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!