School, as well as one of the graduate students at UW working with us this year.

We read Philip Cam's story, "Double Trouble," about a robot, Algernon, who, one by one, has all of his parts replaced until none of his original parts are left. The robot company creates a new robot using all of the original parts, and a puzzle ensues. Which of the two robots is the real Algernon?

The students had lots of questions about which robot constitutes the real Algernon, and about the ethics of the company's actions. They voted to begin our conversation with the question about whether the "real" Algernon is the robot who has gradually had his parts replaced, or the one who was created from all of the original parts. We had a really spirited discussion about this topic for over an hour, with students raising many issues about what makes the robot that particular robot (thoughts? memories? the same body?) and whether any of us really maintains the same identity over time. I told them the famous "Ship of Theseus" puzzle, and the students were quite divided over whether the ship that had had all of its planks replaced was still Theseus' ship. And if it wasn't, at what point did it cease to be Theseus' ship? When one plank was replaced? Ten planks? Half of the planks? Three-quarters?

Eventually we ended up in a long discussion about whether, if I exchanged brains with one of the students, I would still be "Dr. Jana" or the student would have become Dr. Jana. Most of the students seemed to conclude that the student would have become Dr. Jana and I would have become the student, but several wanted to say that I would not be Dr. Jana or the student, but would become some third identity, with Dr. Jana's body (minus the brain) and the student's brain, because, as one student put it, "you would still have some physical instincts and ways of moving that were really Dr. Jana's and not [the student's]." What is it, then, that makes us the people we are? The students recognized that this is a really difficult and complex question.

It was a fascinating and really animated discussion, with many of the students in the class participating. The question about what makes us who we are and whether we remain that person despite significant changes seems always to inspire a meaningful and thoughtful conversation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Happiness at 10

On Friday I talked about happiness with the fourth grade students with whom I've been working at John Muir Elementary in Seattle. One of the things that's always so interesting to me about discussing philosophy with children is that the conversations frequently parallel in many aspects the discussions I have with college students. They unfold at different levels in terms of language and sophistication, but the issues tend to emerge in very similar ways.

We talked about what's important for happiness, and many of the students expressed the view that central to thinking about what you need for happiness is being aware of what creates unhappiness. That is, many of the children thought that happiness involves avoiding experiences like loneliness, isolation, pain and feelings of meaninglessness.

The students then broached the question, "What exactly is happiness?" In this conversation, they raised many issues about happiness, noting, for example, that you can be happy and unhappy at the same time, that you can have a happy life and still feel unhappy at any particular moment, that happiness seems to be more than a feeling and that, although we talk about feeling happy, happiness is really more like an evaluation of the state of your life. One student suggested that happiness is attainable to everyone, and another said, "I think it's your attitude about life that's most important for happiness." We ended by observing that we often talk as though happiness and feeling happy are the same thing, but that upon reflection happiness, though we still might not know precisely how to define or attain it, is more complex and multifaceted than the experience of feeling happy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Meaning in Education

Since our seminar session at UW last Thursday, I've been thinking about meaning in education. We spent the first part of the session talking about Plato's Allegory of the Cave and enlightenment, the relationship between appearance and reality, knowledge, and human development, and then moved into examining the nature of thinking and thoughts. It was a rich couple of discussions and made me think about my own undergraduate (and secondary) education, and the rare opportunities I experienced for this kind of classroom dialogue. 

It is so clear to me that there is a hunger for meaningful, deep conversations about these kinds of questions. Creating a community of philosophical inquiry in a classroom, a space within which fundamental philosophical questions are explored, makes a space for students to gain experience questioning and analyzing their own experiences and perceptions. I believe that the deepest and most authentic kind of learning occurs when students participate in thinking about a subject (and are not just passive recipients of what is being taught), and a new clarity emerges for them personally. Helping them to engage in collaborative inquiry that is aimed at acquiring meaning and deeper understanding enables these kinds of experiences.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Plato with Fourth Graders

I taught my first couple of elementary school classes in the last week, both with fourth grade students in Seattle. It is always amazing to me the level of philosophical interest and understanding shown by children. Yesterday I had a discussion with about 30 fourth graders about Plato's "Ring of Gyges." In our conversation, the children pointed out the dangers of the ring (thinking you might have more control over it than you do, the risks of it falling into the wrong hands, etc.). They also expressed their sense that you could think now that you know how you would behave if you had an invisibility ring, but really the way you would act if you were actually in this situation could turn out to be quite different than your predictions. We talked about the view that people behave morally only in order to avoid negative consequences if they do not, and the children generally asserted that they often behave in ways that seem morally good not because of the potential consequences if they don't, but because they see themselves as certain kinds of people and being those kinds of people (trustworthy, loyal, kind, helpful, etc.) is important to them.

