I’ve been increasingly drawn to the issue of education in America, especially K-12 public education, ever since I wrote an article about the importance of philosophy outside the academy. It’s also become obvious to me that the practice of philosophy — as opposed to the academic study of it — can accomplish both the idealistic and the pragmatic goals of public education. The pragmatic goal is to have our kids be prepared for economic success in the world, while the idealistic goal is have our kids be thoughtful members of our shared democracy who can flourish not only economically, but socially, emotionally, and morally as well.
I think most people are familiar with “Big P” philosophy, which is the academic endeavor of mastering an established canon (Plato, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, etc.), and being actively engaged in adding to the literature comprising that canon. It’s what your typical PhD does in the Ivory Tower. “Little p” philosophy, on the other hand, is what we all strive to do in our daily lives, though we probably rarely live up to it — namely, our natural capacity for wonder and questioning drives us to inquire into the hearts of matters and discover what’s true. Basically, it’s the process of trying to figure out the world and understand our experiences and place in it.
“Little p” philosophy is at the heart of the Philosophy for Children (aka P4C) movement that began in the 1970s by Matthew Lipman at Montclair State University. Lipman’s P4C began with a single philosophical novel for kids called “Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery,” and was designed to help kids learn how to think for themselves. In my research for articles I’m writing on P4C, I’ve discovered that not only is the movement growing, there’s growing evidence for both its effectiveness in accomplishing the goals I mentioned above and its popularity among teachers.
In addition to those teachers and academics who promote and practice P4C specifically, there are other educators whose vision for education aligns very well with P4C. One of those is developmental psychologist Susan Engel of Williams College and author of the recent book “The End of the Rainbow,” whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. This is from the dust-jacket of her book:
Amid the hype of Race to the Top, online experiments such as Khan Academy, and bestselling books like The Sandbox Investment, we seem to have drawn a line that leads from nursery school along a purely economic route, with money as the final stop. But what price do we all pay for the increasingly singular focus on wage as the outcome of education? Susan Engel, a leading psychologist and educator, argues that this economic framework has had a profound impact not only on the way we think about education but also on what happens inside school buildingsThe End of the Rainbow asks what would happen if we changed the implicit goal of education and imagines how different things would be if we made happiness, rather than money, the graduation prize. Drawing on psychology, education theory, and a broad range of classroom experiences across the country, Engel offers a fascinating alternative view of what education might become: teaching children to read books for pleasure and self-expansion and encouraging collaboration. All of these new skills, she argues, would not only cultivate future success in the world of work but also would make society as a whole a better, happier place.
Accessible to parents and teachers alike, The End of the Rainbow will be the beginning of a new, more vibrant public conversation about what the future of American education should look like.
When I talked to her about the relationship between P4C and what she advocates for in her book, this is some of what she told me:
For all the grand talk about “critical thinking” most kids get very few opportunities to engage in much thinking at all, and very little of it about things that matter to them. We need to give students more time to think carefully, and more guidance about how to be flexible, use evidence, consider alternative points of view, and follow through on the implications of what they say, rather than insisting they practice all kinds of isolated skills on topics they care little about, shutting our eyes and hoping that somehow that will stick, and that they’ll use those skills when they actually have something important to think about.
There is plenty of evidence in developmental and educational psychology that children are interested in talking (and thinking) about matters beyond the immediate and everyday, and that when they do, they become stronger, more flexible, careful thinkers. I think it would be more powerful if teachers spent more time encouraging students to think like philosophers, instead of, rather than in addition to, what they already do.
Reading her book and clarifying my ideas about P4C with her makes me very confident that P4C can be utilized to great effect in public education. Teaching kids to be little philosophers, to think critically and argue respectfully within established rules of logic and evidence, has implications for both meeting the standards of the Common Core and doing well on the high-stakes tests aligned with them, as well as the ongoing culture wars between religion and secularism in America.
Like I said, I’ll be focusing a lot on education, and P4C in general, on this blog from now on, because it is a natural outgrowth of my New Chimera philosophy of life. Philosophy is one of the pillars of my personal philosophy, so it will be fun to explore its relevance for public education in America here.