Philosophy with children and youth

Article in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Sunday 30th August 1998
by Ariane B. Schjelderup (translated by Øyvind Olsholt)

The idea that philosophical reflection is proper and adequate for old, wise men only, has no credibility any more. First, women made their entry demanding access to the temple of thought. And today the idea that it takes a certain age to digest deep thoughts—not to mention to digest one's own deep thoughts—is in steady decline. Jostein Gaarder has shown for all the world that it is very possible to ignite a philosophical spark in the hearts of the young. Also philosophy is now to be a part of the education in the grade school. The fact that it is not only possible for children to take advantage of philosophical training, but that such training is also considered a true benefit, is expressed in the Norwegian Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School—the so-called L97.

This is a comparatively new phenomenon in Norway. But in reflecting upon this novelty, we pertain on the whole to a traditional understanding of 1. what philosophy is and 2. how to impart philosophical thinking to others. What do I mean by this?

Let's address first point 1. what philosophy is — Most people think of philosophy as the totality of thoughts produced by the great authors in the history of philosophy. The conclusions that these authors through a life-long occupation with philosophical questions end up with, represent what most teachers and educators call 'philosophy'. And as we try to convey philosophical knowledge, this is also the content we wish to convey: the theoretical knowledge about these results construed in different doctrines or "schools". Even Jostein Gaarder, despite his admirable introduction to "Sophies World" where he presents philosophical questions in the shape of riddles and mysteries, ends up with just another presentation of the main characters in the history of philosophy. Ready chewed and ready digested. No wonder the youngest readers as it seems skip the theoretical sequences of the novel.

Of course, the picture is (fortunately) not as simple as I have just described. In the "examen philosophicum" (translators note: and even more so in the newly introduced "examen facultatum" — both obligatory philosophical tests for all who wants to commence a study at any Norwegian University) it is ample room for training and deliberating in language and argumentation, also in parts of scientific theory—training meant to be used in later research practise. Another trend today is the emphasis on "ethical thinking". Hence to raise the consciousness of use of language, scientific method and moral choices, also count, according to this scheme, as philosophy.

These are exciting fields who certainly crave for other communicational tools than the traditional academic lecture. But so far unfortunately only students at the University and employees participating on specially designed workshops have come into contact with these subject matters. So when The Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School decides that philosophical thinking shall enter into the classroom, not merely as the reproduction of other people's thoughts, but also as practical training in thinking critically and rationally, this is something completely new.

This leads us to the second point 2. how to impart philosophical thinking to others. The trend today is clearly towards utility: knowledge is valuable for oneself or for others if it is useful one way or the other. Philosophy conceived only as written doctrines, unless the doctrines somehow may be of practical use, understandably collides with this view. But here's a small problem. The different philosophical doctrines do not represent objective truths of which we all can agree if not for any other reason simply because these doctrines and theories have a nasty habit of contradicting each other. Besides they possess an uncomfortable complexity, it seems downright impossible to portray them unblurred and plain-spoken and yet at the same time extensively and comprehensively. The reason for this is the simple fact that in order to comprehend these theories fully, one has to walk along the same road as the philosopher from whom the theory originate, i.e. we must deduce and conceive the theories ourselves. Only then have we properly understood them because then they have become what we call "internalized". Only then, in consequence, will we be able to let the theories have influence on our own lives, our attitudes and our choices. Now, in order to achieve this, there is little help from entry-level books introducing the reader to the history of philosophy—with or without accompanying lectures. The only remedy is to train the pupils to think for themselves.

Fortunately this is exactly what the Curriculum for the Ten Year Compulsory School proposes to do. The pupils are to be trained in thinking critically and rationally, to see things from several sides and perspectives, to bring forth an open attitude toward different points of view. This is all very well. But now to the question that brings me as a professional philosopher to a halt: who is going to teach them this? The teachers? What makes the teachers qualified to teach the pupils philosophical reflection? From where do they suddenly get their competence? And what kind of schemes are they to implement in their classroom education when the task no longer is to convey facts and knowledge as such, but to raise skills among the pupils which the teachers themselves have not been trained in?

As a professional philosopher I become slightly suspicious when I hear how haphazardly many people relate to the questions of how to impart philosophy to others—philosophy here understood both as history of philosophy and as practise in philosophical reflection. Many years of study have taught me that good communication presupposes more than a week-end seminar; it presupposes a fundamental understanding of what there is to communicate. And I, who have devoted years of my life to the study of philosophy, can still give no clear answer to the question what philosophy is—as opposed to what I have heard from others who have just completed a workshop. I have a respect for my subject, philosophy. I have learned that the deeper I dig into a problem, the more aspects I find to investigate before I can come to an understanding of the problem. There are no shortcuts to philosophical reflection—reflection is precisely what it takes. And it is the ability to reflect and deliberate that the pupils need to strengthen. So let somebody do this that is trained to do it—or develop material that may help the teacher in guiding his or her pupils.

As I started out to say, the idea to do philosophy with children and youth is relatively new in this country. But abroad this had been going on for about 25 years. The material and the competence is there, ready for us to benefit from, and Norwegian philosophers have already begun nibbling at it. People with philosophical competence have developed material and performed research and the experience shows that this is an important contribution to education. The pupils learn to produce and unleash independent viewpoints by way of a critical attitude and a higher degree of self-consciousness, to show respect and responsiveness toward other people's points of view and to draw analogies and distinctions e.g. between personal matters like growing up, friends, love, mobbing and general philosophical issues like change, personal identity, free will, time and truth. They also learn to elucidate abstract notions like "stupidity" and "goodness". And pupils with regular exposure to philosophical conversations, for instance once a week, also make remarkable progress in other subjects—often in more abstract subjects like mathematics.

The intention is not to teach ready-made thoughts that the pupils are supposed to recall and reproduce at an examination. There is no curriculum to hold on to. Instead the pupils learn to discuss fundamental issues and, with help from the teacher, get exercise to think critically and to argue for their own opinions by applying reasons. All opinions are allowed, provided they can give proper reasons to support them. The teacher's role is the role of the mediator or moderator, he is the one who sees to that the pupils stick to the subject and that they follow the rules that apply to any philosophical investigation, among others the rules of consistency and that of relevancy, i.e. pertinence to the matter at hand. The teacher, for once, is supposed to recede from the teacher-role: the adult is not meant to hand out any answers because in philosophy, as opposed to what is the case in other scientific disciplines, there are no definite answers. That is why we are here all on the same footing. And if an adult human being, who in relation to the child enjoy natural authority, signal that he or she do have the answer to the question from which the discussion stems, then the children will not be motivated to conceive and deduce their own thoughts. Whether these thoughts are the product of fallacies or ignorance, will be exposed by the conversation—if somebody helps the children to do this.

We often use stories as a teaser to stimulate discussion—to kick off the pupils. But it is always the pupils that decide what they want to talk about. Far too seldom children and youth are given the opportunity—even more seldom encouraged—to reflect in full openness on matters of significance to them. On the contrary we are often most busy trying to mould the poor children into our own preconception of what the "realities" are and how life "ought" to be lived, i.e. how to become "adult, rational human beings". However, "adult, rational human beings", who have fully adopted to the regulations of conformity posed by the society and thereby have not learned to ask questions, are not themselves capable of "taking life in their own hands"—but they want their offspring to be able to do exactly that. Such adults do not really know how to choose, they let expectations and impulses choose for them instead. But merely to fulfil expectations and to live in order to satisfy momentary impulses, is hardly meaningful to life as a whole. Meaning appears rather when we have a conscious relation to something, i.e. when we choose it. And to do just that, we need reflection.

Now, what is the challenge for us, concerned as we are with children and youth, if not to take advantage of the competence and the material that already exist to help the children understand the world in which they live, to help them to an overall understanding within which all the fragmentary knowledge they are stuffed with every day at school may find it's proper place—which is exactly the purpose of Philosophy with Children and Youth. We shall not, and cannot, infuse the children with our own understanding. But we can assist them to the independent discovery of possible connections and to the reaching out for their own answers in matters important—answers they can really vouch for. And as we walk along this road together, with the children who have not yet adapted themselves to the ratified worldview, we "adult, sensible human beings" may perhaps learn a thing or two from them—they who still see the world with fresh eyes.

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