We also taught our first Philosophy for Children class at the University of Washington this week, and several undergraduates expressed their views that most children do start thinking early in their lives about the larger questions that underlie human existence, but there is typically no vehicle for exploring philosophical questions and along the way that part of many children's selves fails to develop. We talked about how meaningful it can be to talk about questions like the meaning of life, what makes a life worth living, what success means, how we can know what's right and wrong, who we are, etc., and the difference it can make in young people's lives to examine these questions in an ongoing, collective way. We read Jon Muth's story The Three Questions (which I've talked about in an earlier post), and each of the students wrote down the three questions that they think are the most important questions to which they would like answers.

Here are my three:
Why are we here?
Is time just a feature of human minds, and what is the objective relationship (if any) between past, present and future?
What happens when we die?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Philosophical Sensitivity

The first day of fall and it's a beautiful clear day in northeast Washington State. I am returning to this blog after spending much of the summer working on the book I am writing for parents about ways to inspire philosophical conversations with one's children.

One of the ideas on which I've been spending a lot of time recently is what I'm calling "philosophical sensitivity," by which I mean an awareness of and attentiveness to the philosophical dimension of life. I've been developing this concept as part of my thinking about what it takes to be a competent philosophy teacher and/or to be able to inspire and facilitate philosophical dialogue in general. I thought I'd offer a brief sketch of this concept here and see what people think.

I'm conceiving philosophical sensitivity as a kind of perceptual capacity, in the Aristotelian sense of an ability that can be cultivated through education, experience and interest. There are three aspects to this capacity: the ability to identify a philosophical question, the skills necessary for inspiring a philosophical conversation, and a facility for paying attention to and shaping the progress of a philosophical discussion.

Identifying a philosophical question requires an ability to recognize the more fundamental, deeper issues underlying much of what we think, do and say, as well as skill at uncovering the assumptions embedded in our ordinary views about the world. Philosophers notoriously disagree about what makes a question philosophical. One basic way to identify in at least a rough way when something is not a question of philosophy is to ask if it can be settled by empirical facts. If so, it is not a philosophical question. Philosophical questions examine the meaning of a concept or idea, and aim at helping us understand better what we think we already know. They are generally abstract questions that are not likely to be answered in any final way. I often tell my students to keep asking more and more abstract questions about the subject under examination (for example, friendship: Why is she your friend? What makes someone a friend? What is friendship?); this can often lead you to an interesting philosophical question.

The second aspect of philosophical sensitivity is the ability to inspire or motivate a philosophical conversation. What makes a conversation philosophical? Three things, I think: (1) an examination of an abstract, general question that cannot be answered empirically; (2) arguments given to support the views offered; and (3) a progression or development of either the meaning of the idea(s) being explored or the participants’ understanding of a concept or concepts. To be able to inspire a philosophical conversation, the facilitator must be familiar with at least some of the most fundamental questions of philosophy (in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.), and have two primary abilities, I think: the ability to listen carefully to what is being said (and to recognizing some of the assumptions behind the participants' statements) and the ability to articulate both connections and distinctions between the views offered by the conversation's participants.

The final element of philosophical sensitivity is an awareness of the development of a philosophical conversation. The conversation should ultimately proceed in a forward movement. This doesn’t mean that the discussion won’t loop back and forth, touching several conceptual issues and coming back to earlier questions, rather than developing in a straight line. However, there should be some progress – at the very least, a better understanding of what the participants in the conversation think, greater conceptual clarity, the identification of key assumptions, and/or the construction of an alternative way of understanding the subject. Part of philosophical sensitivity is the ability to help shape the conversation so that it does proceed in a forward movement, by, for example, pointing out unidentified issues, recognizing when the discussion is going in circles and not moving forward in any meaningful way, or recounting the conversation's path and asking for ideas about what's next.

It seems to me that philosophical sensitivity is an essential bedrock skill for being a competent philosophy teacher, or being able to inspire philosophical conversations. One obvious question, of course, is how is philosophical sensitivity cultivated? I'm working on that one!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why do we go to school?

In my last class of the school year with the 5th grade public school students with whom I've been doing philosophy this year, we held a "Philosophy Cafe" with juice, cookies and conversation. I'm going to miss this class.

The students had requested last time that we spend some time discussing whether homework is a good thing. We started the discussion more broadly by reading a chapter of Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery that raises questions about the purposes of education generally. I asked the students why they believed they were expected to go to school, and they responded that they thought it was "to learn," "so that we can have a better life," "so that we learn what we need to know in life" and "to get a job." They also mentioned that they want to be in school to spend time with their friends.

I asked the students what a school that they could create would be like. 

One student replied, "I think this school is as good as it gets. If you made it any more fun, we wouldn't learn as much. But if it was less fun, we wouldn't want to be here.  It's actually perfect because we have fun and it's interesting and we learn a lot."

"Yeah, we're actually really lucky because school is much more interesting than it used to be when my parents went to school. We have time to read and do projects and teachers really try to make it interesting."

"School isn't meant to be joyous and fun. It's meant to teach us what we need to know for life."

