Thursday, December 15, 2011


The picture book Why, written by Lindsay Camp and illustrated by Tony Ross, is one of those books that illuminates in many ways the whole point of doing philosophy with children. The story is about Lily, who, in response to virtually anything that happens, asks the question, "Why?" Her dad tries to respond to her questioning, but sometimes, "when he was a bit tired or too busy," he'd say only, "It just does, Lily. It just does."

One day a giant spaceship lands and the aliens that emerge from the ship announce that their mission is to destroy the planet. Terrified, no one responds, except Lily, who asks, of course, "Why?" After a series of "why" questions, the aliens realize that they don't know why, and they leave.

Can questions save the planet? Asking "why" all the time can be really irritating, but not asking it can be dangerous.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Music or food?

Last week fourth grade students at John Muir Elementary and I talked about the story Frederick by Leo Lionni. (I have written about this story in a previous post.) We began talking about why it's important to Frederick to collect words and colors, as opposed to foraging for the food the family will need for the winter. What is important to Frederick about poetry?

One student suggested that to Frederick, "poems are like keys to the universe." "Maybe," the student reflected, "Frederick thinks that he wouldn't survive without poems, the same way his family is worried they won't survive without food."

Several students wanted to know why Frederick couldn't gather food as well as work on his poems, and most wanted to say that if Frederick didn't help collect food he wasn't entitled to an equal share of the food. Others disagreed.

"Okay," I said. "Let's say you were on a desert island with a couple of family members, and you were really worried about having enough food to make it through the winter. All of you went about looking for and storing food, except one of your cousins, who was working on a story that she would be able to tell you when you were holed up for the winter. Would that be okay with you?"

"No," one student said, "because food makes me happier than a story."

"I'd say fine," responded another student. "But she wouldn't be entitled to any of the food."

Most students seemed to agree with this.

"What if your cousin was J.K. Rowling, and was writing a new Harry Potter story?" I asked. "Would that make a difference?"

Many of the students contended that then the contribution of writing a story would be more valuable and perhaps as valuable a contribution as collecting food, although, as one student put it, "You wouldn't know for sure that the story was going to be good, in the way you would know that the food would be."

We discussed the way in which Frederick’s poetry helps the family when they are cold and hungry. I asked the students whether they read much poetry, and most of them said they never did. I told them that I guessed they all knew a lot of poetry, and asked them to recite some of their favorite song lyrics. There were of course immediate responses from many of the students, reciting lyric after lyric. We then talked about what music meant to them and why they liked it. Was it as important as food?

This led to a robust conversation about what you would choose if you had to give up either music or food (but not water) for a couple of days. The students were quite divided about what they could more easily do without, and we talked about the different ways we are nourished in our lives. Are emotional, aesthetic and intellectual forms of nourishment as important as physical nourishment?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fourth Graders and the Story Double Trouble

I had an interesting experience recently with the fourth grade students I'm teaching this year at John Muir Elementary.  I read them the story "Double Trouble" by Philip Cam. A kind of retelling of the "Ship of Theseus," the story is about a robot whose parts have been replaced, one after another, until he no longer has any of his original parts, and a new robot has been built using all of the old parts.  Which one is the "real" Algernon (the robot's name)?

I have used this story for years and it has virtually always inspired a discussion about the standard questions of personal identity and persistence over time.  (I wrote about such a conversation last year in this post.)  In this session, however, the students took the discussion in an entirely different direction.  They voted to start with one of their questions about whether in this story robots were only owned by rich people or whether everyone had robots.  This led to the question about whether robots were things, and a couple of students asserted that robots (or at least the ones in the story) were people.  How do we know what makes someone a person?  The students suggested that having names, or being able to talk and move independently, were possible criteria.  Then several students noted that while the robots seemed to have feelings, they were probably programmed to have them, and that this is what made them different from people.

Several of my undergraduate students were present that day, and one commented, "Sometimes I feel things I would like to choose not to feel, but I feel them anyway. Is it possible that I'm programmed?"

One of the most interesting features of the conversation that ensued in that fourth grade classroom was how closely it resembled a similar conversation I had with college students not too long ago.  The students went from being sure they were not programmed to speculating about the possibility that, as one child put it, "there are beings out there somewhere who are a lot bigger than us and they are totally controlling what we do."

