If you imagine philosophers as graybearded professors in tweed jackets, think again. Some are not even old enough to drink or drive - or at least that's the impression left by the 102nd annual meeting of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association at the Hilton Hotel last week.
At a panel discussion called "Breaking Out of Academe: Outreach Programs for Young Philosophers" was moderated by University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Gareth Matthews. Panelists included George Washington University seniors David Backer and Steve Wood who discussed a program they founded that teaches philosophy to public high school students in the Washington, D.C., area. They hold classes on subjects such as aesthetics, the environment, and bioethics. Since they are relatively close in age to high school students, they can engage them in language the students can relate to. Witty dialogue from "Monty Python," for example, can be used as an aid in logical arguments, their Web site avers.
How did these students become interested in bringing philosophy to a wider public? One influence they acknowledge is the late Kenneth Knisely, who hosted a cable television show devoted to philosophy called "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed" (see www.nodogs.org).
In the audience was a Michigan State University graduate student and incoming co-editor of the newsletter Questions: Philosophy for Young People, published by the Philosophy Documentation Center in Charlottesville, Va., Rory Kraft Jr. While working on a Ph.D. in ethics, he teaches philosophy to sixth- through eighth-graders in Michigan.
A second panel moderated by Mr. Matthews called "Philosophy for Children 30 Years Later" celebrated the first three decades of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, located at Montclair State University.
A professor at the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University, David Kennedy, talked about pedagogical approaches pioneered by IAPC founder Matthew Lipman, who used specially designed narrative texts and a large manual of questions to guide group discussions. In his method, the teacher facilitates discussion without dominating as an authority. He said that he does this by using a tone of voice he described as remaining "procedurally strong" yet "elided" so as to allow a "polyphonic" discussion.
Panelist Laurance Splitter, associate director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Education at Hunter College, teaches philosophy to seventhgrade students. He likened the Philosophy for Children movement, historically speaking, to a doughnut with a hole in the middle - although begun in America, its recent growth appears to be more abroad than at home.
Indeed, one of the other panelists was Kristina Calvert, who chairs a philosophy for children association in Hamburg, Germany, and teaches philosophy to students aged 4 through 16. She uses illustrated fables to conduct philosophical discussions. Ms. Calvert read and showed pictures from one such story, about a goose whose white feathers rivaled those of a swan. The goose stretched and tried to curve its neck like a swan but ended up looking ridiculous. She said she often uses this story to engage young schoolchildren in a discussion about subjects such as self-knowledge by raising questions such as "How do I see myself?" and "What makes me unique?"
A philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke College, Thomas Wartenberg, described a course he created to teach college students how to facilitate philosophical discussions in the local public elementary school system by using children's literature. "The Wizard of Oz," for example, can lead to a discussion of questions such as "Can someone be scared but still be courageous?" he said.
Commenting last was Mr. Matthews, who has written three books on philosophy and children published by Harvard University Press. He told an anecdote from when his daughter was 4 years old that demonstrated children's philosophical thinking. The family cat had fleas. He went to fumigate it in the basement and his daughter asked, "Can I come and see?" She stood up near the door and asked how their cat, Fluffy, got fleas. "From another cat," he replied. "Daddy, how did the other cat get fleas?" "From another cat," he said. She persisted, "Daddy, it can't go on and on like that forever. Nothing goes on like that forever except numbers."
Teaching philosophy to children has faced challenges. Mr. Matthews said reception among professional philosophers over the years has been "mixed," with some skeptical about whether this is "real philosophy." Mr. Matthews said his research has shown that "children have genuine philosophical thoughts and even sometimes engage in what professional philosophers recognize as philosophical reasoning."
Furthermore, there have been other hurdles. For example, administrators worried about student test scores on subjects already in the curriculum may not want to add what they see as an additional, challenging subject. But the panelists remain undeterred and passionate about the value of philosophy in the K-12 curricula.