"I disagree with that. I think that school does have to be fun, because if kids aren't having fun they don't pay attention and don't learn as much."

We talked for a little while about the connections between having fun and learning, and then the discussion moved into the purpose of homework, about which the students felt quite strongly.

"The purpose of homework is to keep us thinking about what we've learned so that the teachers doesn't have to teach it over and over."

"I agree. It kind of gets everyone to be on the same level, so if you didn't understand something so well in class, the homework helps you learn it better. If one person doesn't do the homework they get behind and it wastes everyone else's time."

"I don't agree with that. I don't think we'd forget what we've learned in one day. I think homework makes learning harder, because you never want to do the homework and you start not wanting to learn at all."

"Homework should be done at school. We have 7½ hours of school every day. We come home and we don't want any more school for the day."

"You know, we actually have a lot less homework than many kids in schools in other countries."

"But it does get in the way. After school you want to do fun stuff with your friends or at home, or play sports, and then you think, 'Oh yeah, I still have to do my homework.' "

"And you're distracted because you want to do fun things. So you sit there and look at the homework and think about what else you could be doing, and so it takes a long time to do the homework, and you have even less time for what you want to do."

"Learning in school is fun because we all do it together. At home it isn't any fun to do work by yourself."

"But I think you learn things in school and then homework is so you can practice what you've learned over and over."

"I don't think that really works. I mean, we don't forget what we've learned in a day. And having to practice it after a long day in school just makes us less interested in learning."

"Well, I think that homework does get in the way of other things you want to do after school, but the idea is that you do sometimes forget what you've learned or you haven't learned it totally, and you look at the homework and you figure out how to do it and then you really learn it. No one likes it every day, and when you're doing it sometimes you hate it, but you know there's a good reason for it."

"Maybe if we didn't have it every day it would be better."

This nice exchange among a dozen students (which involved me almost not at all) then led to an exploration of some practical solutions. Should there be time at the end of the school day (say, the last 20 minutes) for the students to do their homework if they chose? Should it be every other night instead of every night? Should it be handed out in advance for the week so that the students could manage when to do it? 

One student noted that he would like to do his homework at recess (if the homework isn't done the class rule is that the students must stay in at recess to do it), but his mom wouldn't let him. Another student responded that he was allowed to do homework whenever he wanted and to figure out how to make it work for himself. The school day was about to end, but we did have a brief interesting discussion about the responsibilities of parents to let their children figure things out for themselves, and how to make good judgments as a parent about when and how to do that.

As I was leaving several girls told me that they wanted to be philosophers when they grew up. A side-benefit of this work, perhaps? More women in philosophy? That would be a great thing!

This will be my last blog post until the fall, to allow me to work on some other writing projects over the summer. Happy summer!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me, a young adult novel that was a winner of the 2010 Newbery Medal, was written by Rebecca Stead. Set in New York City in the late 1970s, it's an engrossing story about a young girl, her relationships with her friends, her single mother and her mother's boyfriend, and a mystery. 

Miranda is in the sixth grade when she begins to receive a series of notes that indicate knowledge about Miranda's life that is seemingly impossible for anyone to have. Miranda's attempts to understand why she is receiving these notes and what they mean are beautifully illustrated through Miranda's interior monologues about growing up on the upper west side of Manhattan in 1979 and the trials and joys of sixth grade.

The story raises philosophical questions about the nature of time, the nature of friendship, courage and trust,  and the meaning of life and death. It would be a marvelous book to read along with a middle-school-aged child (I read it along with my twelve-year-old son) or to read to a class of upper elementary school students. I couldn't put it down!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Leo Lionni wrote, who died in 1999, wrote and illustrated many classic children's books.  I've used several of his books to inspire pre-college philosophy discussions. One that is particularly helpful for introducing questions of political and social philosophy is Frederick, the story of a family of five field mice who are gathering food for the winter. 

Everyone is working hard to bring in as much food as they can, except Frederick. Frederick seems to spend his time staring at the meadow and half-asleep, dreaming. When the other mice ask him what he is doing, Frederick replies that he is gathering "sun rays for the cold dark winter days," "colors . . . [f]or winter is gray," and "words . . . [f]or the winter days are long and many, and we'll run out of things to say."

The story makes no mention of the reaction of the other mice to Frederick's behavior and explanations, except at one point to describe as "reproachful" the tone in which they ask him if he is dreaming. Once winter sets in, the five mice hide away in an old stone wall, and have plenty to eat and stories to tell. Lionni describes them as a "happy family." As winter continues, however, there is less food and more cold, and much less chatting among the family members. Then they remember Frederick's fall activities and they ask him about his supplies. Frederick proceeds to describe the rays of the sun and colors, and begins reciting poetry. The family realizes that he is a poet.

The story raises in a wonderfully subtle way questions about what is valuable work in a society. In a family of five, one member failing to gather food means much less food for the family. Is Frederick's work of gathering ideas and words and images as important as gathering food? What are the responsibilities of family members to each other? Is Frederick meeting his responsibilities? If Frederick doesn't gather food but instead spends his time thinking in preparation for giving to his family in a different way, is he entitled to an equal share of the food? Is what Frederick is doing work? What is work? Are some forms of work more important than others?

