Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Philosophy for the very young?

A good idea but I doubt it will work unless batteries are included.

"Teaching philosophy to children? It's a great idea"

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I’ve watched children evolve to be more rational and open-minded because of it


Michelle Sowey

November 20th, 2013

Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles along the lines of "what philosophy can do for you", focusing on the high results that philosophy students score on standardised tests, the marketability of philosophical skills, and the impressive earning potential of philosophy graduates. I’ve even seen pitches like: "If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead." I find this strange, because career advancement and commercial success are the most peripheral of the benefits of philosophy.

In my university days, still uncertain of my future directions, I came across an unforgettable quote by Alex Pozdnyakov, a philosophy student on the other side of the world: “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”

Perfect, I thought. That’s what I want to be.

Since then, training in various jobs has made me into various kinds of professional, but no training has shaped my humanity as deeply as philosophy has. No other discipline has inspired such wonder about the world, or furnished me with thinking tools so universally applicable to the puzzles that confront us as human beings.

When I started running philosophy workshops for primary school children, I quickly saw that kids, too, have the capacity to enquire philosophically from an early age. They’re nimble in playing with ideas and deft in building on each other’s arguments. They’re endlessly inquisitive, wondering about values (“What’s the most treasured object in the world?”), metaphysics (“Is the earth a coincidence?”), language (“If cavemen just went ‘ugh-ugh-ugh’, how did we learn to speak?”) and epistemology (“Since you can have dreams inside dreams, how can you know when you’re dreaming?”).

In small groups, they’ve discussed artificial intelligence, environmental ethics, interspecies communication and authenticity in art. They’ve contemplated the existence of free will, the limits of knowledge, the possibility of justice and countless other problems from the history of philosophical thought. By continually questioning, challenging and evaluating ideas, the children have been able to see for themselves why some arguments fail while others bear up under scrutiny.

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I’ve watched kids evolve to be more rational, sceptical and open-minded, and I’ve seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, “I’ve started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else.”

Over 400 years ago, the French writer Michel de Montaigne asked: “Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?” We urgently need to ask ourselves the same question today.

The central place of Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalaureate (a globally recognised high school diploma) reflects a worldwide appreciation for the importance of philosophy – a discipline that underpins all other academic disciplines. A growing international movement is inviting young children to philosophise in primary schools in the USA, the UK and elsewhere – but Australia is lagging.

Although philosophy features on the high school curriculum in most Australian states, only a very few primary schools dedicate class time to broad philosophical enquiry or to the explicit teaching of critical and creative thinking.

If it were more widely embraced, the practice of philosophical enquiry in primary schools could make schooling a lot more meaningful and engaging for students. It would certainly promote the development of reasoned argument and higher-order thinking – skills which underlie learning in most other domains (including literacy and numeracy) and which are essential for responsible civic engagement.

By setting children on a path of philosophical enquiry early in life, we could offer them irreplaceable gifts: an awareness of life’s moral, aesthetic and political dimensions; the capacity to articulate thoughts clearly and evaluate them honestly; and the confidence to exercise independent judgement and self-correction. What’s more, an early introduction to philosophical dialogue would foster a greater respect for diversity and a deeper empathy for the experiences of others, as well as a crucial understanding of how to use reason to resolve disagreements.

The benefits to students would be there for the taking, if only philosophy educators in Australia could access appropriate funding and institutional support. Such support is provided by charitable organisations like the Philosophy Foundation in the UK and the Squire Foundation in the USA, which lead the way in embedding philosophy in primary school curricula. Unless funding is made available here to pay expert philosophy practitioners or to provide classroom teachers with rigorous training, our kids are condemned to forgo the many rich rewards that philosophy promises – or to suffer from the variable level of professionalism that characterises many volunteer-run educational programs.

Here’s something to think about on World Philosophy Day: while academic achievement, career advancement and financial success are no trifling things, they’re simply visible husks that may grow around a philosophical life. The hidden kernel is made of freedom, clarity of thought, and a professional mastery of what it means to be human. These are qualities we should seek for all our children, no matter what they grow up to become.

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