A friend of mine in college once described philosophy as “Many roads leading nowhere.” Of course, he was an English major with a taste for nihilistic Beat poetry. Marietta McCarty, who teaches philosophy at Piedmont Virginia Community College, defines it quite differently. The word “philosophy,” she explains, means “love of wisdom.” She hopes to fan that love not only in adult readers, but also, as the title of her book indicates, in kids.
McCarty calls the book a “do-it-yourself teaching kit.” It’s based on her method of introducing K-8 students to philosophy, a program she has taken to schools around the country for 15 years.
The book is packed with advice, garnered from her efforts, on engaging kids in philosophical conversations on topics ranging from friendship, prejudice, and justice to time, God, and death.
It may seem kind of a stretch to teach the ideas of, say, existentialist Albert Camus to 3rd graders, but McCarty insists it is possible. According to her, kids are “natural philosophers” who approach most topics with minds “uncluttered by the baggage that can accumulate as one gets older.” She gives plenty of examples of children responding passionately to such questions as, “Would your life be confusing without time?” or, “If you have a prejudice and keep it to yourself, is it still a problem?”
McCarty doesn’t claim that including philosophy in the curriculum or starting an after-school philosophy club will raise student scores on standardized tests—the typical justification today for education reform. Rather, her justification is that studying the subject will improve the quality of students’ lives. “Philosophy,” she writes, “enriches a mind in ways that neither age nor difficulty can dull.”
Teachers and parents who wish to follow in McCarty’s footsteps should have no trouble doing so. Throughout the book, they will find teaching tips, discussion questions, exercises, and thumbnail portraits of various philosophers, all written in clear, perky prose.
They would do well to remember, though, that the history of philosophy also has a dark side. Socrates, considered the founder of Western philosophy, was convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings and sentenced to death. The authorities in ancient Greece knew something that has since been largely forgotten: The point of philosophy isn’t merely to describe the world, but to change it.
Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Mis-Education in Schools: Beyond the Slogans and Double-Talk (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007).
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Little Big Minds