The story provides an opening to discussing with children questions about the nature of the social contract, the role of the individual in a community, and the relative value of different kinds of contributions to communities. And it's a lovely story with delightful illustrations!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How much philosophy does a pre-college philosophy teacher need to know?

I'm working on a review article for the journal Teaching Philosophy, writing about five books that have been written in the past few years about pre-college philosophy. In the course of reading these books, it's been interesting to me to observe the range of views about the level of training necessary for a competent pre-college philosophy teacher.

This is a real issue, as most K-12 teachers in the US have had little exposure to philosophy. Some philosophers and educators with experience in pre-college philosophy think that there are only a few rules for conducting philosophical discussions and that even teachers with little background in philosophy can successfully introduce philosophy to their students. Others argue that extensive preparation in how to teach philosophy and a solid familiarity with the history of philosophy is necessary.

I come out somewhere in the middle, I think. I think there is a significant difference between introducing philosophy to elementary school students and teaching a philosophy class for high school juniors or seniors. For teaching younger students, I think that what is essential to leading a philosophy session is a philosophical ear. By a philosophical ear, I mean the ability to recognize when a philosophical issue is being raised (by a student, a story or film, etc.). Certainly, extensive exposure to philosophy texts and discussions is useful to the development of a philosophical ear, but I don't believe that this kind of background is essential. I think that teachers who have had even a little experience with philosophy discussions can, with strong skills in facilitating student discussions and a good curriculum, facilitate philosophy discussions among elementary school-age children.

This is not to say, however, that any teacher can pick up a pre-college philosophy curriculum and lead productive philosophy sessions with children. Many teachers, in my experience, are too much invested in the "teacher as repository of wisdom and students as vessels to be taught" model to be able, without a great deal of training and commitment, to introduce philosophy to their students.

As students get closer to upper-level high school age, I think the requirements for successful philosophy teachers grow, for two reasons. First, in my experience, high school students (and particularly those who have not had any exposure to philosophy in earlier years) are more reticent about engaging in classroom philosophy sessions than are younger children. The philosophy teacher who has had strong preparation for how to teach philosophy and at least some exposure to philosophical texts is more likely to be successful at involving students in high school philosophy discussions. Second, students at this level are capable of analyzing much more complex philosophy questions, and teachers familiar with these questions will be able to facilitate fuller, more sophisticated discussions. I am hoping that, with the growing interest among philosophy departments around the country in high school philosophy classes, there will be greater opportunities for high quality instruction for potential high school philosophy teachers in the future.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What is a child?

I read an interesting article this week by Tamar Schapiro on "What Is a Child?" In a discussion about the possible justifications for what we generally believe are adults' special obligations to children, for "treating someone like a child," Schapiro (looking to Kant) suggests an understanding of the word 'child' as a status concept. The idea is that someone counts as a child when that person lacks the independence necessary (in the ethical realm) for governing himself in accordance with his capacity for reflective choice.

Schapiro suggests that childhood is in some respects analogous to Kant's notion of a state of nature in the political realm, where we need certain normative concepts (like rightful ownership and justice) that are lacking because there is no common political authority in which to ground such concepts. This makes a state of nature inherently unstable and requires that people in that state "pull themselves together" into a unified political state. In a similar way, Schapiro contends, children are like a state of nature in that they need normative principles to be able to make moral choices, but do not yet have a developed will on which to base these principles. An individual becomes an adult when she has "pulled herself together" into a unified reflective agent able to make choices about her desires.

An adult, Schapiro claims, "is one who is in a position to speak in her own voice, the voice of one who stands in a determinate, authoritative relation to the various motivational forces within her." In order to be considered a fully developed agent, one does not have to have worked out principles for any conceivable practical issue but must have a "plan of life." This basic structure, which Schapiro calls character, determines the relation between the pursuit of one's desires and the impulse to relate to others in mutually acceptable ways. Children lack this structure, and so, the argument goes, the distinction between adults and children is one of kind: adults have characters and children do not.

Childhood, therefore, is a "normative predicament" because children need adult help to govern themselves until they develop character, the unified perspective that allows them to exercise effective authority over themselves. Part of the way children develop this, proposes Schapiro, is through play, in which children “try on” selves to develop what is like to speak in their own voices and control their own worlds.  As adults, we are obligated to help children escape their predicament by doing what we can to help them "work their way out of childhood." 

This is a complex argument for which I am only providing a sketch, but I wonder about it. First, I question the definition of an adult as someone who has constituted herself as a unified reflective agent and can thus speak "in her own voice." It seems to me that the development of this normative structure does not occur in ways consistent with our ordinary judgments about who is a child and who is an adult (which in general depend solely on age). There are people we would characterize as adults (they are over 21) who do not have this kind of developed structure, and there are people we would characterize as children (they are under 17) who do. 

