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Socrates age 4?

September 23, 2011

What do I know? “I only know that I know nothing.” The classical Greek philosopher Socrates was definitely one who understood how little he knew. And also understood how to go about acquiring knowledge. For the rest of us, children of lesser Gods, it’s only when we’re forced by circumstances in life, we learn that we’re wrong about a lot of things.

Usually at this point, when faced with unexpected truths —and a lot of questions; we’re torn by doubt whether to stubbornly disregard our new knowledge or to embrace it. Hesitantly.

The worst part of it all is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Socrates for the children

The classical Greek philosopher Socrates

Professor Keith Topping and Dr Steve Trickey published their research Philosophy for kids in 2007. In this research, they tracked the progress of a group of children —aged 10 to 12— partaking in a Thinking Through Philosophy programme.

Developed by Paul Cleghorn, the programme provides a structure challenging children into thinking critically and creatively. This so called philosophical enquiry —based on the Socratic Method— is a form of learning through asking and answering questions.

Overall, the study showed a very positive result. Classroom behaviour improved noticeably; the children’s cognitive and emotional skills advanced significantly; and there was a rise in their self-esteem and confidence. Dr Trickey states: “It shows that the time children spend in exploring philosophical concepts … is a good long term investment for their future.” In other words, what’s learnt in the cradle will surely lasts till the tomb. The philosophical programme has since been extended to secondary schools and nurseries.

No Philosophy – No Debate

In the Netherlands, we don’t have a strong philosophical and debating background, as compared to for instance Great Britain. And as far as I know —please, do correct me if I’m wrong— we’ve got no such educational programmes here either. Certainly not on a level as described above.

Due to shifting World Economics and bad policies, we’re rapidly losing ground as an education entity to reckon with. Hoping to turn this around, our government stresses the importance of technical subjects and snubs others like Arts & Literature. And with the upcoming cutbacks, don’t expect some sort of a philosophical intervention in primary and secondary schools’ curriculum.

Reasons to be knowing

As an educator, I’ve mostly worked with adults. But I’ve also done some voluntary educational work with children. In this capacity I’ve experienced firsthand that when you give children tools to examine their world, it means something to them; it does something for them.

Here are my 8 reasons why Philosophy at an early age is worth the while:

#1. Learning by inquiry. Children have a natural curiosity to question the world around them. Regretfully, as they grow older, we tend to discourage this curiosity. And that’s bad. For the first step to knowledge is inquisitiveness. So, one good reason for teaching children Socratic inquiry is because it encourages them to remain inquisitive.

#2. Dialogue and reasoning. Socrates believed that we learn through dialogue. The basics of proper dialogue is asking questions; listening intently to the answer and then build on that answer. A good conversationalist shows the interlocutor the utmost respect; for a conversation is a social activity after all. Through well-executed and regular conversations, children learn the art of reasoning and along the way, they perfect our oral talents.

Note that in a proper dialogue, we don’t tell the other person off; use dogmas or imperatives; or act insistent. This is how we show respect to our interlocutor.

#3. Tolerance and open minds. Societies are built on a sphere of values. Philosophy teaches our youth that there’s no such thing as an absolute truth where these values are concerned. It’s all more a question of social agreement. Philosophy helps children understand this. And when they do, it’s easier to be tolerant of values different than their own and to keep an open mind.

#4. Ethics.
Teaching our children the difference between right and wrong; good and evil, generally stops at (bedtime) fairytales and fables —and Harry Potter, of course. Philosophy teaches that there’s more to ethics than a mere black & white definition. For one man’s hero is the other man’s villain. Understanding the grey helps children develop a more ethical approach to decision-making.

#5. Reflection and critical thinking.
Being reflective is neither a gift nor a talent. It’s something you learn. As an educator, I know that reflection is the key to learning. When we teach children to discus in an open minded and open ended way; it allows them to better reflect on their thoughts and to question that what they believe to be true.

#6. Persuasion.
You can’t quantify Philosophy. In Maths, we learn that 2 x 5 = 10. This equation is self-evident and no one questions it. Your opinions however are derived from your values and your experiences. If you want someone to accept your viewpoints; besides mastering reasoning, you’ll also need to learn the art of persuasion. Please note, that persuasion is not the same as yelling or going on replay.

#7. Systems Thinking.
Nothing in life stands on its own. Philosophy can teach children the process of understanding how various parts influence each other within a whole. Both in nature and in life. Systems thinking is a renowned approach to problem solving; a skill needed in practically every science or business.

#8. Creativity.
Philosophy is a great way to stimulate creativity and creative thinking as it teaches children to question the obvious and come up with unexpected (new) answers. This is helpful in areas like Arts; but also very effective in business.

Applying Philosophy to Life and Leadership

The recent political debates all too painfully show how our Dutch leaders have completely lost their way in translation of politics. Their mastery of the art of debate is pathetic. Their idea of persuasion is to screech, bully and insult.

Oddly and ironically enough, the present poor debate mastery, is the best advocate for teaching Philosophy and the art of debating in primary and secondary education.

Forming critical thinking young minds, forms a healthy thinking adult society that in turn fosters and cherishes strong leaders with long-term vision; a sense of responsibility; an overview of the bigger picture and a wise sense of justice.

Whether we acknowledge it or not Philosophy is a part of real life. Then why not guide it? There’s nothing wrong with gradually easing children into understanding the world around them and helping them define their own purpose in life through philosophical thinking.

(Source image used: Wikimedia Commons)

Related post(s) to read:

Everyday heroes
It’s a shame
No mistakes nothing makes
Economics, Procedures & Wisdom

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 00:03

    Love your blog. Interesting and useful topics that are very inspirational.
    Thanks for visiting my movie blog. I noticed you like Moonstruck and 12 Angry Men.
    These are also some of my favorites.


    • September 29, 2011 17:00

      Dear John,
      You’re welcome!
      I must have seen Moonstruck about a thousand times…. And every time I do; it still makes me laugh. And I love the whole ‘La Famiglia’ sphere about it. Three generations in one house: loud, exasperating, warm and very loving.

      12 Angry Men is in one word: impressive. I’m sure it’s on account of my partial film knowledge; but I was pleasantly surprised to see a 50s film tackle bigotry the way it did. So up to this day, it’s definitely one of my favourites.

      Thank you for your compliment. 🙂
      Greetings, Evita


  2. September 24, 2011 03:37

    When I entered college, my writing skills were terrible. I ended up majoring in Rhetoric which focused on the Greek and Roman classics, argumentative writing, and oral debate. I also minored in business and later got an MBA. The skills I learned from Rhetoric, which included critical thinking, clear persuasive writing, and oral debate, have been more valuable in business and life than any other skills. If I had begun to learn these skills at an earlier age when the brain is developing, I might have actually become intelligent. 🙂 Great post!!!


    • September 24, 2011 11:55

      Dear Tincup,
      Thank you so much for your compliment. And comment. 🙂
      Like you, I too missed out on any kind of ‘philosophical injection’ at an early age. That is if you don’t count Bible classes and the lively discussions we had as youths, questioning the writings and trying to understand and make them our own. Each in our own way. That was in an informal setting.

      Later on in life I tried to make up for my lack of philosophical education as much as I can. Like Socrates, I realise that I know nothing. And I mean, I truly know nothing. So I go in search of Knowledge and Wisdom wherever I can find it. And writing is then a perfect way to order your thoughts and process your acquired knowledge.

      Speaking of which; I browsed your blog. I like your main theme: Musings on the human experiment. I specifically like the ‘human experiment’ part. For now I’ve signed up; but I’ll be visiting again soon to comment. Promise. 🙂
      Greetings, Evita


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