Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can Children really do Philosophy?


Self with two Transition Year students, School, 2004
The thoughts which follow were inspired by the May/June edition of Philosophy Now which features a special section called Doing Philosophy with Children. Well, personally I have long believed that one can, because philosophy is really a way of thinking rather than a subject.  Therefore, parents and teachers can encourage children to think in a philosophical way.  Likewise I love the psychology of learning that is based on the Multiple Intelligences approach of Dr. Howard Gardner which is surely one of the most comprehensive and inclusive approaches to intelligence that we as a culture have so far come up with.  Please refer to the following website here for a comprehensive account of this theory and its practical uses: BCM.  What impresses me most about this holistic approach to intelligence/s, and to any educational theory and practice based on it, is that among its nine or more intelligences (other scholars and researchers have added some others to Gardner's base model) is that of existential intelligence.  One could rename this intelligence as philosophical intelligence as you will see from reading the background given on the above site.  Scholars define this existential intelligence as the ability to pose questions about life, death and ultimate realities.  Come to think of it, as existentialism is a subcategory of philosophy, perhaps this latter intelligence could well be inflated to become philosophical intelligence and thereby encourage a way of asking the deep and hard questions of all philosophy.

I love reading about those great scholars of science who end up getting Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Medicine or Physics, not because I can claim to understand anything of what they have done, but I can appreciate their ways of thinking, their ways of asking questions, their educational and motivational background.  When I read their background I invariable see that they were all very good questioners as children, i.e., they asked the right type of questions.  Universally, I have found that in no matter what areas of study I read that the scholars and the sharpest minds are those who have a skilled and acute questioning ability or faculty.  Surely Socrates was the founder of this method?  Indeed he is practically the father of philosophy as far as this writer is concerned.   Today I wish to refer to Professor Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898 –1988) who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but emigrated as a very youing child to America where he became a noted American physicist and Nobel laureate which he received in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance which is basically as far as I can make out in my non-scientific mind all about the nature of the force binding protons to atomic nuclei and how to measure that force.  Whether I can understand this or not is irrelevant, but what is very interesting to a philosopher is the fact that when Isodor Isaac was asked the reasons for his success, he said that when he came home from school as a child his mother asked him not "What did you learn in school today?" but rather "What questions did you ask today?"

Teaching our Children to Question

Part of my attic Library

For any parents, teachers and youth leaders out there, you must begin to learn the value of allowing your charges to ask questions.  In this way keeping your child's questioning spirity alive can be one of the keys to success in learning and indeed in life.  One could say that in so doing you are training them to be young philosophers.  The great Greek philosopher Socrates operated by questioning the so-called knowledge-brokers of his day, the rhetoricians.  By doing so he got down to the very motives of these people and revealed anyone who was immoral or superficial or inauthentic as being just hypocrites.  Here is what Robert Fisher (Professor of Education at Brunel University, Uxbridge) writes in the current edition of the above named magazine:

There has been quite an upsurge of research into discussing philosophical ideas with children over the last fifty years, providing much evidence of its benefit to children's verbal reasoning, language skills, self-esteem and school achievement.  Philosophical discussions can help develop children's intelligences, and give them the skills and confidence they need to become active, thoughtful and effective citizens.

We cannot force our children to be philosophical, but we can help to provide the conditions at homa and school where questioning, thinking and discussion can flourish.  So how do you provide the conditions for your child to think philosophically?  The following are three ways of engaging children in philosphical discussion:

  • Thinking through stories.
  • Thinking about the everyday world..
  • Thinking about other worlds, including spiritual and religious beliefs.  (Philosophy Now, May/June 2011, p. 7)

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