Philosophy? For Children?


How can our school bring in the big questions — down into the very earliest grades?

I had an interesting experience yesterday. I had volunteered to teach Unitarian Sunday School for middle schoolers — all boys. When I walked into the room, the kids were running wild, and the assistant leader and I had an impossible time corralling them (though maybe you already knew that when I said "middle schoolers — all boys"!). There was rocking in chairs, there was loud talking, there was perambulating throughout the room...

And then I asked them when (if ever) it was okay to kill.

It was as if the boys' attentions were iron filings, and I had just held up a neodymium magnet. Everyone's eyes were on me. The side conversations continued — increased? — but now on the topic of murder.

I fake-apologized to them (again) for my ADHD, and told them that I simply couldn't make sense of out-of-turns talking. The side conversation snuffed out; hands were raised. Clay Shirky's wonderful line, discussed in an earlier post, rang more true than ever:

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — it’s me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.

And then, for the next hour or so, we carefully discussed when, if ever, it's okay to kill.

We didn't reach any conclusions (though I would have been happy to acknowledge if we did). But everyone's thinking was nudged along — often into uncomfortable places!

One student initially said it was okay to kill if you were part of the military.

What, I asked, made killing in the military right, but killing outside the military wrong?

Well (the student confabulated) it was because it's legal in the military. You're killing for a country.

If the dozen of us started our own country, right here, right now, I asked, and christened ourselves the military — would that make it okay for us to kill Canadians?

Um, he said. No.

Someone else chimed in: because we wouldn't be killing for a reason! And it can't just be your own reason: it has to be a reason that someone else gives you.

Another student pointed out that that would legalize all hit men everywhere.

Crap, the student responded.

And on and on we went. There's a name for this, of course — Socratic dialogue.

Teaching Socratic dialogue to kids — doing Socratic dialogue with kids — is, delightfully, a grassroots movement throughout the country. (Search for "Philosophy for Children" on Amazon if you're interested.) And everywhere it's performed, it seems to be performed differently.

A common way — one I learned from the good people at the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children — is to have kids read a book, and then ask their own questions.  They told the story of coming to a classroom (the group both trains teachers and does drop-in dialogues themselves) where the students had just finished reading Frog and Toad. They had been prepared for the kids to ask about friendship (a major theme in the book), but were surprised when the kids wanted to talk about, instead, courage.

Very well! they decided. Let's talk about courage!

And then they embarked on a short-but-thick conversation about what real courage is. Is courage necessarily good? Do we want to be courageous? 

Beautiful. Just wonderful.

A lot of the fun in making a new sort of schooling is the stealing. We steal ideas/practices from other schools, and we improve 'em.

I don't think we can do that here. Socratic dialogue was done pretty darn well by Socrates and Plato. Any kinks in it, I suspect, were worked out over the last twenty four centuries of its use. So we're not looking to improve Socratic dialogue.

What we can do, though, is give it a more central role than it usually gets in schools. One way to say that: you'll never see "Philosophy for Children" (or "Socratic Dialogue") on our daily schedule: it will just be how we deal with questions of all sorts, and history and literature and art of all kinds.

Oh, we'll do other things with books, too! We'll re-enact them, visualize them in detail… we'll feel them. But we'll also, regularly, use them as fodder for our own puzzling out about life.

It may seem… unmannerly?... to use classic books (like Frog and Toad!) as mere "fodder" for discussion. But that's precisely why people write books: to explore ideas like these. What is the good life? What is wrong, and how do we decide what's wrong? What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of people do we want to become?

People sometimes go to college and major in philosophy to discuss questions like these. (I did! Well: religious studies. Not all that different.) But it's a stupid educational system that puts those questions off until college. (Stupid and anti-human, I'll suggest!)

We can lead kids into these conversations — starting when they're in grade school.

(For more on how we want to make this not just a school of hippy free-spiriting and test-prep, check out our post on wisdom — number three of our big three goals.)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA