Mum, if there was a big bang, what was the big bang in? Banglosophy story? CHILDREN

Few parents would take a gem like that as the mark of a budding philosopher. But, Pat Kane reports, new research is confirming that out of the mouths of babes...

Pat Kane
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:31

"DON'T be silly, Dad. You can't waste time. Time isn't a thing." Not for the first time that month, my five-year-old daughter had stopped me in my tracks. There's no surer way to put a spoke in the wheel of domestic duties than a chunk of kids' philosophy. As I struggled manfully to refute her assertion (you try arguing against a pint-sized Heidegger), I remembered her most recent jaw-dropper. "There must be fairies, Dad - because there must be magic. How would Santa deliver all his presents if he wasn't magic? And he exists!" If A equals B and B equals C, then C equals. . . Santa. Irrefutable.

Most parents treasure these moments when they arise, laughing at the surreal perspectives on the world that come from seeing life at hip level. But perhaps we don't treasure them enough. For what many thinkers and educators are beginning to realise is that children's natural urge to philosophise, to see the everyday world anew, could be essential to their intellectual development. Squash that sense of wonder and inquiry at an early age, for the sake of your child being "sensible" and "normal", and you may be destroying a precious faculty.

Jostein Gaarder's philosophical Euro-bestseller Sophie's World, recently published in Britain, took its heroine on a compelling journey through 2,000 years of thought, and pitched itself as "philosophy for children". Yet Sophie is 12 years old - already hypothesising on her way back from school about whether or not "the human brain was like an advanced computer". How do we cope with the six-year-old philo-sopher of my acquaintance who recently asked of his flabbergasted mother: "So if there was a big bang, Mum, what was the big bang in?"

For a start, we can get rid of some of ourdeep-seated prejudices about the nature of childhood - as a kind of pre-rational realm, populated by creatures of whim and instinct. The most dominant schools of child psychology (with Jean Piaget as their parent) claim that the capacity for abstract reasoning only comes to fruition at around 11 years. Before that, children are "egocentric" about what they know, assessing concrete things - like mass and volume - according to subjective rather than objective standards. This legitimises the pat-on-the-head, wait-till you're older approach that is so time-saving for the modern parent.

Critics of this model cite research where whole classes of adults have also failed "elementary" logic. In one case, only five of 128 university students gave the right answers in hypothetical reasoning tests. "Just because children don't normally display reasoning powers, this doesn't mean they're not capable of it," says Catherine McCall, a child philosophy expert. "Set up the most natural environment for philo-sophy, and it emerges wonderfully."

This is what Dr McCall has been doing in Glasgow for the past few years - taking "philosophical inquiry" out to schools, community centres and mother-and-child groups across Scotland, with remarkable results. She runs a post-graduate course at Glasgow University, training teachers to bring out philosophical talent in anyone from five-year-olds to pensioners.

The original US "public philosophy" programmes, where Dr McCall cut her teeth, gained a reputation for vastly improving the progress of children with learning difficulties. The results here are as striking. Dr McCall says one of her student groups, mostly disaffected ghetto youths, has changed beyond recognition after two years of philosophical inquiry. "They're presently rewriting a version of one of Plato's dialogues... into Glaswegian!" How does this work? Dr McCall says she has a built-in strategy for success. "Nowhere is the scheme forced upon people, or made part of any curriculum - it's always voluntary. You can't be coerced into doing philosophy; that's precisely the point of it."

When people participate in her "communities of inquiry", the tension between easy consensus and a battle of viewpoints has to be maintained. The philosophy comes in the process of inquiry. Whether it's young children exploring the problems of being and consciouness ("Are you only alive when you think?"), or a community group inquiring about how environment affects health, the methods are as important as the results. In fact, they often are the result.

"Community is a philosophical idea in itself," says McCall. "People can only sense it tangibly if they undergo this kind of experience - where they pursue a common theme, but respect each contribution to that forum through the process of philsophical inquiry. We're building active citizens here, as much as natural philosophers."

Yet there is some level of resistance to the idea that philosophy has a role to play in everyday life - and perhaps particularly from parents, anxious about any new experiment with their children's education. There seems to be a growing consensus - confirmed by the teaching unions' recent acceptance of school testing - that education should return to the idea of testable, practical knowledge. It should equip children with the verbal and numerical skills needed to operate in the world of work.

Combined with growing levels of classroom numbers, the prospect of philosophically sharpened children turning every lesson into a redefinition of terms ("If we have numbers, where would they end?" "Is history about the past or the present?") may strike horror into both educator and parent. How could philosophy for children operate in this unwelcoming climate?

Catherine McCall rises to the challenge. "I think the question should be turned around. What kind of education is it that would discourage children with such active, inquiring intelligences?" If philosophy for children ever became an accepted part of education strategy, she implies, the whole institution would have to change. More resources, and better teachers, would be needed to make firecracker minds burst into cognitive flame at an early age.

In any case, the child who catches the bug for reasoned thinking early is surely the kind of "flexible" head-worker that prophets of 2lst-century capitalism are clamouring for. He or she is able to take any new skill or expertise and strip it down to its first principles, understanding its inner logic (and illogic). And the Gradgrindery of "facts, mere facts" would also stick like glue to an enlivened intellect. But would the Government, wedded to its sepia-tone, empirical view of education, even understand the question, let alone give an answer?

But before parents storm the school gates en masse and demand philosophical dialogue for their children, what advice would Dr McCall give parents for those bathtime moments when the world as we know it is turned upside down by soapy theorising? How do we help it along?

"Really," she says, "it's just a matter of taking the time to explore gently what your child is saying. Help him or her along with the logic, no matter where it leads. Keep asking them why, what are their reasons for believing this. They may not have the facts, but their rationale will be coherent. Just take the time."

Take the time? I'll have to ask my daughter about that one. !

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