"That could be," another student responded. "But at the same time, I feel like what goes on inside me is really me, that it can't be controlled by anyone else. Maybe someone could be controlling what I do, but I don't think they could be controlling what I feel."

The discussion went on for over an hour and at the end we talked about how complex these questions were, and how sometimes in philosophy the questions seemed even more puzzling after talking about them than they had originally.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lorax

This morning I talked about Dr. Suess' The Lorax with a class of fourth grade students at John Stanford International School in Seattle. They have been having discussions about environmental issues, and we had a lovely conversation about the destruction of the truffula trees and the loss of Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans and Humming-Fish in the story.

We began by talking about the Once-ler and his decision to chop down truffula trees and build a business of selling thneeds made from truffula tree tufts. Was he responsible for the environmental destruction that ensued as a result of his decisions? Does the fact that he ultimately regrets his actions make him a better person? We talked about the other members of the Once-ler family who worked in the business, and about all the people who bought thneeds. Were they all responsible for the destruction of the truffula trees and surrounding habitat? When we purchase something, are we obligated to ask how it was made? Were the thneeds "useful?" What is the balance between creating things that make human life easier or more enjoyable, and caring for the environment in which we live? What is our responsibility to the environment and to other species affected by human decisions?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Harold and the Purple Crayon

What can we know about the nature of reality? A wonderful story for motivating conversations about this question is Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. First published in 1955, the story begins with Harold deciding, “after thinking it over for some time,” to take a walk in the moonlight. No moon is out, so Harold takes his purple crayon and draws one, and then he draws something to walk on.  Harold goes on to draw a forest in which he wanders, a dragon that ends up frightening him, an ocean in which he almost drowns and a boat which saves him, a beach, a lunch to eat, etc.

This story was a favorite of my children when they were younger, and I have read it with children in classrooms from first grade through middle school. It raises such questions as: Is Harold pretending? Is what he draws real? How can what he draws scare him? Is the moon we see more real than Harold’s moon – and, if so, why? Is Harold dreaming? Can we create our own reality?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Anno's Counting Book

Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno is one of those books that my kids and I looked at constantly when they were in elementary school. Starting with 0 and ending with 12, it’s the most complex and interesting counting book I’ve ever encountered.

The first page is an empty landscape, corresponding to 0. The wordless book adds objects to each consecutive page, corresponding to each number and reflecting the seasons, time of day, and other events in nature and human life. The number of objects in the landscape grows exponentially and symmetrically, and the detailed watercolor illustrations inspire careful examination.

Anno’s Counting Book is a helpful book for developing mathematical understanding of basic and, later, more complex concepts, but what makes it extraordinary is its evocation of the beauty of numbers. It inspires questions about beauty and what makes something beautiful, about whether beauty can tell us anything about truth, and about the relationship between mathematics and aesthetics.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Seeing ish-ly: what makes someone an artist?

Peter Reynolds' picture book ish tells the story of Ramon, who loves to draw and draws all the time. Then one day his older brother laughs at one of his drawings, and Ramon becomes preoccupied with making his drawings "look right." Finally he decides to stop drawing. His younger sister picks up one of his crumpled drawings and Ramon follows her into her room to retrieve it, where he sees many of his crumpled-up drawings hanging on her walls. She points out a drawing of a vase of flowers, which she declares is one of her favorites. Ramon tells her that the drawing was supposed to be a vase of flowers but he doesn't think it looks like one. "It looks vase-ISH!" she replies.

Looking at the world "ish-ly" opens up for Ramon his own way of seeing and gives him confidence that he can express what he feels and perceives, even if the finished products don't conform to a conventional view of the way things are supposed to look.

What makes someone an artist? How do we judge what is a work of art? What is creativity? Where does artistic expression come from? Is art worth creating even if it is not judged to be very good? I think this book can be used with students from elementary school on to ponder these questions. I'm going to try it this fall with fourth grade students as well as college undergraduates.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Want To Paint My Bathroom Blue

I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue by Ruth Krauss (illustrations by Maurice Sendak) tells the story of a young boy who dreams of painting his bathroom blue, kitchen yellow, ceilings green, etc. He imagines what his ideal home would look like, all in the context of being informed by his father that he can't paint his bathroom blue.

