Monday, May 31, 2010

Philosophy for Children?

1) My six year old nephew who lives in Argentina recently realized that old people die. That is, he still doesn’t think he will ever die. And he doesn’t think his mother, or his little sister will ever die. But he does realize that people “with wrinkles” die. To this, he has called my mother long distance from Argentina, asking her if she is going to die, and demanding she tell him in advance when. My mother calls her grandson a modernist. And I think I agree with mom: my niece is such a modernist. Yet, what I find interesting about this child is that he has begun to ask an ultimately philosophical question. Good for him.

2) This is my third week working as a substitute Spanish teacher for seventh grade. My seventh graders are petty difficult according to the other teachers, but I have come to the conclusion that they are just modernists, like my nephew is. “What is the point in all of this?” they ask me various times throughout the day. “I don’t think Josie is a person, she is weird” I overheard one of the girls say, and “Guys let’s all act reasonable at least for a while!” A Friday class question tends to be something such as: “Ms. Drake can I throw a desk at Babe? He is bullying me and I want to get even!” I find it interesting that ultimately, these utterances could also be developed into really interesting philosophical discussions. Part of me wants to use these questions for a more engaging class debate about ethics, existentialism, and maybe even death. Instead, I have to stick to the lesson plan, and tell them to go sit back down and finish their Spanish grammar. But boy am I dying to start a philosophical discussion instead.

3) I attended high school in Argentina and there, same as in Europe, philosophy is part of the curriculum in public and private schools. Why not in the United States? Is it because the educational curriculum is already too full with science and math requirements? Is it because we are scared our children will turn to skepticism too soon in their young lives? Is it because we think that philosophy can only be done by a few “bright” students in small groups? These might be valid issues, but what happens to those children who show strong potential to be good philosophers? Those children who like asking questions and are dying to understand, but have to wait until they get into college to discover philosophy? And anyways, I noticed that even the kids who don’t do well in academics, really like engaging in philosophical debates, and are good at it. Teaching philosophy to children earlier in their academic life seems like a great idea. And although I met people who have been exposed to this discipline since they were young and are now sick of it, I also know people who regret not having been introduced to philosophy earlier in life, so what do we have to lose?

Today I read an article on “Times Online” Magazine about a new trend in France were children as young as six years of age attend tea parties where the main subject is philosophy. Apparently, the parties are held in cafés, public libraries and at home and involve food, drink ... and debate. The article mentions how, although some may dismiss it as further proof of their pretentiousness, the French see it as an attempt to give children a handle on an increasingly complex world. “Proponents of les goûters philos argue that the subject needs to be broached at an early age when children start asking existential questions.” (For a full view of the article go to: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article7138713.ece)
Could we use this idea and take it further, allowing teachers to implement these debates in U.S classrooms? This would also prepare kids for the future confusion that awaits them in our complex world.

For example, children with parents who introduce them to philosophy at an early age engage in critical thinking that can make them stronger problem solvers in the future but, ultimately, makes their life more fun. Last semester, my job as a graduate assistant allowed me to have closer relationships with Philosophy professors to the point where they began asking me if I could baby sit their children, on the side. And I noticed that the kids of my two respective employers had strong critical thinking skills that distinguished them from other children I knew. Here I think, their parents played an important role introducing them to philosophy. And these kids acted like kids. But I’ll give you an example of a conversation I recall going on between two sisters one Saturday night, as we finished watching “Wall-E:”
“Robots are nicer than people”
“Wall-E acts like a person but is a robot”
“No. You can’t be a person and a robot at the same time. But Wall-E is a Robot with a soul”
“No, he doesn’t have a soul; he is just really nice and remembers everything in his mind.”
Fine, maybe you guys don’t think this is smart, but here we have the philosophical problem of personal identity, and consciousness, all in the questions of a five year old and a six year old. I think it proves my point.

Interestingly, the school I work for is one of those “progressive” private schools funded by the new NYC creatives (a bunch of rich film and advertising parents.) The “progressive” part of the school, among other things, requires the students to take an Ethics class every year beginning in second grade. This is another great idea. Not only because children can be exposed to philosophy at an earlier age than college, but also because we future philosophy PhD’s who will be in the market finding a job at some near future, are limited to teaching college level philosophy. But if more high schools could implement an Ethics or a Philosophy class in their curriculum, plenty of unemployed- but eager to teach (and make a living out of it) philosophers could actually improve their options and chances for work. For what I know, Columbia University has an outreach program at the moment where graduate students teach philosophy in high schools. These Philosophy outreach programs have shown themselves to be remarkably successful in drawing virtually all students in the classroom together in inquiry. And the teachers are often surprised, and pleased, to see many of their most reticent, “underachieving” students actively join in the discussion of philosophical ideas in inner city high schools. So imagine if philosophers could get a job teaching high school ethics, and get paid for it? As a matter of fact, I don’t think that the difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is that huge, and a lot of private high schools pay higher salaries to their teachers than colleges do. Further, I don’t think that philosophy PhDs would mind teaching high school classes if these schools where willing to employ them.

Sadly for us, the Ethics teacher of my school is actually a psychology PhD. So my school has an interesting project, but hiring a psychology professional entirely misses the point of their project (which is to get the children to think critically, and philosophically.) It seems to me that at the time of dealing with one of those “big metaphysical questions” a psychologist would probably end up turning to behaviorism, same way that a religious person would turn to God. Both psychology and religion are good fields, but why not just hire a philosopher to do what he/she is good at? Implementing philosophy classes in middle and high schools seems like a great idea, but a very long shot for now. And even the few private “progressive” schools in NYC that implement philosophy in their curriculum, and could be potential employers for philosophy PhD’s, don’t hire the adequately qualified people to do the job. They hire Psychology PhD’s instead. Boo.

Then again, the person who writes this entry is a philosophy graduate student who somehow got hired to teach middle school Spanish, and is probably not adequately qualified to do the job either. Mostly, because whenever her seventh graders ask her a question in Spanish, she wants to turn it to a philosophical debate, in Spanish. It all comes back full circle I suppose.