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Teaching Philosophy To Young Children

2921759515_97c2fc9c85Your second grader probably doesn’t know – or care – who Socrates was. Ditto Descartes. But your kid is curious about a lot of the same questions that keep philosophers awake at night. They want to know how the world works. How do people work? What is right and what is wrong?

Some teachers and college students in Massachusetts are working to give kids philosophical tools to grapple with those questions.

Thomas Whartenberg, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, works with second-graders in Springfield to teach them philosophy. He doesn’t break out Plato’s dialogues or Nietzche’s tomes to do it. Instead, he uses classics of children’s literature like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

The kids read the books together, and then debate the challenges characters face, using philosophical arguments. Whartenberg’s goal isn’t to give the kids a classical education. It’s to teach them how to think.

The kids are asked a series of questions, and discuss amongst themselves whether they agree with each question, and why or why not. Sounds like a college seminar class, but this is second grade.

A number of philosphy professors around the country believe that very young children, with their curiosity and flexible minds, are the perfect candidates for philosophical inquiry.

My kids certainly spout philosophy at the breakfast table with the slightest provocation. They have very clear ideas about what is right, what is fair and what is just not OK. Most of this revolves around who gets the last cookie packed into her lunchbox.

I’m not sure how much formal sessions of philosophical reasoning would help them along this path, or if it’s even a good idea to encourage them. Researchers say kids who study philosophy in grade school do better on standardized tests. I just worry they’d do better at arguing me into postponing bedtime and handing out extra desserts while they watch Disney videos instead of brushing their teeth.

Photo: Let Ideas Compete

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