The story provokes thinking about the relationship between color and our perceptions and moods, and the role color can play in imagination. What do certain colors allow us to imagine that we couldn't imagine otherwise? Why are colors so important to us? We often identify things by their colors, but are the colors really in the objects, or just in us? Do different colors have different emotional effects on us?

In the story the boy comments that he will "make a house the kind I dream about not the kind I see." He uses colors to construct the world in which he would like to live, noting that he'd have a "house like a rainbow" and someday make an ocean. How does color help him to dream about things he had not actually perceived?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A new school year

So far it's been a beautiful September here in the Pacific Northwest. School has started, and I'll be back in both an elementary school and a university classroom next week.

I've been working away on my book this summer, and hope to have it finished this year and published in 2012. The past few weeks I've been writing chapter 6, which is about talking about art and beauty with children. At the PLATO Institute in June, there were several provocative presentations on aesthetics with children about which I've been thinking since. In particular, the presentations reminded me of the wide range of questions included in aesthetics and the ways in which many of those questions are profoundly important to human experience.

Aesthetics is often seen as a marginal field in philosophy, both by philosophers and those outside philosophy. (Arthur Danto, prominent philosopher of art, once noted that aesthetics is "about as low on the scale of philosophical undertakings as bugs are in the chain of being.") Questions of aesthetics are often seen as not among the central questions of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, etc.). And it's not just philosophers who hold that attitude. Often when I'm asked to speak about my experiences introducing philosophy to children and I mention aesthetics, people will say things like, "Doesn't that really just come down to personal taste?"

Yet in the classroom, I find that discussions about art and beauty elicit great enthusiasm and interest. Many children express themselves through art - drawing, dance, playing an instrument - and thinking about what makes something art and what makes someone an artist means something to them. Moreover, aesthetic questions go beyond an inquiry about the various art forms, to encompass all of the forms of human experience that involve awareness of beauty, ugliness, elegance, garishness, etc. A walk in the woods, eating a well-prepared meal, and shopping for clothes can all be aesthetic experiences. Reflecting about questions such as the nature of beauty and ugliness and the relationship between our aesthetic experiences and our emotions, can bring to light facets of our everyday lives in a way that deepens our experiences and heightens our awareness of their richness.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Universe and Dr. Einstein

I've been re-reading the short book The Universe and Dr. Einstein, originally written in 1948 by Lincoln Barnett. I first read and was inspired by this book when I was 17. An engrossing account, written for the general public, of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, this is an accessible and effective resource for introducing to high school students some of the philosophical questions raised by Einstein's and other related work in physics.

Einstein wrote in the book's foreword that much popular scientific writing either is too superficial or too inaccessible, but that this work presents the main scientific concepts well and ties them to questions about knowledge. To me the book reads almost like a thriller, describing carefully and with excitement the developments in physics that have resulted in a gulf between our commonsense view of the world, based on our perceptual experiences, and scientific understanding. The book discusses the relationship between developments in cosmology and philosophical problems about the relationship between appearance and reality, the reliability of sense perception, causation, the relationship between the observer and what is observed, and the nature of scientific knowledge.  Highly recommended!

This will be my last post for the academic year, as I am again planning to spend much of the summer working on my book, on which I have made substantial progress - hoping to have it finished in 2011. I'll be back to this blog in September!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Rainbow Fish

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister is a picture book that parents seem either to love or to hate. It is the story of a fish, described as "the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean," with rainbow-colored, iridescent scales. The other fish call him "Rainbow Fish," and invite him to play with them, but he remains uninterested and aloof. A small blue fish follows him one day, asking for one of his scales, and is rebuffed. The rainbow fish ends up ostracized by all the other fish, and his scales begin to mean less to him with "no one to admire them." Taking the advice of an octopus whose suggestions he seeks, the rainbow fish gives all his scales away, one by one, until he is left with only one. Surrounded by many fish, each with one iridescent scale, the rainbow fish now no longer looked different, and he "at last felt at home among the other fish."

