Home Education Magazine
November-December 1999 - Articles
Philosophy and Learning at Home - Jana Mohr Lone
"I didn't have any dreams last night."
"Are you sure, David? Maybe you aren't remembering them."
"No, Mom, I'm not remembering them because I didn't have any. If I did, I would know it."
"They would be in my head! Just like when I think and I'm awake."
"Do you think that you think when you're asleep?"
"No, because I'm asleep."
"Well, couldn't you be thinking and be asleep at the same time?"
"Mom! Of course not. Because when I'm sleeping, my mind is asleep."
"Well then how do you dream?"
"Dreaming isn't the same as thinking. I dream with a different part of my body than what I think with."
Wondering with children is one of my favorite pastimes. Wondering about the world, marveling at it, examining it, freely and carefully puzzling about it, is essential to childhood. And really, to being a human being generally.
When I ask myself about the gifts that we can give to the children in our lives, The most significant is the ability and confidence to create authentic and meaningful lives. I believe that philosophy can help us to do this.
People often comment that kids like to ask "big" questions. What is fairness? Why should I be fair? Is being fair the same as being right? There is a world of opportunity in this for parents. Yet often we feel stymied by questions like these because we don't have clear explanations to give to our children.
But these questions don't call for explanations. They are invitations. They invite us to dip into thinking about fundamental mysteries, about which philosophers have debated for centuries without settling them and for which you need have no ready answers.
Really thinking about philosophical questions with our children requires honesty, imagination, and a continuing openness to changing our minds. Children are already puzzling about philosophical questions; becoming involved lets them know how important these questions are to all of us.
Although some college courses might suggest otherwise, philosophy is not necessarily the study of obscure arguments, written in what seems like intentionally obtuse language. I like to think of philosophy as a way of being in the world. Of being critical and imaginative, seeing possibilities for exploration in the simplest things. Abraham Heschel suggested that philosophy is "the art of asking the right questions." That appeals to me. When I talk with young people about philosophy, I talk a lot about questions. About how there are no stupid questions. About the ways in which questions are keys to understanding and awareness.
When I was in school, I was afraid to ask questions. I had learned that having a question meant that there was something I should know but didn't. It was embarrassing, vaguely shameful to have too many questions. Once I reached my 30s, I began to understand that having questions means that there is something interesting about which to puzzle and think. Questions lead to figuring out things that seem confusing or problematic.
Children (and adults) need questions. Philosophy makes questions central. It gives us tools to examine what is presented to us. Information. Authority. Problems. Ideas. Thinking for yourself depends on having questions.
How can you start philosophical discussions with your kids? One way is to read stories and then strike up conversations about them. Read Arnold Lobel's story "Dragons and Giants" with your children. Talk about what it means to be brave. Can you be brave and afraid at the same time? Or try William Steig's book Yellow and Pink. Here kids might be taken with questions about whether anything is ever really created. Or with the issue of what makes something real.
Doing philosophy together, kids and adults can be equal partners. We each bring something essential to the enterprise. When I talk about philosophy with young people, I bring a greater conceptual and linguistic sophistication and an ear for recognizing philosophical questions. They bring a freshness of perspective and an openness to try out what may seem to be wild ideas. We share an endless curiosity about human experience and the way the world works.
Talking with kids about philosophy helps me keep alive the things that made me, at 17, fall in love with philosophy in the first place. None of us have the answers to these questions, and any idea is open for discussion as long as we can give reasons for why it might work.
Doing science experiments with your children, you can talk about whether science can ever really be objective. What does "being objective" mean? What does it mean for something to cause something else? How do we know that one event causes another? Do we know?
With older children, try reading and talking about Alice in Wonderland. A philosophical feast. Or Many Moons by James Thurber, or Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. You can also pick up on musical lyrics. Listening to the radio in the car, you might ask your teenaged child, "What do you think these words mean?" See where it goes. Before you know it, you will see philosophical questions in almost everything you read or discuss with your kids.
Recently, reading The Borrowers one evening with my oldest son led us into a discussion of what it means to be a person. There is a short passage in the book about whether Borrowers (little beings who survive by "borrowing" what they want and need from human beings) are people. The characters expressed the view that only human beings can be people. I asked Will whether he thought that was true.
"No," he said. "There are definitely people who aren't humans."
"Let's see. Hmmm. Animals, and birds, and worms."
"What makes them people?"
"I'm not sure. But they are."
"Well, can you think of something that isn't a person?"
"Ok, so what do trees lack that birds and worms have? What makes birds and worms people and not trees?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that if you have language you're a person. Any kind of language."
"Do birds and worms have language?"
"Yes. They have their own language. They communicate with each other in that. Language can be any kind: sign language, words, whatever. But if you have it you're a person."
"So are newborn babies people?"
"Yes, of course!"
"But they don't have language, do they? At least not the first month or so of their lives."
"Well they don't have words yet. But their language is crying."
"Oh! So it's communication that's important to being a person?"
"Right! If you can communicate and try to express yourself, then you're a person."
When I give workshops for parents about ways to talk about philosophy with their children, invariably there are parents who mention how refreshing it is to talk and think about these questions. Many people tell me that they remember talking about philosophical issues with friends in their teenage years, but somehow that part of their lives got left behind as they settled into adulthood. Remaining alive, however, is a profound, quiet need for the depth and meaningfulness of these questions. A whole dimension of experience can unfold if we let the power of philosophy into our lives.
©1999, Jana Mohr Lone
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