If you're a thinker, a wonderer, or a philosopher--or if you were as a child--you need to check out this New York Times article about philosophy in elementary schools. The article details a program in which professors and students from Mount Holyoke are working with Massachusetts elementary school students, using children's books as the basis for discussion about deep philosophical questions.
I won't recap the whole article here, because you really should read it for yourself. But here's an excerpt from a second grade class's environmental ethics discussion after reading The Giving Tree:
Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat.
“It’s only a tree,” Justin said with a shrug.
“The tree has feelings!” Keyshawn replied.
Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences.
“If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,” said Nyasia.
Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend. “Say me and a rock was a friend,” he said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”
This gave his classmates pause.
Simply put, this program sounds like pure awesomeness. Asking deep questions, struggling with hypotheticals, and challenging and reformulating one's own notions and beliefs is what learning is all about. And the human tendency to wonder and to think deeply starts very young. As a second grader named Autumn said in the article: "We can say things about what we believe and stuff. It's what we feel and what we think."
Although the program in Massachusetts is run by philosophy students and professors, it's the kind of thing that can be easily and effectively replicated at schools across the country. The books involved--The Giving Tree, Frog & Toad Together, Morris The Moose--can all be purchased for less than $10. The questions raised in these books--what is the nature of courage? How can we maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence?--are sure to spark discussion and debate among children at any age. As an ancillary benefit, encouraging children to think deeply about a story's underlying themes will only bolster students' appreciation for reading and literature.
So, check out the full article at the New York Times. Then, if you're so inspired, come back to The Generation Project and pledge a set of books to help spark a philosophical debate in a low-income classrooms. It's cost-effective and meaningful. And, because it will spark children's own ideas and beliefs, the possibilities are limitless.