The story raises questions about being different versus one of the crowd, identity and self-worth, selfishness and generosity, the nature of beauty, and the meaning of friendship. Some people read it as promoting the message that we all should be the same, others as advocating for recognition of the value of inner beauty and generosity. To my mind, the story can be read as endorsing several contradictory ideas, which makes it quite philosophically interesting. I have found that it's very appealing to children, and easily sparks conversations about independence and conformity, being unique versus fitting in, and what friendship requires.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Mem Fox's picture book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is the story of a young boy, Wilfrid Gordon, whose "house was next door to an old people's home and [who] knew all the people who lived there." His favorite person at the home is Miss Nancy, and Wilfrid Gordon's father tells him that, at 96, she has lost her memory.

Wilfrid Gordon sets out to understand what memory is and asks several of the people in the home about it. He then collects some of his things that bring back his own memories and gives them to Miss Nancy, who begins then to recollect some of her own memories.

The story is a lovely one, with appealing, colorful illustrations, and it raises such issues as: What is memory? Are we still ourselves if we lose our memories? Can you lose a memory and then find it again? Can we rely on our memories to give us accurate accounts of the past? What is the role of relationships in memory?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What is most important in life?

On Thursday I read a chapter of E.B. White's Stuart Littlewith the 4th grade students at John Muir Elementary. The chapter describes Stuart's one-day experience acting as a substitute teacher. One of the first things Stuart asks his students is whether they know what's important. The students in the story give various responses, including "a shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy."

After the reading, I asked the John Muir students to write down five things in their lives that they thought were the most important. We put about 30 of them up on the board, and many of the students' choices seemed to me close to what most people would say, pointing to what we think of as fundamental aspects of life - family, friends, food, health. Their responses also included things like playing video games, seasons, dance, sports, reading, etc. I then asked them what would remain on the list if they knew they only had a month left to live. The students thought seriously about this question and we pared the list down to much fewer items, including family, friends, food, medicine, and dance.

We then talked about what made these things important. The students mentioned having fun, being happy, and receiving comfort as the basis for what is important to them. One student then said that she would spend a lot of time planning her funeral and writing out invitations to the people in her life, because it would matter to her to spend her time doing something that felt productive. Another student commented that she would spend her last days reflecting about her life, thinking about the mistakes she'd made and the positive things she'd done, and kind of making sense of her life for herself. A third student agreed, remarking that he would take these reflections and put them in a journal and put them outside his door for his family to find, lock the door "and then die in a way that would feel peaceful." Several students agreed with this and talked about how important it would be to them to say goodbye to the people they loved and to have their lives feel as if they'd had some purpose. We discussed whether what is important to you changes as you age and get closer to death, and whether death is in some respects the defining feature of life.

I thought about this conversation after it ended. Many of the reflections offered by the children were the kinds of things people often assume ten-year-old children aren't thinking about and/or capable of contemplating. There was a thoughtfulness and seriousness to our conversation that reminded me of how vibrant philosophical thinking can be in children and how important it is to nurture that part of them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The experience of childhood

Last week I had a conversation with fourth grade students at John Muir Elementary about the story Albert's Toothache by Barbara Williams, one of my favorite picture books. In the story, Albert, a turtle, complains that he has a toothache. His family points out that he has no teeth, and so he cannot have a toothache. "You never believe me," Albert protests, and he takes to his bed. His parents and siblings lament that Albert is not telling the truth. Finally, his grandmother arrives, and asks Albert, "Where is your toothache?" Albert tells her that it is in his toe, where a gopher bit him.

I read the story to the students and then, as is our practice, we took a minute to reflect before the students articulated the questions the story raised for them. They chose to begin our discussion with the question, "Why did Albert say he had a toothache when the pain was in his foot?"

The students commented that perhaps Albert was confused or misunderstood what a tooth is. One student suggested that what Albert might have meant was that his pain came from the gopher's tooth, so that's why he called it a toothache.

We moved from that question to another student's question, "Why didn't Albert's family believe him, and why was his grandmother the only one who tried to figure out what he meant?" The students observed that the family seemed to have a "story about Albert," in which Albert was the family member who often made things up. One student remarked that often children aren't believed.

"Do you think the family would have reacted differently if it was Albert's mom who was complaining of a toothache?" I asked. Unanimously, the class said yes, it would have been a completely different situation. "Why is that?" I inquired.

"Adults are believed when kids aren't," one student asserted. "People think adults are more trustworthy than kids."

