Interview with Øyvind Olsholt

by Chiara Giorgetti

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While in Rome doing his TEDxTransmedia-talk in September 2012 Øyvind Olsholt met Chiara Giorgetti, an Italian journalist who works for the Royal Embassy of Norway in Rome. After hearing his talk she wanted to know more about his philosophical work with children. They agreed to do an interview. The result can be seen below. It was supposed to be published in the December 2012 issue of the Norwegian Embassy's Italian web site but there has been no publication so far (February 2013).

What does it mean to be a Norwegian kids philosopher?

In a practical sense it means that you are bound to spend a lot of time on your own. No kindergartens, schools, colleges or universities offer employment for kids philosophers. Philosophy may be a part of the curricula in Norway but there is, as yet, few jobs on offer. So one works as a freelancer and creates one’s own projects that sometimes catch the interest of individuals and/or institutions.

You have worked in the field of philosophy for children since 1997. How many children have you met and what do children think of philosophy?

I have no idea how many children I have met over the years. I have been in and out of schools and kindergartens for more than fifteen years. But I do know the initial response from children. At first they find the practise strange and sometimes irritating. The vast majority of children today are not used to adults who not only ask a lot of tricky questions but who also fail to be satisfied, let alone impressed, with their answers.

Children today, at least in Norway, are used to adults who support and encourage them whatever they do, as long as it is not openly destructive, which means that they have a very acute sense of entitlement. So when they encounter a philosopher who attempts to examine their opinions, without regard to the supposed merit or non-merit of these opinions, they are taken by surprise.

Of course, in a Socratic sense this element of challenge and surprise is essential to practical philosophy. And to be fair, a lot of children do enjoy the practise and as a consequence start asking more questions to themselves and others.

In 2000 you co-founded Children and Youth Philosophers. Can you tell us about this experience so far?

I started the company in 2000 with my philosopher wife Ariane Schjelderup, but actually we started working with philosophy for children back in 1997. Our first assignment was an eight week project in two kindergartens in Oslo and I can assure you that it was a bit of a challenge for both of us as we had at that time no previous experience with children. During these months we learned the hard way the difference between association and argument, i.e. that relating loosely to what another kid has said is not at all the same thing as making a reasoned judgement of the previous statement. Philosophical dialogue as all about the latter, not the former.

Since then we have arranged numerous seminars for schools and kindergartens, and we have facilitated philosophical dialogues with children, youths and adults. We have also carried out a number of long-term projects, for instance in kindergartens, at the Museum of Contemporary Art and at The International Museum of Children’s Art in Oslo.

Have you ever worked with foreigners' children?

I have experience with immigrant’s children in Norway, if that’s what you mean. Often, these kids do not speak Norwegian very well. But fluency in a language is not a necessary condition for philosophical dialogue. Of course, we must presuppose a basic understanding, otherwise verbal communication is impossible, but, surprisingly perhaps, there is in my experience no distinct correlation between linguistic and philosophical competence.

A native child is obviously more able to express himself than a non-native speaker, but the non-native speaker – precisely because of his social and linguistic state of estrangement, of being “the Other” – may think more, more deeply, more “foundationally,” than the native speaker. In other words, a community of language is not necessarily the best precondition for a community of enquiry.

In these days looking around libraries you can see a lot of philosophy books for children, and in Italy this has not happened since the 1970s. In your opinion, has it to do with the new needs that the crisis has underlined?

It is no coincidence that a lot of philosophy books for children are on offer today. And it’s certainly no coincidence that these books started appearing in the 1970s. It stems from the progressive spirit of the 1960s. “Philosophy for children” as a pedagogical-ideological movement sprang out of the political climate of the 1960s where one embraced the child as a human ideal.

It was in these years “child-centred” pedagogies emerged. They were meant to replace the traditional hierarchies based on the authority and power of the adult. There was also a frontal assault on the school system whose emphasis on knowledge, facts, values and traditions had (supposedly) led to the neglect and suppression of children’s subjectivity and autonomy. As a consequence, there was a renewed interest in all things related to children and childhood. Children’s philosophy was one of these things.

Personally, I don’t believe in child-centred pedagogy. I think it is contrary to the aim of philosophy: to search for truth. The fact that children are, per definition, at the centre of attention is no guarantee for truth, rather the opposite.

I think, however, that the current economical crisis, while it certainly makes us preoccupied with bare necessities, in the long run will contribute to the advancement of philosophy in the sense that it makes us more aware of reality, the here and now. You see, one unappealing aspect of philosophy is its tendency to encourage pure intellectual dreaming and escapism. The current crisis eliminates – ferrets out as it were – this kind of futile mind games.

You are author of the books Philosophy in School (1999) and Philosophical Dialogues in Kindergarten (2008). Can you tell us something about these books?

Our first book, Philosophy in School, was a contribution to the ongoing debate about the educational system. It explained how philosophy may be implemented and integrated in the grade school and how schoolteachers in all subjects may facilitate philosophical enquiry in the classroom. It presented philosophy as an enquiring, communal practise in the spirit of Socrates and elaborated the Socratic attitude of non-knowledge. It argued that openness, questioning and wonderment may prove shallow or even counterproductive unless they spring from the Socratic insight that “I know that I know nothing.”

The other book, Philosophical Dialogues in Kindergarten, sought to inspire preschool teachers to have philosophical dialogues with groups of children, to help children ask – and answer – more questions by themselves. Indeed, in the book we explain why it is imperative that adults don’t aid children in the formulation of questions and answers. This is in keeping with the new curriculum for kindergartens in Norway which states that “philosophical reflection” and “children’s participation” are important objectives. The book describes in detail how to prepare and facilitate philosophical dialogues with small children and provides also lots of philosophical exercises and activities.

How much did the book Sofies Verden by Jostein Gaarder influence you (if it actually did)?

Not so much, really. When it appeared in the beginning of the 1990s I was already well ahead with my philosophy studies and at the time we, the students, found the book a rather disingenuous and portentous work of art. Actually, as you may know, it was two books in one: on the one hand a short history of philosophy, on the other hand a fanciful story about a girl and her mysterious philosophy teacher friend. I still don’t think the two parts go very well together.

It was a massive commercial success, of course, and this fact alone suggested to us, the philosophy students, that there may be a future for philosophy outside academia – in other words, to speak with Hegel, that society may now have reached a stage of consciousness where there is a demand among the general public for philosophy. So many of us started to prepare for a philosophical career outside academia. However, twenty years later, it is no exaggeration to say that most of these former students have now returned to their alma mater. For most of them it proved too difficult to make a living of philosophy – which is hardly surprising because this is the way it has always been. I am one of the few who still hang on.

What's the best description of a philosophy book for you?

Well, I don’t know. I could perhaps say it is a book that reveals rather than conceals, provokes rather than soothes, provides deep insights rather than politically correct platitudes – and yet a book that refrains from revealing “the truth,” refrains from provoking for the sake of provocation, and refrains from denouncing political and ideological enemies. Also, it must be written in a precise and beautiful language.

What's the meaning of philosophy in 2012? And for kids?

For me the word ‘philosophy’ has not one meaning in 2012 and another meaning in ten or hundred years. Philosophy, both for children and adults, at least in the Western tradition, is defined by the Greek Antiquity, Socrates and Plato in particular, and I see no reason to “improve” or “ameliorate” their take on philosophy – as a common quest for truth – in order to accommodate current tastes and preferences, whatever they may be.

Small children notoriously ask big question, how can a philosophical dialogue help them?

It can help them break down the big question into smaller parts, i.e. into bite-size answers. No matter how big the question it needs to be answered, and answers are usually more graspable, more hands-on than the questions. Moreover, the translation of questions into answers helps children realise on the one hand that it is possible to answer even big questions, on the other hand that these answers seldom fully answers the question. It prepares them for the sobering wisdom that having to cope without completely satisfying answers to our deepest questions is a part of being human.

Philosophers are sometimes expected to trigger wonder and marvel in the young audiences, like a story-teller or magician. But, as Socrates taught us, such creation (illusion) is the task of the artist, not of the philosopher. The philosopher’s task is to make participants conscious of themselves in the austere and not so magic light of reason. Or if you wish, reason is another, more elevated, kind of magic.

How do parents react to the philosophical meeting with the kids? Are they worried about bigger and bigger questions?

Actually, parents love to send their kids off to philosophy sessions. And particularly they love sitting ringside themselves during sessions. We have done this from time to time and it is not only interesting and fun for parents to observe their own offspring in such an unusual setting, they can also pick up ideas and hints on how to have more meaningful dialogues with their kids at home.

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