Second, while the notion of play as “trying on selves,” has much to offer, it does not apply to many people characterized as children (most people over age 10, for example). Schapiro acknowledges this and notes that we think of adolescents “as people who are characteristically ‘in search of themselves’ . . . [who] carry out this search by identifying themselves in a rather intense but provisional way with peer groups, celebrities . . . and the like.” But being "in search of oneself” and "identifying with peer groups, celebrities, etc." is applicable to many adults as well. Does a person who falls within this description lack a “plan of life?" If so, would we have to hold that they should be "treated like a child?" And doesn't in some respects the process of "trying on selves" and developing a "plan of life" last a lifetime?

Finally, I'm reluctant to characterize childhood as a predicament out of which adults have an obligation to help children find their way. While I don't romanticize childhood as a time of innocent bliss or something, I do think that there is a special quality about the life of children that is positive, that as adults we remember with fondness and even wistfulness (see Proust, for example). For example, in my experience doing philosophy with children, I have observed that children often have particular access to creative ways of understanding the world because of their openness to the mysteriousness of human existence. Likewise, I'm hesitant to grant Schapiro's idea that children are different in kind from adults because they lack character. In my work with children, I have found them reliably capable of reflective deliberation and often quite clear and consistent about the internal principles by which they make choices among their desires. I think that children are often capable of "speaking in their own voices." I am just not convinced that all children lack character, or that all adults have it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children Grant and Summer Workshop

Center for Philosophy for Children just received a three-year grant from the Squire Family Foundation! The grant funds a summer workshop for teachers that will take place this June, and also provides money for graduate student involvement in the program, materials and website support, and three years of transportation for UW students to get to and from local schools. We are very excited about the possibilities for the growth of our program that have been created by receiving this grant.

The summer workshop will take place at the University of Washington June 28-29 and is open to teachers and others interested in exploring how introducing philosophy in K-12 classrooms can enrich and enhance student learning. Participants will learn about the history and methods of philosophy for children, and will engage in philosophical discussions on topics such as: “What can we know? What makes something right or wrong? Are we free? What is a mind? How can we define happiness?”

The workshop is free of charge, including 11 clock hours, materials, refreshments, lunch on the second day, and parking. Anyone interested should contact me at by June 1. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

New York Times article on doing philosophy with children

I am living it up in Italy at the moment, but thought I would write this post to note that the New York Times published an article last week about philosophy in elementary school classrooms:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Developing a philosophical self

As part of the book I'm working on, I've been thinking a lot about the development of our philosophical selves. In my experience, most children begin to exhibit a "philosophical self" around age 5, when all of the questions that demonstrate "wonder at the world" often start to emerge. This curiosity about and exploration of some of the basic facets of human life -- why we're alive, what it means to be good, what obligations we have to others and why, identity, the nature of reality -- seem to me fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Yet, for many (most?) people, this development gets cut off at some point between age 5 and graduation from high school.

Recognized as important are the development of children's physical selves, intellectual selves, moral selves, and social and emotional selves, but there is little attention paid to the development of our philosophical selves: the part of us that recognizes and ponders the intense strangeness of the human experience, that thinks deeply about the concepts that underlie our collective understanding of the world. For me what has always been most important about engaging in philosophical discussions with children -- my own, and students in pre-college classrooms -- has been helping children to think more clearly about questions they are already thinking about. I remember my first class in philosophy, which I was lucky enough to have in a public high school, and how thrilling it was to be able to talk about these questions I'd thought about since I was little and that I imagined no one else ever considered very much.

I think that the development of children's philosophical selves is of crucial importance to learning how to evaluate the difficult questions of life thoughtfully and imaginatively. Encouraging children to cultivate their natural inclinations to wonder about life's perennially unsettled questions and to think about these questions carefully and coherently helps them become effective independent thinkers. Our philosophical selves are central, I think, to the uniqueness of human consciousness, to our awareness that we are experiencing whatever we are experiencing. Development of this part of us can profoundly enrich and deepen our lives.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


After almost two years of work, the new national organization for pre-college philosophy in the US, PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), has been born! PLATO is a national support, advocacy and resource-sharing organization for teachers, parents, philosophers and others involved in teaching philosophy to pre-college students. Launched by the Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy of the American Philosophical Association, PLATO’s goal is to attain a visible, national presence, and to advocate in both the philosophical and educational communities for more pre-college philosophy instruction. Check out the website -- it is full of resources to use for introducing philosophy to young people!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Time, nothingness and imagination

Another marvelous conversation last week with the 5th grade students with whom I've been working all year. At the beginning of the school year, one of the questions in which the students were interested was, "What is time?" We began this session with that question.

One student suggested that time is the way "we measure how long different units in the day are, so that we know exactly at what point in the day we are."

"Would time would still exist if we weren't around to measure it?" I asked.

"Maybe time is nothing," one student suggested.