"Are they?" I asked.

"Not always," responded another student. "Adults sometimes lie about things. Like when children are being abused. Adults will lie about it to protect themselves, and often people believe the adults instead of the kids."

"I think," put in a student, "that people think of kids as becoming adults, and so they expect kids to make all kinds of mistakes that they don't think adults will make."

"So is childhood an experience about becoming an adult, or is there more to it than that?" I asked.

"I think," ventured a student who had not yet spoken, "that children are deeper than adults."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that childhood is not just about becoming an adult. It's a time of its own. What happens to kids affects us our whole lives. That's mostly not true for adults. I think what we experience we feel more deeply, and it stays with us."

Monday, March 28, 2011

You Can't Say You Can't Play

I've been re-reading Vivian Paley's book You Can't Say You Can't Play. The book describes Paley's observation of what she calls the "habit of rejection" year after year in her kindergarten class, in which certain children (the "ruling class," as she calls them) decide which children will be accepted and which will be excluded, setting the stage for years of children being rejected and a social hierarchy dominating.  Paley, tired of it, posts a sign one morning in her class that reads "You Can't Say You Can't Play."

Many of the children are aghast. "But then what's the whole point of playing?" one child remonstrates. Is it acceptable for the teacher to exercise control over what the children are doing in their private social activities?

Paley's new rule inspires at the school a months-long inquiry about whether this new rule is fair and can work. The kindergarten students accept the new rule relatively quickly, and Paley speculates that this kind of intervention has to take place at very early ages. Working with older elementary students, she observes that the social hierarchies are already firmly in place. The book considers whether this kind of moral issue can and should be legislated. Do the children have the right to choose their companions? Does such a right include an entitlement to reject certain people? Paley weaves a thoughtful examination of the moral and policy issues involved with an engaging description of the children's reactions.

Friday, March 18, 2011


The 2010 film Inception is a philosophically provocative film that's been very popular with teenagers. The film is about an "extractor," Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), someone who is able to take ideas out of people's minds when they are dreaming and at their most vulnerable. On the run from the authorities, Cobb is hired by a business magnate to perform "inception," in which an idea is planted in someone's mind instead of extracted from it. This is done by creating a dream world and bringing the subject of the inception into that world, who then fills it with his or her subconscious. Along with a team he has assembled, Cobb creates a multi-layered dream to carry out the contracted inception.

Action-packed, Inception would be a wonderful film to show in a high school or undergraduate philosophy class. It raises many philosophical questions, including:

How do we know that our sensory experiences are real?
How do we distinguish dreams from waking life?
Can ideas cause physical events?
What is the relationship between memory and dreams?
Can we imagine things we haven't experienced?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

PLATO and a national movement for philosophy in the schools

For most of the 15 years that I've been involved in this field, there have been an isolated few of us around the country working to introduce philosophy to pre-college students. But in the last few years, over a dozen new pre-college philosophy programs have begun, and I now hear regularly about additional new efforts taking place. Many of these projects have been initiated by philosophy graduate students, just as we founders of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children started it as grad students in 1996. My hope is that this groundswell of support for bringing philosophy into the lives of young people will result in more and more children and teenagers around the US having access to philosophical thinking and discussions.

This growing movement inspired a group of us to start PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), a national organization affiliated with the American Philosophical Association. PLATO will advocate for pre-college philosophy and provide a point of connection for the education and philosophy communities. We are in the process of developing a more detailed vision and structure for PLATO.

Our inaugural event, the first PLATO Institute, will take place at Columbia University this June. Over 25 speakers from more than 15 colleges and universities will be speaking about both conceptual and practical issues involved in teaching pre-college philosophy. The institute will be organized as a community of philosophical inquiry, in which the focus will be on constructing an ongoing dialogue among the participants. I expect it will be a really energizing and meaningful two days!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Moral Relativism or Mutual Respect?

I had a lively conversation yesterday with a group of fifth graders about how we can understand, respect and evaluate cultures other than our own. The conversation took off when one student asked, "Why do we have so many different cultures in the world?" The students pointed out the ways in which the diversity of cultures gives rise to conflicts, but also observed that a world without a variety of cultures would be pretty uninteresting.

