Philosophy is a subject that usually makes its formal entry into a student's curriculum at the college level, though a growing number of high schools in the United States are offering some introduction-to-philosophy courses for college-bound students. But one educational expert is calling for introducing philosophy to young students in elementary school. She believes that philosophy is a powerful tool that helps to develop children's critical thinking and deepen their appreciation for life.
Marietta McCarty says everyone is a philosopher.
"Children are already curious," she says. "They are already full of wonder, and philosophy is the art of wonder."
For more than 15 years, the educator has toured rural, suburban, and urban schools across the United States, engaging children in philosophical discussions.
"Simply listening to them and asking them questions and looking at the world through their eyes is the beginning," she says.
In her book, Little Big Minds, McCarty provides a guide that makes philosophy accessible and inviting to curious young minds. She introduces ancient and contemporary philosophers, including Plato, al-Ghazali, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Dalai Lama.
"Children love Plato's myth of the cave," she says. "They love the notion that there is this darkness of a clouded mind in a cave and you can exit the cave into the sunlight of clear ideas. They love Epicurus and his simple pleasures from ancient Greece. They like Charlotte Joko Beck's talk about simple pleasures, complementing Epicurus and having a balanced and calm life. Paulo Freire from Brazil, children love him because he allows them to talk about their educational experience and how they feel in the educational system wherever they may be. Mary Wollstonecraft teaches children that they can do anything. They really enjoy Lao Tzu's look at the natural world. And Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a favorite. His emphasis on non-violence is very soothing to children."
By asking questions, McCarty says, adults can engage children in discussions of philosophical topics related to their everyday life, from friendship, happiness and responsibility to justice, death and God.
"We talk about the concept of God, the idea of God and all religious beliefs are respected," she says. "So I begin by asking them the question, 'When you hear the word 'God,' what comes into your mind?' Children are good at doing this exploration of the concept of God without looking at or staying with traditional beliefs and values, the concept of perfection and what it might mean to be complete and whole. And so what it does is encourage children to open their minds. And children know there are religious wars and they don't understand it because it's the most magnificent thought they can hold. Why would people fight about this?"
McCarty says teachers can introduce philosophy to their young students either by weaving it into the curriculum or starting philosophy clubs.
"We have a club in the afternoon," 4th grade teacher Andra Skeen says. She sponsors an after-school club at Burnley Moran Elementary in Charlottesville, Virginia. She often invites Marietta McCarty to drop by.
"Marietta comes at least once a month," she says. "We talk about philosophical issues. It's also a community service club."
The community service activity, Skeen says, is the practical side of philosophical concepts. After her 9-year-old club members reflected on compassion, they put it into action, by cleaning up their school's playground and visiting some neighbors.
"We've taken several trips to a nursing home that's within walking distance from the school," she says. "It just really makes them step outside their own shell, bringing joy to people who don't have a lot of joy in their lives. It just really brings a new way of thinking and feeling, I think, to them."
Skeen says that's just one way studying philosophy can improve children's lives.
"We live in such a rat-race kind of world that things are not slowing down enough for any of us to sit and talk about these things," she says. "I think actually talking about philosophy and philosophical ideas and opening themselves up and realizing that there's a lot more than just me out there. I think starting that at a very young age makes them much more aware of what's going on in the world, much more aware of what's going on even in their community."
Philosophy advocate Marietta McCarty agrees, adding she hopes more schools will bring philosophy to their young students. She says it is not merely a tool for understanding the world, but for changing it as well.