The New Yorker has disappointed me again, this time by its recent coverage of a series of children’s philosophy workshops at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Rebecca Mead’s article, ‘When Kids Philosophize’, reports on the Tilt Kids Festival’s philosophy workshops – billed on the Festival website as an opportunity for children, aged 6 – 12, to “explore some of life’s biggest questions” and “engage in deep conversations about … key themes in philosophy” with acclaimed philosopher Simon Critchley and some graduate student guests.
On the face of it, ‘When Kids Philosophize’ offers a light-hearted glimpse of what went on during three of the short workshops. But the article’s mild humour has the unfortunate effect of trivialising the important the task of engaging children in philosophical discussions.
I personally found little to smile about in the volley of random questions, irrelevant observations, unsubstantiated claims and juvenile distractions that were reported to The New Yorker’s large audience. Missing entirely from the reported discussions was any sense of logical connection or cohesion, basic elements of reasoned argument that I would expect to see in any intellectual encounter convened by philosophers.
Mead’s article paints a dismal picture of children’s capacity for intellectual enquiry. It reads as satire bordering on contempt. Viewed as satire, it frames philosophy with children as a kind of in-joke among indulgent adults who find amusement in children’s naivety. There are undertones of “Kids say the darndest things,” and “Aww, aren’t they cute?”
Illustration by Amada García
Patronising and demeaning as this is, it’s less offensive than the contemptuous message – evident in an alternative interpretation of the article – that children have nothing at all worthwhile to say. On this reading, adults are simply deluded if they take children seriously as thinkers in their own right, because children’s thinking is irredeemably capricious and dominated by their immediate physical and emotional needs (like missing Mummy, scratching itches, fidgeting with their clothes, and wanting chewing gum – each of which was highlighted in the article).
To the uninitiated reader, the entire project of philosophising with children would appear to be a fool’s errand. This message is not just derisive; it’s inaccurate. As one who regularly engages young people in collaborative philosophical enquiry, I know what can be expected of children in the reported age range. Depending on their maturity and level of experience, they come up with more or less subtle ideas, which they’re able to express in more or less clear language, underpinned by more or less sharp reasoning. But no matter how unrefined their conceptual analysis, verbal expression and argumentation skill might be, they invariably engage in a reasoned discussion that progresses. With due consideration of conflicting points of view, children work together towards a synthesis of ideas, an appreciation of meanings, and a deepening of their understanding.
Certainly the path is not straight and narrow: the discussion moves forward indirectly, “like a boat tacking into the wind” (to borrow a phrase from Matthew Lipman, founder of Philosophy for Children). But it’s the forward movement that distinguishes philosophical enquiry from mere conversation or banter.
Illustration by Bastien Vivès
By contrast, Mead’s article represents children’s “philosophising” as nothing more than a scattergun pelting of disjointed questions and a continual burgeoning of irrelevant asides, with no follow-through: no continuity of theme, no real exploration of any particular question, no elaboration or justification of views, no testing of competing ideas, and certainly no reconsideration of prior beliefs in light of counter-evidence – all of which are typical thinking practices in the philosophy workshops that I and my colleagues run for children.
The author may have deliberately cherry-picked quotes from the workshop discussions in such a way as to heighten their absurdity. I hope not, as that would be deceiving her readers, not to mention damaging the reputation of our already undervalued field of practice.
It is of course possible that the author observed accurately and reported honestly, and that the discussion in the workshops really was as degenerate as it appears in the article. If this is the case, my indignation is misdirected. Instead of reproaching the journalist, I should reproach the facilitators for so profoundly failing to do as they intended: to engage children in deep conversation and to explore some of life’s biggest questions. Or, perhaps the problem lay in inviting media coverage of workshops run by facilitators who were novices at the craft, however highly qualified they may be academically.
One cause for concern is Simon Critchley’s comment: “kids are natural philosophers… All you have to do is trigger the question and let it roll.” Remarks about children being ‘natural philosophers’ always stir the sceptic in me, for reasons best explained by Peter Worley in his paper ‘Philosophy in Philosophy in Schools’ (Think, 8(23), 63–75). Here’s an excerpt:
Children say the funniest things, they also say interesting things and they often express themselves in very original language. This of course does not make them philosophers. Children also have a habit of asking an awful lot of questions but neither does this make them philosophers. Some writers…have suggested that certain kinds of questions make children philosophers. I argue that it is not the question but the treatment of the question that makes the child-philosopher…
There is an oft-used quote from Plato that is used to demonstrate the link between children and philosophy: ‘philosophy begins in wonder,’ and I think the quote is often used misleadingly. I agree that philosophy does begin in wonder but I would argue that it is not the same things as wonder. So to say that children are in a natural state of wonder – which I think they often are – is not the same as saying that children are natural philosophers. The most one can say is that they have a pre-disposition towards philosophy and would therefore be receptive to a properly put-together and appropriately-aimed programme of philosophy led by a skilled guide.
My own experience corroborates this. On the whole, compared with adults, children tend to be curious, imaginative and uninhibited. They have an appetite for new questions and puzzles, and they’re refreshingly free of the self-criticism that plagues many adults. These qualities do indeed make children receptive to philosophy – but if you do nothing more than “trigger the question and let it roll”, you might very well end up with the shambolic hodge-podge of responses that we see in The New Yorker article.
While it’s hard to identify the true culprit here – irresponsible journalism, incompetent facilitation, or just bad P.R. – the gun is smoking.
As budding philosophers and as citizens, children deserve not only to have their voices heard, but to have help in developing their thinking. This is precisely what well-trained facilitators of philosophical enquiry are, perhaps uniquely, able to offer.
It’s not only the children involved in the Tilt Kids Festival workshops who have been done a disservice here. It’s also the educational movement to which I belong: the movement that recognises children’s capacities for philosophical reflection, deliberation and dialogue, and that above all seeks to cultivate those capacities. As practitioners of philosophy with children, our work deserves better than satirical treatment.
In a lively dialogue, Philosophy for Children practitioner Maughn Gregory points to the following conditions for generating knowledge:
…that I have made myself accountable to a community of my peers, who have challenged my ideas; that I have double-checked my reasons for believing – the methods of inquiry or the authorities I’ve relied on; that I’ve been willing to self-correct; that my current beliefs help me cope with experience – help me understand it in ways that enable me to act intelligibly; and that I have no other reasons for doubting them now, though I’m open to finding reasons to doubt them later.
Implicitly, through the practice of collaborative philosophical enquiry, we empower children to fulfill these conditions for themselves. In other words, we equip children to decide for themselves what to believe and what degree of certainty their beliefs warrant.
Illustration by Karolin Schnoor
We get children thinking critically, rigorously and sceptically, so that they’re less likely to succumb to ill-founded beliefs or be duped by self-deception, spin or rhetoric. We help children develop their reasoning, so that they become more adept at building logical arguments and rationally defending their views. We encourage children to question the assumptions underlying different points of view, enabling them to challenge dogmatic beliefs. And we cultivate deep and deliberative thinking – often neglected in traditional schooling, which tends to focus more on getting ‘the quick right answer’ – so that children have a chance to explore the nuances of complex ideas.
This is important work that shouldn’t be hastily mocked, disparaged or dismissed.
And it’s a far cry from “letting it roll”.
Within a few hours of publishing this post there was a vigorous discussion about it on facebook. It included an observation by someone involved in the Tilt Kids Festival that those who facilitated the workshops were not formally trained in Philosophy for Children. This observation makes it seem more likely that Rebecca Mead’s article did fairly represent what occurred in the workshops.
‘Can Children Do Philosophy?’ Battle of Ideas video, featuring Dr Catherine McCall, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, Adam Seldon and Peter Worley.
Karin Murris, Can Children Do Philosophy? Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2000. PDF freely available online.
‘Should children do philosophy?’ Post by Peter Worley with responses from readers. Aeon, 14 July 2015.
Peter Worley, ‘Philosophy in Philosophy in Schools’. Think, 8(23), 63–75.
The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, professional development for teachers, and training for facilitators in the art of collaborative philosophical enquiry.