"There's no such thing as nothing," responded another student.

"I think that's right," a third student agreed. "I say, 'I have nothing in may hand,' but of course it's not true. There's air in my hand, for example. Everything is something, so there is no such thing as nothing."

"That's right. We just say there's nothing in our hands because that's the only word we can come up with to describe it."

"We think of 'something' as being solid. And air isn't solid, so we think of it as nothing. But it is something."

"If nothing is something, it's not nothing. So if we're asking what nothing is, there can't really be an answer."

We talked about trying to imagine "nothing." We tried to imagine the absence space, and couldn't.

"It's not possible. There's nothing we can refer to."

"When there's a totally new idea like that, like a new color we've never seen, we have no way to think of it. Everything we can think of is based on something we've seen, heard or know about. Our imagination is not based on some magical thing, but on what we've experienced."

"Actually, we wouldn't experience anything without our imaginations."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, everything we do is because of our imaginations. We wouldn't even be able to move without  imagination."

"Yeah, humans would probably have died out a long time ago without imagination. We wouldn't have survived if we couldn't imagine how to build things and do all kinds of things."

We talked about the nature of imagination, and one student said that really, then, all we experience in the world is through our minds. So how do we know that anything else exists? I explained a little about Berkeley's view that we are able only to know sensations and ideas. In the course of our conversation, I told the students about Johnson's attempt to refute Berkeley's view by kicking the rock.

"That doesn't prove anything!" one student protested. "All he showed was that he felt that he was kicking a rock, which was all in his mind."

"Everything we experience is because of our thoughts. So whether the rock is there or not, the pain I feel when I kick it is just in my mind."

"Hmmm," a student replied. "Think about the lyrics to 'Row Row Row Your Boat.' What do you think?"

"Is life just a dream?"

"I think that's really scary."

"When I was little, my brother told me that life was just being characters in a book someone else wrote. Maybe we are just characters in a book."

"If we are, I wouldn't want to know about it."

We talked a little about whether it would make any difference, if the world felt exactly the same as it now does to us, if it turned out that we were characters in a book. The conversation ended just before the bell, with us reflecting that our thoughts are the lens through which we experience the world, and that we can control how our experiences feel to us by thinking about them in certain ways.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda
As part of the "Moral Philosophy and Genocide" unit I am doing with eighth grade students, last week we watched the film Hotel Rwanda and then discussed it. We talked about the reasons the international community did not intervene in Rwanda, and what obligations the Western countries had to Rwanda during this period. We also discussed the spectrum of moral obligations. At the beginning of the film, Paul Rusesabagina (the hotel manager and main character) contends that "family is all that matters." As the genocide in Rwanda unfolds, however, he develops a deep sense of obligation to neighbors and fellow Rwandans, to the extent that at one point he attempts to send his family out of the country to safety while staying behind with the refugees he is sheltering at the hotel. We talked about whether this was the right decision.

We explored the role of the United Nations as "peacekeepers," and analyzed whether it was right for the UN troops to refuse to fire on the men committing genocide. The students seemed to feel strongly that the UN troops should not have obeyed their orders not to fire, as they would have been able to save more lives had they used their weapons other than in self-defense. Did the larger role of the UN in the country, and in Africa in general, however, require this more restrained role? We analyzed what obligations the UN peacekeepers had toward the Rwandans being attacked and murdered.

We spent a little time talking about whether Paul Rusesabagina was a hero. Most of the students agreed that he was a hero. What makes someone a hero? Someone who puts his or her life at risk for someone else, a student suggested, is certainly a hero.

We'll continue our discussion this week and explore why the people who did not help others during the genocide became bystanders, examining the nature of indifference and its moral status.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Really, Really BIG Questions

The picture book Really, Really BIG Questions by British philosophy professor Stephen Law is an engaging introduction to philosophy for anyone from elementary school age through middle school. With drawings and information about science, history, literature and the history of philosophy, the book explores questions such as: How can something come from nothing? What is nothing? What is the meaning of life? What is it like to be a bat? How important is happiness? Can I always believe my eyes?

Written in question-and-answer format, the book's conversational tone makes the complex questions examined in each chapter accessible and absorbing. A great book to read with your own children or with students in a classroom!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When does morality begin?

I read a review of cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik's book The Philosophical Baby in the New York Review of Books recently. Gopnik suggests that the relationship between an infant and his or her caregiver constitutes the beginning of morality for us, the first ethical relationship.

Carol Gilligan and others have emphasized the role of relationships as central to moral development, and the close connection between empathy and morality. Gopnik argues that our imaginative capacity, which allows us to envision the perspectives of other people, develops out of our early attachments. The attachment we have to our first caregivers is the seed from which our ethical lives develop, as we learn, to put it in simple terms, that other people have feelings too.

Gopnik explores the first five years of life, contending that this period involves states of consciousness, memory and mental life vastly different from those we experience after age 5. Our consciousness of time as involving past, present and future, and of ourselves as unified beings, remaining more or less intact from moment to moment, does not appear to form until after those early years. So our lives stem from this mysterious beginning, a time we barely remember that nevertheless played a central role in forming who we are.

