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.