One student then asserted that we aren't really justified in making judgments about cultures other than our own, because we're not understanding them "from the inside" and so are evaluating their practices without really understanding why the people in that culture are doing what they do. This led to a thoughtful dialogue among the students about when, and if ever, people or groups outside of a culture are justified in criticizing, or intervening in, a cultural practice.

We talked about the different standards for disciplining children around the world. Several students articulated a distinction between coming to another country and practicing, for example, a form of corporal punishment unacceptable here, and doing so in your own country. The students tended to claim that it is one thing to insist that someone from another culture change their practice when they enter a different culture (or country), but that it is another thing to criticize the way people are disciplining their children when they are acting on the basis of a different set of rules and standards within that culture.

Still, some students argued, the way the harsh discipline feels to the children is the same. And can't cultures be mistaken? We talked about the fact that in the US, for example, slavery was an acceptable part of the culture for a long period of time, and we would now want to say that this was wrong, that the institutions that supported that practice were in error. And if it's true that cultures can make mistakes in sanctioning acts that ultimately the culture concludes were wrong, how do we decide when intervention is appropriate?

Several students raised the example of the Nazi regime, asserting that there intervention to stop what the German culture was allowing would have been justified. One student suggested that perhaps the standard should be whether human beings were being harmed in serious ways, and we noted that this standard also led to interpretation problems (What constitutes harm? When is it serious? etc.). We discussed the practice of young people marrying at young ages, 12 or 13, in some cultures, a practice that clearly horrified the children. Yet, we pointed out, inside those cultures, that is an accepted and perhaps welcome practice.

How do we know what it feels like from the inside? Can we? And if we can't, does that mean we never are justified in judging or intervening to stop a cultural practice that seems deeply at odds with the ways our culture believes people should be treated? Are there some moral rules that apply to everyone, no matter where and how they live? The students saw clearly what challenging issues these questions raise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Dragon who liked to spit Fire

This delightful picture book by Judy Varga, written in 1961, tells the story of Darius, a little dragon, and the friendship he develops with young prince Frederic. Can Darius be himself, a dragon who likes nothing more than to spit fire (in many colors), and still be friends with Frederic?

Darius decides to move to Frederic's castle with Frederic. Darius makes this choice because he has been lonely and he wants to be close to Frederic, although he is wary that he will not be able to spit fire at the castle. As Darius tells Frederic, "[L]ife without spitting fire wouldn't be much of a life for a dragon." Frederic tells Darius that he will be able to spit fire when they are alone. Darius is made to feel very at home in the castle, but he finds that he can't ever spit fire, because he and Frederic are never alone.

The story, with its marvelous illustrations, makes me think about friendship, and whether compromises are essential to human relationships. If so, are there compromises that demand too much of us? How would we know? Is Darius being asked to give up something that is too important to him for a friendship to require its absence? Is being a dragon essential to Darius' identity, and is spitting fire necessary for his well-being? I am putting this one on my list to try out with my fourth grade students!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Questions and the Philosophical Self

For the past month I've been working on the chapter of my book that examines what I'm calling the "philosophical self." This part of us, that is naturally inclined to ponder the deeper questions raised by the strangeness of finding ourselves alive in the world, fails to develop for many (most?) young people because cultivating the philosophical self is not something that is nurtured and supported by most (or any) of the adults in their lives.

I've been thinking this week about the central role of questions, and in particular the acquisition of confidence and skill in asking questions, in the development of the philosophical self. We are not a society that is particularly comfortable with questions. Many adults have grown up absorbing the idea that asking questions serves to broadcast to the world what they don't know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. But philosophy is all about questions. Questions are the key to recognizing the philosophically puzzling aspects of our lives, and to making it possible to examine these puzzles with others.

Mat Lipman, in his book Thinking in Education, emphasized the importance, when having philosophical discussions with children, of ensuring that the questions being discussed emerge from the children. I've realized over years of working with young people how profound an idea this was.

Ultimately, whether we are parents or teachers or other adults talking with children, this enterprise is not about teaching children philosophy, but about doing philosophy with them by engaging them in questions they are already exploring. We initiate philosophical conversations with children not to bestow our philosophical insights on children, but to facilitate the ability of children to inquire themselves about the peculiarity of human existence and the most ordinary experiences of our lives. It is crucial, then, that the conversations begin by eliciting from young people the questions they are interested in discussing.