This made me think about the role of ethics in children's lives once they reach elementary school age. At this stage, most children have experienced reciprocal love with their caregivers, providing an emotional foundation for their ethical lives. Moreover, they have started to establish a sense of personal memory and consecutive time, allowing them to develop conceptions of themselves as continuous and separate beings, all essential to moral reasoning.

At this point, then, it seems to me, a more structured introduction of ethics can help children, at a crucial age, to expand their capacities for moral reasoning. My own experience facilitating ethics discussions with elementary school students convinces me that these early years are a prime period in the development of our ethical lives. Open and carefully organized discussions about moral issues with their peers reinforces, at an early stage in their ethical growth, children’s development of empathy and moral imagination.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ethics of Stealing

Recently I have been starting my philosophy sessions in the 5th grade with the students raising questions they want to discuss that have come up since I've last visited. This afternoon, the students mentioned that they wanted to discuss an event that had happened in the classroom.

One boy's iPod touch was stolen this week and, after a long class meeting, the boy from whom it was stolen stated that if the person just put it back in his backpack by the end of the day, there would be no questions asked. At the end of the day, the iPod touch had been returned to the boy's backpack. The students were still feeling unsettled about the event and wanted to explore it.

"Why did the person steal it?" one student asked.

"Because they wanted it," a second student responded.

"Or maybe they wanted to get back at me for something," ventured the child who owned the i-touch.

I explained the principle of Occam's Razor to the students, which states that the simplest explanation is usually the best one. We concluded that while it was possible that someone was plotting an act of revenge, it was more likely that someone saw the i-touch and just wanted it. We talked about the income disparity in the community, where some children come from families who can afford to buy lots of things and others live with families who have trouble paying for food, and the way in which this created temptations for someone to take something they wanted and couldn't afford to buy.

"We all make mistakes," declared a student. "Here the person made a mistake and then thought the better of it."

Does it change how we see an act if it is later regretted?

“Well the person still stole it and that was wrong,” asserted a student.

What makes stealing wrong?

“It hurts other people. It takes something from them that belongs to them.”

“It can also hurt their feelings. You could have something you really cared about and then someone takes it away from you, and it affects you emotionally.”

“Stealing hurts the thief too. You can become someone who steals all the time, and all of a sudden you’re not the kind of person you want to be.”

We talked about what it means to be the kind of person you want to be, and the way in which your whole view of yourself can change based on something you’ve done. We also talked about the effects on the classroom community of this event.

“I felt like this was such a great class and all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.”

The students talked about suspecting other students of being the thief, and the way in which the classroom environment changed during this time. We discussed whether, one the item was returned, it mattered who had stolen it.

“We’re talking about this person, who is probably in the room,” reflected a student. “I think it’s harsh for us to keep talking about this because even though the person did steal it, they returned it. If I was the person who stole it, and there was all this talk about how horrible it was, I would feel really shriveled inside.”

“If you regret stealing something and give it back, you should be forgiven,” agreed another student.

We talked about forgiveness and who has the power to forgive the person who stole the i-touch. Could the fact that the student regretted his or her act and returned the item actually be a sign of the strength of the classroom community? Perhaps upon reflection this event was an ethical plus, in that someone made a mistake, thought the better of it, and decided and was able to fix it.

We spent the entire 45 minutes talking about this, and so the planned discussion about the nature of time will have to wait for our next session!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth

I recently reread The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, one of my favorite books in elementary school. Published in 1961, with marvelous line drawings by Jules Feiffer, the book tells the story of Milo, a bored young boy who sees thinks that everything is a waste of time. He is given a gift of a magic tollbooth that allows him to explore new places and teaches him that the world is fascinating and beautiful.

Full of puns, logic puzzles and philosophical jokes, the novel is a great one to read and discuss with your child or with a class of children. It raises questions about perception (can you see sounds?), the nature of reality (what is infinity?), the meaning of life, knowledge and the mind, the power of words and numbers, nothingness, and the ways in which our perspectives construct the reality we think we know. Funny and exciting, the book is great fun and a philosophical treasure chest for young people.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Experience Machine

In a conversation about Plato's Allegory of the Cave with eighth grade students last week, we spent a lot of time talking about Descartes' dream argument and whether we can know whether we're dreaming or not at any particular moment. A couple of students contended that even if our whole lives are a dream, it wouldn't make any difference, as it would feel exactly the same to us as our lives do right now.

I described for them Robert Nozick's thought experiment. Suppose there was an "Experience Machine, " which could give you any experience you desired. Your brain would be stimulated when hooked up to the machine so that you would think and feel that you were doing anything you wanted to do: playing on a major league baseball team, being a famous actress, skiing on a fabulous mountain, part of a rock band, writing a great novel, etc. You won't be aware of it when you’re hooked up to the machine – you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Would you map out the rest of your life and then hook up to the machine for life?

