Why Schools Should Teach Philosophy, Even to Little Kids

EdSurge Podcast

Why Schools Should Teach Philosophy, Even to Little Kids

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 6, 2023

Why Schools Should Teach Philosophy, Even to Little Kids

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

Little kids make better philosophers than most adults.

That’s the surprising argument made by Scott Hershovitz, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Michigan. And he worries that too often, teachers and other adults brush off or ignore kids when they ask things like, “Are we all just a figment of someone else’s dream?”

“Kids are new to the world, and they're constantly puzzled by it,” says Hershovitz. “That's one advantage they have is they don't know what the standard explanations of things are. They don't know what grown-ups take for granted.” Plus, he adds, they’re often “fearless,” not stopping to consider whether their questions might be seen as silly. (In fact, from a kid’s perspective, the sillier, the better.)

Hershovitz, who has two young children of his own, highlights the philosophical potential of youngsters in his book, “Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids.”

The book ends up being a playful way to explore big philosophical issues, regarding justice, authority and language.

EdSurge recently connected with Hershovitz to hear why he thinks it’s important to nurture philosophy in kids throughout school and college, and what advice he has for educators about how to do it.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What’s an example of how kids think like philosophers?

Scott Hershovitz: When my son Rex was 4, we were sitting at dinner one night and he just sort of wondered aloud whether he might be dreaming his entire life. And I got all excited because this is a question that in Western philosophy is famous because Descartes made it famous. He was engaged in this project of doubting everything that he knew. And one technique he had for doubting things was to imagine that he might be dreaming things. But actually this tradition of thought goes way back at least to an ancient Chinese text.

This is a thought that recurs throughout history — this question of how do we tell what's real? How do we distinguish the things we dream or the things we hallucinate from the things that are actually real. Or can we?

And Rex isn't uncommon. Lots of little kids play around with the boundaries between reality and dreams, reality and make believe, in just the way that philosophers have throughout history.

It can be easy for adults to brush off some of these questions that kids have. What kind of mindset is required for educators and others who deal with kids to be able to raise children as philosophers?

The most important thing is just to listen to kids and to take their ideas seriously. Gareth Matthews was fond of saying that there's something special about the kinds of conversations you can have with a kid when they raise a question that's philosophical.

I mean, if your child is asking you something scientific, chances are you know the answer and you can just tell them how that works. You know, like if they ask, ‘Why does water bubble when it's boiling?’ Well, you might remember the explanation from your science class, or maybe you'll go to Google and you can look up an explanation. There, you are in the role very much of teacher. It's a kind of hierarchical relationship: I have this information that you don't.

But when a child asks something like, ‘What are our lives for?’ or ‘What happens when we die?’ or ‘Am I dreaming my entire life?’ the chances are you don't really know the answer either. You may have ideas, you may have guesses, you may have thoughts or you might not. But there's a kind of collaborative conversation that's possible.

Part of what I want to encourage people to do is see young kids as people with whom you can have collaborative conversations. So one of my favorite tricks with my kids is to say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I won't start the conversation off. Often if they've asked the question, they have some ideas about it. So hear what their ideas are and take them seriously, even seriously enough maybe to challenge them and think them through together.

I think the mindset you want to be in is, I'm gonna treat this little person like they might have something important to say and treat them like a conversational equal.

If you had a magic wand, how would you change the education system?

I would love to see philosophy taught in schools. It is part of the curriculum in many other countries around the world, and there is a small but growing movement to have philosophy taught in American schools. There is a really wonderful organization called the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization that offers tons of resources and holds lots of webinars and in-person events and trainings for teachers to teach philosophically.

There are potentially lots of benefits to it. One is that kids have this kind of innate disposition to philosophical reflection — to thinking about really big, important questions. And I think that adults too often communicate that they don't value that. And so kids leave it behind as they get a little bit older. And I think we could help our kids to stay deep thinkers if we showed them that we value this aspect of them and care about engaging it.

Another upside is that when you teach philosophy in schools, you have the opportunity to cultivate norms of good conversations and good deliberations. So you teach people that we're going to take turns — we're gonna listen to each other. And the first thing we do after someone else speaks is we make sure we understand what they said before we go on to share our views. And we don't shout people down or just tell them that they're wrong. We respond with evidence and arguments and we offer them reasons, and we do it all respectfully.

We have as grown-ups in this country a real problem having civil conversations across difficult divides. And so I have some hope that if we cultivated that kind of practice among our kids, that maybe in the long run there would be positive payoffs for our culture in general.

There's all this talk about how kids today are on their phones or they're distracted, or they don't have the same concentration level as they did in the past. Is that something you see in the college students you teach?

I think there's something to that. The way that adults do philosophy, real philosophical progress requires deep engagement, the ability to make sustained arguments, the ability to sort of read other people making long, sustained arguments, and then think things through and come up with your own ideas and arguments. And that skill, I notice it in myself, I sit down to read a book and I get six or seven pages in and I think, ‘I wonder what's happening on my phone right now?’ It's a struggle.

I especially worry as I watch my oldest son, who is in middle school now. Teachers give a lot of bite-size assignments, or assignments that are done on the devices. ‘Make me a PowerPoint presentation about X,’ or, ‘Do a research project about Y,’ but not, ‘Write it up as a paper,’

And on the one hand, I totally get why they do this, and then there's at least a little bit of an argument for it that, ‘This is how these kids are going to work in the world, so mastering these digital tools is important for them.’ But I sure wish that there were some projects that required a kind of deeper, longer, more sustained engagement. It's important to help kids cultivate the ability to lose themselves in an intellectual project, but they won't unless we sometimes insist that they do something that requires that level of engagement.

Do you worry about that? What’s at stake if students at schools and colleges don’t learn this?

I do worry about it. We have a lot of people who engage in a kind of endless conspiracy-style thinking of fitting facts into a preferred theory rather than testing their theories against the facts in the world. And that probably reflects some educational failures, though not just educational failures.

There's a lot of things to say about technological change and the way the media has become fractured and the way the internet works to always serve up something next that you're going to agree with.

But I think like good philosophy education can be a kind of inoculation against this. The training to always think, ‘How is it that I might be wrong?’ And to be open to the idea that you've made mistakes. If we could find a way to cultivate that through education, then I think we could be in a better place than we are now and maybe in a better place than where we're headed.

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