Philosophy in the Primary School

This article – The Examined Life, Age 8 – was published in The New York Times on 8 April. Here are some snippets:

“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”

He is not the first philosopher to work with children. In the 1970s, Matthew Lipman, then a professor at Columbia University, argued that children could think abstractly at an early age and that philosophical questioning could help them develop reasoning skills. It was the Vietnam era, and Professor Lipman believed that many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.

Professor Lipman’s view opposed that of the child-development theorist Jean Piaget, who asserted that children under 12 were not capable of abstract reasoning. He and others, including Gareth Matthews, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, concluded that their curiosity and sense of wonder make children ripe for philosophic inquiry.

“The world is new to them and they want to figure things out,” says Professor Matthews, who has written extensively about children and philosophy. “Young children very often engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical, but typically their parents or teachers don’t react in a way that encourages them. They might say, ‘That’s cute,’ but they don’t engage the children in thinking further about whatever the issue is.”

“Our current educational system is about standards and efficiency,” says Joe Oyler, programs coordinator for the institute at Montclair State. “[Philosophy is] not fast and it’s not clean. We help children become comfortable with ambiguity and responding to it, so it’s tough to fit in.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

“It’s giving kids a way to figure out what they think, support their own views and reason with one another,” he says. “So I can’t imagine this isn’t helping them on standardized tests.”

But the pupils in Ms. Runquist’s class said they liked philosophy because it involved reading good books and expressing themselves.

For a comprehensive bibliography on the research into this topic, see here.

The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) can be found here.

The article has also been discussed in this blog.

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