Second graders at a Massachusetts charter school regularly discuss philosophical questions that arise in classic children’s books with the help of Thomas E. Wartenberg, Mount Holyoke College philosophy professor, and his students. From the New York Times:
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.
Only a few children said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.
“Say me and a rock was a friend,” (Isaiah) said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”
This gave his classmates pause.
Personally, I think the boy was a selfish brat, but the tree was an enabler.
Child-development theorist Jean Piaget believed children under 12 aren’t capable of abstract reasoning. Wartenberg disagrees. He uses “eight picture books to introduce children to the major fields of philosophy, including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.”
With Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad Together,” in which Frog and Toad try to determine whether they can be brave and scared at the same time, the pupils examine the nature of courage — one of Aristotle’s central virtues. With Bernard Wiseman’s “Morris the Moose,” about a moose who mistakenly assumes all his friends are also moose, they consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence. And with Peter Catalanotto’s “Emily’s Art,” about a talented young artist who loses a contest, they debate whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art.
Wartenberg has written a book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature. He argues that philosophy discussions improve reading comprehension and other skills.
That makes sense to me, though I’m not sure it takes a philosophy professor to get kids talking about stories.
Mickey Muldoon has more thoughts on teaching philosophy on Flypaper.