Should artistic expression be valued in society as much as manual labor?
Can imagination be used to replace basic needs?
Those were some of the philosophical questions zealously debated by students at the start of Robin Zebrowski’s Philosophy and Children course this semester. Yet, these discussions did not arise from the works of revered philosophers. They came from the children’s book, Frederick, by Leo Lionni.
“It’s crazy how philosophical children’s books are,” says Zebrowski, assistant professor of cognitive science. For example, she says she has witnessed how Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! encourages 10-year-olds to contemplate the very nature of reality and how The Lorax, also by Dr. Seuss, provokes questions about environmental ethics.
Zebrowski says Philosophy and Children teaches introduction to philosophy through a different lens. While the class reads the same primary literature assigned in a traditional introductory philosophy course, students also get the opportunity to put what they learn into practice by visiting Todd Elementary School in Beloit.
In cooperation with the school and with the help of the college’s Liberal Arts in Practice Center, students will visit Todd’s second-graders five times this semester to read select children’s books and lead philosophical discussions.
“The goal is to ask them unloaded questions to get them to talk about their experiences with the stories,” Zebrowski says. “We want to get the second-graders to become more self-aware and to get them simply questioning, but we’re not there to tell them the answers.”
First-year student and former nanny Hannah Denny’15 says she was eager to work with the second-graders because she believes children are more intelligent than most people think.
“Kids are so capable of understanding complex concepts,” Denny says. “They can take them and distill them in simple ways because their minds aren’t cluttered with expectations of the world. They don’t have a problem asking, ‘Why, why, why’ until they come to their own conclusions.”
Teaching philosophy to children was an educational movement first introduced in the 1970s by Matthew Lipman, a professor at Columbia University. Zebrowski says the idea was somewhat underground until Thomas Wartenberg, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, brought it to everyone’s attention again— including her own.
Zebrowski came across an article about Wartenberg’s book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, in The New York Times last year.
“I got the book and thought, ‘There’s no way Beloit can’t do this,’” she says.
She and Heath Massey, an associate professor of philosophy at Beloit, each did test runs of the course, sending their philosophy students to read children’s books with fifth-graders enrolled in the college’s Help Yourself program.
“The 10-year-olds loved it, and they had these great philosophical conversations,” Zebrowski says.
Besides college students, Zebrowski says the course—open to first through fourth year students—benefits everyone.
It takes some pressure off harried elementary school teachers, for example, and also strengthens the second-graders’ critical thinking and reading comprehension skills.
Plus, she says the children feel important because normally philosophy isn’t introduced until college.
“I’m looking forward to interacting with the kids and seeing how they react and where their discussions will go,” says first-year student Reine Lucas’15.