Should we teach philosophy to little kids?

March 2, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

One of Diane Rehm’s recent shows featured Marietta McCarty, who advocates teaching philosophy to children to develop critical thinking skills and to deepen their sense of empathy for others.  Here’s the interview.  McCarty, who has taught at both the elementary school and community college level, has written a book titled Little Big Minds.

According to her website, McCarty is:

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has brought philosophy to children in rural, suburban, and city schools in the central Virginia area for over fifteen years, as well as schools around the U.S. “Her Philosophy in the Third Grade” program is nationally acclaimed and she lectures and gives demonstrations around the country on this one-of-a-kind program. While focusing on third graders, she philosophizes in kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms.

McCarty starts with the premise that children are natural philosophers.  They are “the best philosophers.”  Children have a natural curiosity and an innate sense of wonder.  Even young children are capable of studying philosophy.

Philosophy, according to McCarty, is the art of clear thinking.  Philosophers are people who “hold many ideas in their mind at once.” Philosophers “empty their minds of clutter and confusion.”  She stresses that children need to exercise their minds just like they need to exercise their bodies.  Philosophy can help children “gain clarity about ideas.”  Underlying McCarty’s strategy is her belief that ideas have consequences.  “What we think motivates all of our actions and all of our decisions.  If we don’t think, that also motivates our actions and decisions.”

In McCarty’s experience, the children are always fascinated by Plato’s myth of the cave.  The children are told to imagine that everyone has been shackled in a cave since birth causing them to confuse the shadows on the wall for real things.  Eventually, though, a curious prisoner breaks free and climbs up a steep incline toward a point of light at the mouth of the cave.  Emerging to the outside, the light is so bright (in the “daylight,” representing the world of ideas) that it is difficult at first to see the meanings of important concepts such as love and compassion.  McCarty explains to the children that we are those prisoners, unless we spend time working to get clearer on the ideas we use.

McCarty stresses that children should use their own minds to expand their views of life.  During the show, one listener called in to suggest that abstract thinking stifles creativity.  McCarty disagreed. She described some of the ways children study philosophy.  One of the sections of her book is dedicated to “courage.”  According to McCarty, some children think that courage is bestowed only on a few special people.  Through the study of philosophy, however, they distill the idea of what courage is, and are thus able to recognize acts of courage in themselves and others. As the result, the children learn to keep on trying in the face of adversity.  They can also learn that even admitting their own weaknesses and fears can require courage.

McCarty encourages adults to actively listen to the observations and questions of their children, without interrupting at all.  Children are “used to being talked over by adults” constantly. There is a big payoff to not talking over your children. Only by such careful listening can an adult learn what their child is really thinking.

Here’s another big payoff.  This idea stems from Bertrand Russell’s idea of “impartial love.”  As exposure to ideas expands, the heart expands too.”  McCarty explained her point to Diane Rehm: “We’re all woven together in a tapestry and were all related to each other.” Consequently, McCarty emphasizes to the children that they need to put the ideas they explore (e.g., compassion) into practice.

As part of her program, McCarty encourages children to keep philosophy journals, even when they are as young as six or seven.  Over the years, she has found that the children treasure their early thoughts as they get older.

I find much to like about McCarty’s work. I was brought up in a household where one parent invited the wide open exploration of philosophical ideas whereas the other parent was extremely uncomfortable with freethinking.  Many adults resist the free exploration of philosophical ideas.  Why? This resistance raises an issue that McCarty did not discuss on Diane Rehm’s show: Because it involves wide-open questioning, philosophy is inevitably subversive.  In the eyes of many, it is dangerous.  

When we talk about “equality” long enough, we will start to question our government’s disparate treatment of people.  The longer we discuss “liberty,” the more likely we will consider such issues as a woman’s right to control her own body.  When focus on life and death issues, we will eventually question whether bureaucratic mythologies (organized religions) adequately address the deeply complex universe in which we live.

I couldn’t help but think of the large number of parents who would be disturbed to hear their children actively questioning … well … everything.  This makes me wonder whether McCarty’s program is just a tentative toe in the water for a general audience or whether she teaches full-bore philosophy only to the children of free-thinking parents, the kind of parents who won’t try to shut down her program.

A friend called me yesterday to announce that she was sending me a copy of Big Little Minds because she, too, was impressed with McCarty’s interview.  I look forward to reading Little Big Minds because I would like to see how McCarty treats the inevitably subversive nature of philosophy.  What does McCarty tell those parents who become upset when they overhear their children asking questions that question the authority of parents, God, and government? 

After I read McCarty’s book, I will supplement this post with a comment.

Note:  There are other individuals and organizations who also advocate teaching philosophy to children.  For some of them, see here and here and here and here.


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Category: Education, Language, Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Philosophy … is the art of clear thinking" is a phrase I'd have to question. My casual explorations into philosophy, and my readings of skeptical thinkers (Asimov, Feynman, etc) who have tried to rationalize philosophy, show that it often comes down to defining terms in terms of terms, never connecting to anything solid, measurable.

    I don't doubt that teaching the basic tools of philosophy, especially semantics, would be a boon to children. But compared to skeptical inquiry, philosophy is far from clear.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I find it useful to make a distinction between academic philosophy (which too often ends up being what you describe) and philosophy outside of the academy, which consists of many other forms of the "study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence." (from the Compact Oxford English Dictionary –… )

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