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.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Friend the Monster

The short novel My Friend the Monster by Clyde Roberta Bulla is about the young Prince Hal, whose parents, the king and queen, think he is "ordinary" and have no time for him. They will not let him spend time with the children he sees playing in the courtyard because these children are the children of servants and, his parents tell him, are "far beneath" him.

Hal becomes friends with one of these children nevertheless, and learns through her about the "monsters" who live in their land. Eventually Hal ends up getting to know one of these monsters, who thinks of Hal as a "Small-Eyes," an enemy who will try to kill him. The two end up becoming friends, despite the efforts of those around them to keep them from doing so.

The story explores in a moving and gripping way questions about what it means to be ordinary, the nature of freedom, what it means to be a good person, friendship, and the value of truth. I have read this story with elementary school students of a wide range of ages, and it never fails to captivate them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Just Now

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever believe
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

W.S. Merwin

January Birthdays

Monday, January 4, 2010

Questions: Philosophy for Young People

I was involved in founding the journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People ten years ago. The journal began as a project of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. We conceived it as a way to illustrate the philosophical work that young people are capable of doing.

The mission of Questions is to further on a national scale the work that is being done to bring philosophy into young people's lives, and to draw attention to the value of philosophy and philosophical thinking for young students. Each issue contains philosophical stories, essays, poems, photographs and drawings. The journal also publishes articles offering advice and ideas for teachers and parents interested in facilitating philosophical discussions with young people.

Past issues have explored a variety of philosophical issues, including human rights with students in elementary, middle, and high schools, and have included transcripts of K-12 discussions about human rights perspectives and an examination of children's rights with teachers, students, and philosophers from the U.S., Brazil, and Israel. The journal publishes all of the winning entries from the Kids Philosophy Slam contest each year. The ninth issue will be out this winter.

Here is the current request for submissions for Questions:
Questions publishes philosophical work by and for young people, including stories, essays, poems, photographs and drawings, etc. In addition, articles related to doing philosophy with young people, reviews of books and materials useful for doing the same, lesson plans (include description or transcripts of student responses), classic thought experiments redefined/modified for modern audience interests and demographics, transcripts of philosophy discussions, photographs of classroom discussions, and more are sought.

Images, whether photographs, drawings, paintings, et al. should be sent as uncompressed TIFF files (with at least 300 dpi resolution.) Written submissions should be sent in Word, WordPerfect, or Rich Text File formats (as .doc, .wpd, or .rtf). Scholarly articles should conform to the Chicago Manual of Style for textual and citation manners; please use endnotes rather than footnotes.

Be sure to include contact information with your submissions. A copyright release is needed for publication. All submissions should go to QuestionsJournal@gmail.com

Submissions for the next issue should be received by March 31, 2010. After initial review and editing, they will be blindly reviewed and selected by the larger editorial board.