Philosophy For Children

Crush #11

Can you get children interested in philosophy? And if you could, would you want to? Some philosophers have written about this, which might surprise you. We’re not surprised when teachers or parents try to get kids interested in science, or math, or a lot of other things, but philosophy—why would you want to do that? I can think of a few reasons why you might and how you could. It’s going to depend on what you understand philosophy to be.

If your idea of philosophy is analytic metaphysics and epistemology, symbolic logic, or the rationalists vs. the empiricists, you can forget about teaching any of this to kids. They’re not interested, nor is there any reason why they should be. But if you think of philosophy as a questioning of human existence then you don’t need to go to any extreme lengths to get a child to see the point of it. You don’t need to “make it interesting”; it’s already interesting, and they’re fully capable of seeing that. They’re not about to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, so don’t start there, but if you introduce things in the right way, it’s no stretch to get them interested in many of the questions that philosophers ask.

You can try this at home. My wife and I have a daughter who’s not yet eight, and we often slip some more or less philosophical question into everyday conversation. The starting point in all education, as John Dewey always said, is the existing interests and experience of the child. What is a seven-year-old girl interested in? A lot of things. One is rules. Kids have to follow a lot of rules, but why? Why are the rules what they are? Did they fall from the sky, or does something justify them? Are some rules unfair? What makes them unfair? Do adults have rules, and why aren’t they the same as kids’ rules? Has it always been this way? What happens if a child breaks the law? A child’s interests are immediate and experiential, but in the right environment they can grow. How did you first become interested in whatever it is that you know something about or maybe what you do for a living? That interest originated somewhere, probably in something small, maybe even trivial, but under the right conditions, one thing leads to another, and over time some more mature interest takes its place. One isn’t born with a passion for philosophy, or science, or very much at all, but it can emerge in the way of any growing thing.

She’s old enough to be interested in music too, and has been for a few years now. She’s asking for an electric guitar and amplifier for her birthday, still a few months away. Where did that come from? It came from her passion for the acoustic guitar, which came from an interest in the ukulele, which she learned the basics of in school. Maybe she only wanted to please the teacher; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she’s learning about music—not only how to play an instrument but how to think about music. What makes this song or songwriter good and that one not so good? Is it all in the ear of the beholder, or are there reasons why it’s good? Is there any accounting for taste? You can ask the same questions about books, movies, or artworks in general: what made this movie good? Was it better than the last movie we saw, and how so? What could you say to someone who disagreed with you? Could you persuade them to see things otherwise?

Here’s another example: there’s an election coming up where we live, there are signs on people’s lawns, debates on T.V. Who are these politicians, what do they want, and why should I vote for this bozo rather than that bozo? Do they stand for something? What, and why that? Do they just want power? Is a T.V. debate just another show, or is there something at stake here?  None of this is beyond the grasp or interest of a child that age. We don’t climb into the higher reaches of political theory, although the concept of politics as something that matters, sort of, is not difficult to instill. Related to political education is moral education. Both are often thought to be a straightforward matter of plastering on whatever values or half-baked opinions their parents hold, but this is a mistake. Force-feeding opinions teaches obedience, not thinking. You don’t force, you invite. You draw the child into the conversation of humankind one step at a time. You speak and you listen, show the child that ideas matter, that our whole way of life is built around them, and again you start small. One doesn’t play in the major leagues without first playing little league, and this applies well beyond baseball. It applies to philosophy and the whole world of ideas.

In school she’s learning about the scientific method, the notion that ideas are hypotheses that need to be demonstrated, backed up with some sort of evidence or reasons. What is a reason, and the scientific method, what is that? Where does this method come from, and why should we rely on it? What is science good for? What is its history, and how is modern science an improvement over ancient science? What was ancient science anyway?

The point here isn’t to make your kids into professional philosophers. The nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher James Mill raised his son, John Stuart Mill, not only to be a philosopher but a specific kind of philosopher. The outcome was achieved, although the son suffered greatly as a result—I’d recommend against that. Your kids aren’t guinea pigs, so let’s not push too hard. Short of pushing and manipulating, there’s something you might call inviting—inviting the child into a conversation and a field of knowledge, teaching the art of questioning by demonstrating it yourself, talking back to that person on T.V. who’s a little too sloppy in their thinking, conversations around the dinner table or anywhere else. I still remember some of those dinner table conversations from my own childhood. It was right there, far more than in school, that I learned something—something intangible but important—about the world of ideas and the correct way to approach them. A child can come to believe that the ideas we live by are justified by fashion, opinion polls, feelings, or just the loudest voice in the room, or they can learn to expect something more. They learn to think by thinking, by seeing it done and following in kind. It’s not much different than learning a language. Nothing about it is formal or remote from experience.

Many young people, making the jump from high school to the university, are presented with kind of a large decision: what are you going to major in, and also what are you going to do for a living? Many are understandably perplexed. How are they supposed to know what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about? If all they’ve been taught is to amass information, pass tests, and run through mazes, if they’ve never been asked to think at all, to exercise any freedom of mind, don’t expect them to have answers to these questions. They’re likely to do what unthinking people always do: go where the money is. Can you live on money alone? What kind of existence is that? These are also philosophical questions.

The process matters more than the result. By the time they reach adulthood, their opinions will be their own, not their parents’ or their teachers’. This is how it should be, but they can be taught to expect that strong opinions require strong justifications, and if you don’t have the second, you’re not entitled to the first. You’re never too young to think about any of this or to learn not just techniques of formal argumentation but an attitude toward ideas, toward culture, and toward life. It all needs to be thought about, by you, and no simple formula is going to show you how.