Gareth B. Matthews was in Japan last year talking to fifth-graders about perfect happiness.
He read them a story he had written about a child absorbed in the satisfaction of scratching an insect bite. Could this define perfect happiness?
“Scratching an insect bite and enjoying it so much that at the moment you don’t enjoy anything else is only one petal on the flower of happiness,” one child said.
Matthews, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was impressed.
“Adults are not generally aware of the fact that children are capable of raising interesting philosophical questions and pursuing interesting philosophical issues,” he said.
But elementary school children are doing just that.
Matthews travels worldwide explaining concepts of teaching philosophy to children, an interest of his since the early 1970s. His book “Dialogues With Children” contains stories he wrote and discussions that followed.
The philosophy-for-children movement is gaining momentum in the United States as well.
Mount Holyoke College philosophy professor Thomas E. Wartenberg teaches a course called “Philosophy for Children.” College students help develop questions based on picture books and then lead discussions for second- and fifth-graders at Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, Mass. Out of the adventures of storybook characters come such questions as “What is courage?” Lively discussions develop around the topics of beauty, truth, justice and reality.
Under Wartenberg’s supervision, college students help grade-schoolers create a “community of inquiry” in which children learn the crucial elements of a philosophic discussion. He tells children, “You have to listen carefully and think hard and then make up your mind. If you can’t defend your answer, you have to think some more.”
At the end of six weeks of philosophy classes at Jackson Street this year, fifth-grade teacher Susan D. Fink said the experience has many benefits.
The class had a wide-ranging discussion about courage after reading one of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories, “Dragons and Giants.” In it, two friends decide to test their bravery by going on an adventure that sends them running back to the house. Still, they decide that they are, in their own way, brave.
“They think about the difference between bravery and stupidity,” Fink said. “They think a long time when someone dares them. They’re connecting it to the world when you ask big questions.”
In the early 1970s philosopher Matthew Lipman founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Lipman makes bold claims for the work. “The children who cannot make sense of their own experience, who find the world alien, fragmentary and baffling, are likely to cast about for shortcuts to total experiences, and eventually may experiment with drugs or succumb to psychoses,” he writes in “Philosophy in the Classroom,” co-authored with Ann Margaret Sharp and Frederick S. Oscanya. “Possibly we could teach children before they reach out for such desperate remedies by helping them find the meanings so lacking in their lives.”
Matthews said many teachers consider philosophy a luxury for which they lack time under pressure to cover curriculum material aimed at preparation for standardized testing. But he said it develops critical thinking skills that students can apply to such tests.
In addition, he said, “We want to encourage children to be independent thinkers and inquirers, to develop their own ideas and not just fit into a slot.”
The story about scratching the bug bite, he said, raises larger questions, such as, “`Is perfect happiness being zonked out on drugs or drink?’ You need to have more desires than being high. It doesn’t keep people from using drugs, but it encourages them to think about the broader life.”
Philosophy “helps them reflect on moral issues. It doesn’t tell them what it is to be good. That’s important too. But morality is going to be unimportant unless you include the ability to reflect on moral issues.”
In the last class of the year at Jackson Street Elementary School, second- and fifth-graders read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think.”
They talked about things called bloogs and things called thinks and about imagination, reality, art and other topics.
Afterward, fifth-grader Leela C. Riesz said she had thought philosophy was only for grown-ups with big ideas. But, she said, “My sister is in second grade and she’s doing it. Anyone can do philosophy.”
Wyatt Y. Fedora learned, “There are infinite questions and every question doesn’t have a proven answer.”
Alyssa V. Lopez said she never knew children’s books contained so many philosophical questions. “There’s so many other things behind the cover of the book you never saw,” she said.
And this from her classmate Louis M. Gaudet: “You can look at things from different angles. I used to see it one way and be done with it. Now I see it one way and think of another.”
Mount Holyoke student Sarah Ernst says such discussions can comfort children.
“It’s a lonely world even for children with friends,” Ernst said. “(It’s nice) to know that other people are questioning things and that even the authority figures don’t have all the answers.”
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