Second graders at a Massachusetts charter school engage in “philosophical debate” several times a month. “There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism,” reports the New York Times. ”Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.”
One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.
Frog and Toad Together prompts students to “examine the nature of courage”; Morris the Moose, says the Times, leads the 8-year olds to “consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence,” while Peter Catalanotto’s Emily’s Art, encourages a debate about whether there are objective standards for evaluating works of art.
The students featured in the article “fit philosophy in between writing and science….deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said,” notes the Times. Reporter Abby Goodnough writes that public schools “have been slow to embrace philosophy for children” because “many school officials either find the subject too intimidating or believe it does not fit with the test-driven culture of public education these days.”
I’m not sure I agree. What the Times and Professor Wartenberg are calling “philosophical debate” sounds to me no different than the kind of rich, thoughtful book discussions that good teachers have always done. I Kant see the difference.