When I lead a philosophy session in a classroom, often a good part of the session will be spent listing the children's questions and helping them to decide which question to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. But I've come to understand that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end as valuable as the time spent actually talking about philosophical questions.

Mat Lipman died in December 2010 at the age of 87. He was an inspiration to me when I first began thinking about the possibilities of introducing philosophy to children, and as I've thought about him over the past month I've realized how much his work, and especially his commitment to the authenticity of philosophical discussions with children, has guided and helped me over the years.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The young adult novel Frindle by Andrew Clements is the story of a clever fifth grade student, Nick Allen, who decides to invent a new word, and the consequences of what he does and the way he does it. It is a wonderful, engaging novel that captivated all three of my sons in elementary school. The story touches on many philosophical issues, including the nature of language, the meaning of words, the social and political justifications for educating young people, and the nature of creativity. It's a perfect story to read aloud to your children or to a class, or to read along with your reader child(ren), and discuss along the way. An illustrative passage, in which Nick's teacher is speaking to him:

" 'Who says dog means dog? You do, Nicholas. You and me and everyone else in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country. We all agree. . . . But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that's what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book.' And she pointed at the giant dictionary."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Big Orange Splot

The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater is a picture book that tells the story of Mr. Plumbean, who lives on a street where the houses are all the same, painted red with olive-colored roofs and windows with green trim. He and his neighbors all like this, characterizing their street as a "neat street."

One day, a seagull drops a can of bright orange paint on Mr. Plumbean's house, leaving a big orange splot on the house. Everyone on the street sympathizes with Mr. Plumbean, who will have to paint his house again, and that's what Mr. Plumbean plans to do. But, instead, he looks at the house for a long time. Finally, in response to his neighbors' urging, Mr. Plumbean takes out some paint and paints his house. But instead of using the house's original colors, he paints it a rainbow of colors. Over the next couple of days, he adds to his house a clock tower, palm trees, a hammock and an alligator.

Horrified, one by one the neighbors stop in to see Mr. Plumbean to talk with him about their dissatisfaction with what he's done to his home and remind him that all the houses have to be the same for their street to continue to be a "neat street." And, one by one, after each neighbor visits with Mr. Plumbean, sitting under the palm trees, drinking lemonade and talking, each neighbor repaints his or her own house to "fit his dreams."

This is a wonderful story for inspiring conversations about conformity and independence and our obligations to our communities. I talked about this story this fall with my fourth grade students from John Muir Elementary. We had a lively discussion about whether Mr. Plumbean was right to paint his house in a way different from his neighbors, when part of the community agreement was that they would keep their houses looking the same. The students were really curious about what it was that made Mr. Plumbean's decision to paint his house to "fit his dreams" so compelling to his neighbors, so that after spending time with him they all changed their minds about how their street should appear. And what if the neighbors had continued to want all the houses to look the same? The students were strongly supportive of Mr. Plumbean's right to have his house look the way he wanted it to look, even if it offended his neighbors. What if, though, he painted words expressing his hate for an ethnic group? Would that be okay? At what point does his right to make an independent choice give way to his obligations to his neighbors?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ugly Duckling

The classic nineteenth century fairy tale The Ugly Duckling tells the story of a duckling who, when hatched along with his brothers and sisters, is ridiculed and ostracized because they perceive him as ugly. He wanders alone through the fall and winter, and suffers from fear, loneliness, and sadness. In the spring he flies away from the marsh and meets up with a group of swans, and realizes that he too has become a beautiful swan.

The story is familiar to most students and nicely raises philosophical questions about identity and the nature of the self, the meaning of beauty and ugliness, perception, and the experience of solitude. You can read the story with your child or students and ask them questions like whether the "ugly duckling" really was ugly and, if so, what made him ugly? Did he then stop being ugly at the end of the story? What does ugly mean? Would the "ugly duckling" still be ugly if someone thought he was beautiful? How do we decide what is beautiful and what is not? Did the duckling change over the course of the story? Was he still the same duckling? Do our identities change over time? Etc.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Philosophy Talk Show on Pre-College Philosophy

You can now listen to the Philosophy Talk radio show on pre-college philosophy, taped at the University of Washington in November: