FOREWORD: If you are new to homeschoolingmiddleeast, welcome! I highly recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. The fastest way to access this is to look for ‘Archives’ on the right hand side of the home page, click on ‘February 2012’ and scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens. If you want a quick first visit, you could type a term e.g. ‘socialization’ or ‘university’, into the ‘Search’ box or of course you could just read my latest posts without doing anything! Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this is an adventure into homeschooling that is not yet 3 months old and the journey has been a rollercoaster – philosophically and emotionally, catalogued daily for the first couple of months. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience you share with me, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you! Now for today’s post…
I’ve decided to start teaching our 7 year old son (and 3 year old daughter if she’s interested in participating) Philosophy, or at least to start consciously engaging them in more and more philosophical discussion. Since I can’t just seize up my critical thinking skills, even when I talk to my young children, I think they’ve been absorbing this ability for years, but I think it’s time to be more conscious about it. Teaching young children Philosophy seems to be controversial, to some people immoral even, which I think is very interesting. Some people are not keen on the idea of children being taught to think too independently or critically too young (or even at all!). They think this will lead to them walking a path away from their parents’ values e.g. to become atheists or (worse for some people?!) gay or simply depressed by the enormity of these questions. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to read that I’m not planning on tacking the morality of an individual’s sexual preferences with my young children! I have to confess, I am putting off the ‘birds and the bees’ discussion for as long as possible, not because I think it’s right to do this (I think the relaxed ‘Scandinavian approach’ to human reproduction/sexuality makes a lot of sense), but certainly because it’s easier! Especially if you don’t want your children to shock your neighbours’ children with their relaxed attitude! But I do look forward to opening their minds to consider all sorts of quite large questions.
I have an ‘A’ level in Philosophy and a degree from Cambridge, so I feel pretty philosophically qualified, if a little rusty. However, I think it might be more challenging to introduce such timeless concepts to such young minds in an interesting and appropriate way than teaching the Philosophy itself! But I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be really stimulating, for me as much as for them. And after experimenting on my own children as guinea pigs I am considering holding a weekly class for their friends. Listening to other people’s ideas is an important part of growing philosophically as an individual. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve got to do my research first. There are lots of books about introducing children to philosophy. I even found an organization with the zippy title ‘P4C’ – ‘Philosophy for Children’ which has been trying to get Philosophy/philosophical discussion taught in schools for years. These resources were never around when I was thinking about studying it.
I found out about Philosophy in one of those ‘What will you do with your life after school?’ chats that are usually offered in schools at around the age of 16. Like 99.9% of my classmates, I planned to pursue some sort of further education; studying what though, I didn’t have a clue. When the teacher asked me what I was really interested in I answered, “Well, what I’m REALLY interested in is this, ‘Why are we here? Is there a God? What’s the point of it all? You know, things like that. That’s what I think about all the time” and I felt rather silly admitting it. I thought they would laugh sympathetically and then get back to helping me decide whether to study History, Politics or English because they were my ‘A’ level subjects, and then perhaps slip me a psychiatrist’s phone number! To my complete and utter amazement, the teacher smiled instead and said, “Then why don’t you consider studying Philosophy at University?” I think my mouth fell open at this and I said,” You mean there’s a subject that you can actually study that’s about all this?” And he/she (strangely, I can’t remember which, despite remembering the conversation with such clarity) said, “Yes, Penny, it’s called Philosophy. Why don’t you look into it?” And I did and I was so excited to discover Philosophy, although of course it had discovered me some years before. In fact, I think I’ve been thinking philosophically since I began thinking at all! So when I left my expensive private school and had the opportunity to study Philosophy in a formal sense, even before University, I grabbed at the chance and it was SO much fun!
‘But what’s the point of teaching young kids Philosophy?’ people might ask. Well, it’s not so much teaching Philosophy, at this age anyway, as teaching the kids to think start exercising their critical thinking muscles, to start thinking philosophically. ‘What’s the point of that?’ people might ask. Well, we teach kids to start thinking scientifically and mathematically from an early age, we think these thinking skills are something that might take some years to develop and so it’s important to start as soon as possible, so why not do the same with philosophical thinking skills? I think the real question such people might be wanting to ask is why teach Philosophy/philosophical thinking at all? What’s its relevance to real life?
A fun introductory book for adults is, ‘The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking’ by Stephen Law. The introduction to his introductory book tries to define what Philosophy is and why it’s important for real life and not just some kind of esoteric intellectual exercise (not that any sort of intellectual exercise is bad I think). Law thinks, and I agree with him, that people who aren’t taught to think philosophically are actually, read this carefully, dangerous members of Society. I bet you didn’t think I was going to say that! You might have thought I was going to say, ‘lazy thinkers’ or ‘not so much fun to talk to at a dinner party’, but dangerous members of Society?! Are we crazy? Has Law totally brainwashed me into some sort of Philosophical Cult? Not if I’ve learned to think philosophically – in order words, not if I’ve learned to think clearly, rationally, logically. Law says, “Most of us live our lives within a very narrow envelope of concern. We worry about how to pay the mortgage, whether to buy a new car, what to cook for dinner. When we start to think philosophically, we take a step back and look at the wider picture. We start to examine what we have previously taken for granted.
I believe that those who have never taken a step back – who have lived wholly unexamined lives – are not only rather shallow, they’re potentially dangerous. One great lesson of the twentieth century is that human beings, no matter how ‘civilised’, tend to be moral sheep. We are disastrously prone to follow without question the moral lead provided by those around us. From Nazi Germany to Rwanda, you find people blindly going with the flow.
An advantage of a little philosophical training is that it can provide the skills needed to think independently and question what others might take for granted. It can help fortify your courage in making a moral stand. As the philosopher Professor Jonathan Glover points out in an interview in the ‘Guardian’:
If you look at the people who sheltered Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person: they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, brought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.”
Glover adds, ‘teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies’. Admittedly, there’s no guarantee that someone who has been encouraged to think critically will avoid such pitfalls. But, like Glover, I believe the greatest risk comes, not from a society of autonomous critical thinkers, but from a society of unreflective moral sheep.
You will also discover that the skills fostered by a little rigorous thinking about the big questions are highly transferable. Whether you’re deciding whether to buy that second-hand car or to tile the bathroom, or wondering for whom you should vote, the ability to formulate a concise argument, follow a complex line of reasoning or spot a logical howler is always useful. At the very least, such skills can provide a lifetime’s immunization against the wiles of dodgy car dealers, religious cults, medical quacks and other purveyors of snake oil.
Far from being irrelevant to everyday life, the reflective attitude and skills that philosophy develops are profoundly life-enhancing.”
I very much like to think that myself and my family would have had the courage to shelter Jews, despite great personal risk, in the Second World War because it was absolutely the right thing to do. Standing by and doing nothing was total collusion with the enemy. And I hope that the philosophical, critical thinking skills I teach my children, and possibly other children, will enable them to take such difficult decisions in the future if they are, God forbid, ever faced with them. But in the meantime, if it helps them avoid being hoodwinked by a dodgy doctor or as children, avoid being pulled into a bullying group of ‘friends’ it will be totally worth it.
And you never stop learning. It’s important to know that when you start on the philosophical, thought-enhancement path. It’s important to embrace realizing what you don’t know, realizing that none of us know everything, and enjoying the effort to know more.
Years ago, I attended a course in Toronto, taught by a media professor, for Palestinians/Palestinian sympathizers which taught us to think and express ourselves more clearly. He tried to show us how to read media stories more critically and then how to answer the points we knew were wrong but found hard to articulate why. I was ashamed that despite the level of my education, I found this terrifically hard to do.
This is such a contentious area and many readers may not be happy to hear that I attended such a course, although I am very proud to say that I did, but if you want a course in critical thinking skills, this topic is like jumping into the Ph.D class! The people writing books and articles on this subject are very, very good at manipulating the way people think to get sympathy for their ‘side’ and it can be very, very hard to counter their arguments, one side especially! I want my children to be able to do a better job than I can to counter any position they find difficult to argue against as they become adults, certainly not just on this subject. For all my education, I still find it difficult to counter superbly well-argued, well crafted stances, however much I know they’re wrong, especially on emotional subjects. The clearer one’s thinking, the better trained one’s mind, the easier this is to do even when you’re hopping mad!
Are you persuaded that young children should be taught critical thinking/philosophical discussion? Did you need persuading in the first place? Do you think any subjects are ‘off limits’, such as the existence of God? I’d love to hear.
Part 2, coming soon… will be about whether God and religion is a subject that’s OK to tackle with children.
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