When I first founded the Center for Philosophy for Children in 1996, very few people in the United States were working or interested in introducing philosophy to children and youth. It has been gratifying to observe in recent years how the movement to introduce philosophy into schools and to reclaim its importance as a core academic subject is gaining ground. Dozens of programs introducing philosophy into the K-12 curriculum have been started at universities across the country, and more and more teachers are becoming interested in bringing philosophical inquiry into their classrooms.
There are a wealth of ways to bring philosophy into K-12 education: philosophers in the schools programs and workshops for teachers like the ones our center has been running for the past 20 years in Seattle, after-school philosophy sessions and other resource programs, high school philosophy classes and philosophical inquiry across the curriculum, dual enrollment programs, philosophical sessions built around an already-existing classroom curriculum, etc. Philosophy doesn’t have to be offered as a stand-alone subject in schools, but can be part of what is already being done in the classroom, as every subject contains multiple philosophical questions. Philosophy can also be offered to young people outside of school, in philosophy clubs, High School Ethics Bowl programs, summer camps, after-school and weekend programs, etc.
Five years ago, a group of us founded the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), which is developing a national network of people engaged in K-12 philosophy and which provides education for teachers about ways to introduce philosophy in their classrooms, supports faculty, graduate students, and others working in this field, and advocates in both the philosophical and educational communities for more philosophy in schools. The website includes a toolkit that provides a wide range of resources for doing philosophy with young people.
This work matters.
It matters because philosophy gives young people an avenue for exploring questions that matter deeply to them, questions such as the nature of identity, the meaning and purpose of being alive, and whether we can know anything at all.
It matters because it involves taking children and youth seriously as people who have something to offer to our national conversations about issues of justice, the environment, friendship, and education.
It matters because philosophy is one of the best disciplines for developing strong critical thinking skills, and, because philosophy involves unsettled and contestable questions, discussing philosophical issues with others teaches us that there are multiple ways of understanding the world.
And it matters because philosophy encourages wondering. Although wondering is a part of life for most children, as they grow up many of them absorb the message that wondering is not a valuable way to spend one’s time, that it is impractical, frivolous, and doesn’t lead to anything important. This is a shame. I believe that wondering about our experiences and life’s puzzles is at the core of being a human being. It’s vital for all of us to keep wondering, to remain alive to the mysteries of the human condition and the world in which we live. Engaging in philosophy with children, modeling for them our continued engagement in wondering, demonstrates to them that we think it’s a meaningful part of life.