Some of the students had no problem with the idea of hooking up to the machine. Others, though, raised some of the same reasons that Nozick gives for refusing to hook up to the machine: that we want actually to do certain things, and not just think we are doing them, and that they wanted to be people who did these things, not just thought they were doing them. One student contended it was the choice that made the difference.

"If I were born into the machine, or into living a life that is really a dream, or whatever, it would be one thing. Maybe I it wouldn't really matter if it was a real life or just in my mind, because it would feel the same either way. But choosing to plug into the experience machine is a different thing, because you're making a choice to live a fake life, even if it will feel good."

"I think it's really a moral problem," another student commented.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, you're making a choice to leave your real life behind when you plug into the machine, to live a life that's all in your head, and to abandon all of the people who are part of your life now."

We talked about this idea for a while. This was the first time in all of the years that I've taught this topic that anyone raised this point. Examining the moral dimension of the choice to plug into the Experience Machine, the fact that it is not just as individuals that we make this decision but as members of a community, produced a thoughtful discussion about the choices we make and the way we make them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What is normal?

When I was in a fifth grade classroom last week, the students told me that they had been puzzling a little together about the meaning of "normal," and wanted to ask me about it. What is normal?

The dictionary says being normal is being "an average person," the students told me.

"But no one is the same," one student said.

"Well, what does it mean to be an average person?" I asked.

"Well, an example of not normal would be pouring gasoline on your cereal," offered a student.

"But what if there was a city the size of Washington DC whose population all poured gasoline on their cereal every morning? It would be normal for them," countered another.

"And what would make that normal?" I asked.

"The fact that most people do it," answered the student.

"So then is the meaning of normal what most people are or do?" I asked.

"Perhaps normal is whatever your tradition or culture thinks you should do," suggested a student. "Something might be normal to other people, but not within your tradition."

"I think that normal is just something that we think," mused another student. "Like nothing is really normal. Normal is just something people round things off to. It's normal to open a door to go to school, so it's usually true, but sometimes it's not like that. Normal is just a thought people use to round off how we understand things."

"Kind of like a shorthand, to describe how we ordinarily do things?" I asked.

"Yes, exactly," he replied.

"But it's a shorthand for what most people think," responded a student.

"Sometimes it's good to be what people call 'not normal,' " another student broke in. "It would be really boring if everyone was normal, whatever normal is."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I had an interesting discussion today about happiness with the fifth grade students with whom I've been doing philosophy this year. We started with an exercise I adapted from David White's book Philosophy for Kids. I gave the students a list of 8 activities -- having fun with a friend, reading a book, sitting in a dentist's chair, eating your favorite foods, etc. -- and asked them to rank them according to how important they were as elements of happiness.

Most of the students ranked activities like having fun with a friend, helping a classmate, and eating your favorite foods as the most important for happiness. Sitting in a dentist's chair was by far the activity ranked by the students as the least important for happiness.
When I asked the students why the things that made the top of the list were important for happiness, most agreed that these things were fun and/or made them feel good. "So are happiness and pleasure the same thing?" I asked them.
"I think they're two different things," one student responded. "You could have happiness without having fun."
I asked if anyone could think of an example where something was pleasurable but didn't lead to happiness.
"Playing video games is pleasurable, but it isn't important to happiness," replied a student.
“I think having fun is part of happiness, but you can be happy without having fun,” another child offered. “Sometimes I feel happy but I’m not having fun.”
We began talking about the activity of sitting in the dentist’s chair, which most of the students ranked as an 8, not very important for happiness. Some students thought it was important for happiness, and the reasons they gave included having fun playing in the chair and enjoying laughing gas. “Are there any other reasons sitting in a dentist’s chair might be important for happiness?” I asked.
“I didn’t put it as an 8, going to the dentist is just something you have to do to keep your teeth in shape and your mouth healthy. It’s not pleasurable, I don’t enjoy it, but it’s important for happiness to have your mouth be healthy. Really, sitting in a dentist’s chair is essential.”
“So is happiness a feeling?” I asked.
Most of the students thought so. One student mused, “I think happiness is both a thought and a feeling. How you think about what’s going on is part of happiness. It’s a feeling and a thought. So maybe together that's happiness -- having both the feeling that you're happy and that you know that what's going on is a good thing.”
“I want to know,” a student remarked, “if there any real happiness. Or is it just satisfaction? What's the difference between satisfaction and happiness?”
We then talked about eudamonia, the classical Greek word for happiness, and the idea that perhaps happiness is not a feeling but refers to the state of your life. I explained to the students Aristotle's conception of happiness as self-actualization, as living the best life you can live, being the best person you can be.
“So if you’re a king and you’ve been a great king, doing really good things for your kingdom, for you that would be happiness,” imagined a student.
And another student reflected, “And for me laughter is important to happiness. So it could be that laughter is an important part of living the best life I can.”