Philosophy for Children

Sunday, December 23, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Is It

Because of their innocent approach to things, do children make good philosophers?  Or do they lack the equipment for clear-thinking?  Is exposure to philosophy good for children?  Or will it undermine their sense of security?  John and Ken welcome Jana Mohr Lone, founder and director of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington. Together they'll put some classic philosophical questions about Mind/Body, Personal Identity, Ethics, and Social Philosophy to a live -- and questioning -- audience of Seattle schoolchildren.

Listening Notes

John begins by asking Ken if children have anything to teach philosophers about philosophy, other than teaching the virtue of patience.  Aristotle believed that our minds start as a "blank slate," waiting to be filled with education.  But, if children start out as a blank slate, why should we think that they have anything philosophical to share?  Ken thinks that children are in many ways better equipped for philosophy, precisely because of the "blankness of their slates."  College philosophy classes spend most of their time tearing away at what we think we know.  Children are natural philosophers, ready to question everything (perhaps even your intelligence), down to the very substance of reality itself.

Jana Mohr Lone joins the conversation.  She believes that we all have a philosophical self, including kids as young as five years old.  This philosophical self is unfortunately left out when it comes to formal education.  Jana’s work tries to change this imbalance by discussing philosophical issues with kids of all ages, from kindergarten to high school.  And everyone, kids and adults alike, seem to love debating the issues, perhaps even as much as John and Ken.

But today’s show is not merely a philosophical discussion of children and philosophy—it’s a philosophical discussion by the fourth-grade live audience.  Together with John, Ken, and Jana the kids explore philosophical issues ranging from the nature of composite objects to the mind-body problem to the nature of personal identity.  Ken notices that the kids work through these deep issues in parallel steps to the history of philosophy.  For example, everyone seems to start out a dualist, but, with some prodding by John and Ken, some children start to question why the supposedly separate mind cannot exist without the brain.  The discussion, a good deal more heartwarming than your average philosophical debate, confirms that children are natural philosophers.  Even John has to admit to being amazed—the fourth graders grasp the issues quicker than most college students!

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 4:50): Angela Kilduff talks to some college students learning about how to teach philosophical issues to children.  Certain issues, such as justice, death, and right and wrong, are important issues that children can grasp and debate.  And these conversations have an incredible power; they can forever change how these young philosophers mentally develop, even the basic way they engage with the world!
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 45:25): Ian Shoales discusses how the way that parents treat the intelligence of children has changed in the last fifty years. Back in his day, kids were usually "too smart for their own good."  Nowadays, "helicopter parents" never leave their kids alone, always "hovering" to ensure that a child’s activities are appropriately educational.  Surely, there must be a middle ground?